The author was 6 in 1944 when her father, Perry Baird, was remanded to Westborough State Hospital in Massachusetts, diagnosed with manic-depressive psychosis and disappearing from her life. Here, she reconstructs the past in a moving, melancholy memoir.
Though her mother closed the door to information, the emotional longing remained, and in 1994, the author received a manuscript her father had written at Westborough in which he described his illness, what he thought caused it and his experiences as a patient. Thus, using his own words, augmented by letters, medical records and interviews, she sketches the life of a man who had done brilliantly in college and medical school—even co-authoring a paper with the eminent physiologist Walter Cannon—but who would be felled by psychosis. Because he was already showing signs of illness, Cannon advised Baird to practice dermatology to avoid the stresses of a research career. He did well until violent manic episodes mounted and he was returned to the mental hospital. Baird had the prescient insight that his illness was caused by a chemical imbalance, a conjecture made a few years before the discovery of lithium treatment for manic depression. However, for Baird and others in the 1940s, there were only straitjackets, solitary confinement, insulin, electric shocks and, ultimately, lobotomy. Baird fought his treatments, opening restraining knots with his toes, fighting orderlies and physically destroying his cell. Eventually, he went home, but his increasing paranoia and delusions persuaded his family to permit a lobotomy. He died in 1959, drowning in a bathtub following a convulsion. Gratifyingly, his daughter’s synopsis of Baird’s writing published in a psychiatric journal included a reference to her father’s early paper on a biochemical cause of manic-depression. It served as recognition at last, she writes, if only as a footnote.
For Mimi Baird, the book serves as closure; for general readers, it’s a sobering account of how little we knew and how much we still have to learn about mental illness—especially how not to treat it.