In her mid-50s, Mimi Baird began to ask more questions about her father, and, amazingly, tracked down a manuscript he had written during his hospitalizations, which he titled “Echoes From a Dungeon Cell.” Working with a collaborator, Mimi Baird spent some 20 years making sense of her father’s thoughts — some lucid, others not — handwritten on onion-skin paper. An edited and abridged version of this diary is the centerpiece of Baird’s extraordinary new memoir, “He Wanted the Moon.” It’s a riveting tale of her father’s experience in a primitive mental health-care system that left him pulling himself from straitjackets and, once, attempting a daring escape. In an e-mail interview, Baird answered questions about her father and her experience telling his story.
What did your mother say when you asked where your father was?
She would say that he was at the hospital or had an emergency or that he was simply “away” – as if he had disappeared into the great beyond. Many of my friends’ fathers were also doctors, and they weren’t around their homes very much either. Somehow my mother’s explanations worked for a time.
Do you recall, as a child, thinking there might have been something wrong with your father?
Yes, l always held an unsettling feeling, an intuition, that something was not quite right. Once in a while, I heard the term, “manic depressive psychosis,” but no one ever took the time to explain it to me. The phrase meant nothing. Everyone was silent, including my father’s colleagues.
Tell us about the visit he made when you were a teenager.
When my mother told me my father was to pay a visit and that I would be called home from my classroom, I experienced a mixture of pure delight along with an unfamiliar feeling of foreboding. Having been told little about my absent father, it was hard to sort my feelings out. However, our time together was exciting. It was like he had always been there. I showed him all my little treasures that I had stored in secret places. The visit was short. The next day while I was upstairs, my father returned, but my mother realized he had been drinking, so he wasn’t allowed in our house. I heard the angry protests. Then silence. I went to the window across from my bedroom and watched as my father walked slowly down the front path. He sat on the curb with his hat in his hand, his shoulders slumped and dejected, waiting for a taxi. There was no mention of this incident at the dinner table that night. It was the last time I saw my father.
When did you decide you wanted to find out more about his story?
In the fall of 1991, I had a chance conversation with a retired physician I knew through my job at the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. He told me he knew my father. At last, someone had spoken to me about my father. I was stunned, but at the same time, I instinctively realized this encounter was a clue that it was time to find out as much as I could about my father. I needed to break our family code of silence.
How did you get your father’s manuscript?
In the spring of 1994, I went to Dallas for a medical meeting. Because I had already started my research, I knew this was an ideal time to meet my father’s brother, Uncle Philip. He was still alive and living there. Uncle Philip then told me that my father had written a manuscript in 1944 during one of his incarcerations in a Massachusetts state mental institution. He said no one in the family really wanted it, but fortunately his youngest son had decided to keep it. I spent the next few nights talking with my first cousin who lived in Austin. During our last conversation, he and his wife told me they felt strongly that the manuscript should be returned to Perry’s daughter. Several weeks later the manuscript arrived on my doorstep in Vermont.
What was its condition?
It was a mass of slippery onion skin paper, the kind of paper used in my father’s day for carbon copies of typed professional and personal letters. It was written in pencil, and the pile of pages measured 11 inches high. They were clearly out of order but contained no stains or rips. The work had been stored in an old beat-up briefcase in my cousin’s garage. It was truly a miracle my father’s manuscript had survived all these years.
Tell us about the process of editing it.
It took me over 20 years to understand the material, track the sequence of events and cope with the emotions. I sensed there was something very valuable in these wispy papers. Then I found a few sentences expressing my father’s desire to write about his experiences in order to educate the reader about mental illness and thereby help defray the stigma of the disorder. I suddenly realized my father’s objective was now mine, and, therefore, I must complete the process. I had to put the manuscript aside now and again because of the power of the content. Then in 2012, Crown Publishers stepped in, and I was also able to retain a superb editor, Eve Claxton, who helped me to bring the story to fruition.
How did you feel when you came upon the passage in your father’s memoir where he remembers you saying, “I want to stay with Daddy” the day he is taken away to the hospital?
I loved that passage. It was thrilling for me to see that definitive connection between me and my father. It was clear to me then that no matter what had transpired in those early years, I still wanted to be with him.
The book offers a bleak portrait of the mental health-care system. What do you hope others will take away from the book?
Knowing what transpired in mental institutions during those war years has to inspire the reader to realize that treatments are more humane now, but at the same time remain keenly aware that improvements are still desirable. And most important of all, since my father’s writings are pure manic in nature, because there were no medications in those days, the reader can really understand the course of thinking a mentally ill person experiences. My therapist thinks this book should be mandatory reading for first-year medical students.
What do you think your father would have thought of the book?
I think he would be as happy as could be. I firmly believe his spirit has been watching over me. I think he would be very proud. His vision and mission have been accomplished.
Do you wish you’d gotten to know him better in his life?
Indeed, I do. His courage and endless determination in writing about the most distasteful of things, in such a refined manner, and under the most dreadful of circumstances, reflect well on him not only as a decent human being, but a potentially caring and devoted father.