bp Magazine sits down with Mimi Baird and talks about her new novel
Perry Baird was a Harvard-trained doctor, teacher, and researcher who published the first scientific paper arguing that “manic depression” has a biochemical basis. He was also an articulate chronicler of his own bipolar disorder, which took him away from his family in the 1940s. A manuscript that made its way to his daughter Mimi Baird became the basis for her book He Wanted the Moon—which Brad Pitt is turning into a movie.
Your father vanished from your life when you were 6 years old. How was that explained to you?
Back in those days, you just didn’t talk about things that were “unseemly.” My mother remarried, we moved to a new house, and just lived life as if it didn’t happen. I wasn’t allowed to talk about my father.
What about his mania-fueled actions before that?
It was not good in my house, but it wasn’t discussed. That’s the way we coped with unhappiness in those days. You develop a numbness because you don’t know how to process things.
And that’s why you’re passionate about not keeping family secrets?
I suffered for years making mistakes in my own life because I didn’t know my father’s story, didn’t know about the mental illness that was prevalent in generations of my family. When you’ve experienced silence, you want to empower others to start becoming more forthcoming.
By creating awareness, you can watch younger members of the family for any signs of mental illness. It makes you more sensitive to patterns. You can look within yourself and say, “That’s why….” For example, I have a tendency to buy things in multiples—four pairs of shoes instead of one. Now I understand why.
When you finally “met” your father through his manuscript, what did you think?
I gained great respect for him. I was so moved by his ability to write, and that he was able to write so vividly and beautifully in the environment he was in.
Why did you decide to publish it?
In his manuscript, my father stated three or four times that he wanted his work to be published. There was a tremendous stigma around mental illness, as there is today. He felt that by publishing his writing, people would understand what it was like and that would help defray the stigma. The least I could do as a daughter was to fulfill his wishes.
Twenty years poring over this difficult material—how did that affect you?
It’s not easy reading. But I couldn’t react to the material because I needed to put it all together. I wrote the book at arm’s length. Now that I am going out and talking about it, I am reacting—at age 77 and 78. Sometimes I choke up.
What touches you the most?
It’s the horrible, horrible stuff he endured—treatments that were done in the 1930s and 40. It’s pretty powerful when you read it. That’s one of the reasons they want to make a movie about it.
So how does it feel to have Brad Pitt and playwright Tony Kushner on board?
It still doesn’t seem real to me, to be honest. Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B, is known for their integrity and honesty and above-board interpretation of books. The Big Short, 12 Years a Slave, Selma—they’re all about important issues in our society. This film will bring added awareness of mental illness to the general public.
Were you tempted to censor any sections about your father’s manic behavior?
I never for a minute thought of not telling the truth. Knowledge is power. That’s exactly what my father kept saying. By educating people to the symptoms and behaviors of mental illness, people understand it better and they can help better. One of the main things about mental illness is having the support of your family. If you don’t understand what you’re dealing with, you’re not going to be able to do that.
Printed as “Back Chat–Mimi Baird”, Winter 2017
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