From a tragic story told backwards from differing viewpoints emerges a searing indictment of the US mental health system
A BLEAK MIDWINTER GHOST STORY
WHEN THE remains of a woman were found, a journal beside her, in a deserted weather-worn Concord, New Hampshire farmhouse in May 2008, it was assumed that she had taken her life months earlier. An opening letter dated December 14th began with the words ‘To whoever finds my body…’ (It ended a page later with the boxed words, ‘Jesus take me home‘.) Until a police officer began reading the 4-month worth of diary entries to discover a chilling account of Linda Bishop’s isolated descent into starvation and psychosis during the cruellest of recorded New Hampshire winters.
And nobody knew she was there. Discharged from the psychiatric facility of New Hampshire Hospital in October 2007 after a year, without follow-up support, medication or even notification given to any friend or family member, Linda, 52, stumbled quickly into homelessness. Fortuitously, she came across the empty house which sheltered her, a nearby stream (and later snow-melt) to provide water, and as she recorded ‘the strangest looking apple tree‘ laden with fruit. The farmhouse was devoid of electricity: the only heat was from a still connected pilot light. And in the attic where she arranged an armchair to observe the natural world she loved through a window, were boxes of books belonging to the owners. For a short while, Linda almost lived the isolated frugal life she craved, but very soon she became a prisoner of her own distorted mind.
Trapped In An Unforgiving Natural World
The work of debut directors, producer brothers Jedd and Todd Wilder, God Knows Where I Am is a disturbing and incredibly sad film. Its jigsaw puzzle format is reminiscent of Kurosawa’s celebrated Rashomon (1950) and Carole Morley’s documentary, Dreams Of A Life (2011). In the latter, the filmmaker sought to discover the life story of Joyce Vincent whose body had lain undiscovered in her London flat for two years. Whereas there was too much supposition about Vincent in that viewers could only guess at how she felt about living alone and the increasingly limiting trajectory of her life, watching Bishop’s tragic story unfold seems far more intrusive. Lori Singer (Footloose (1984) and tv series, Fame) brings both enthusiasm and wistful quietness to her reading of Linda’s time-diminishing words.
Cinematographer, Gerrardo Puglia weaves atmospheric naturalisitc shots that bring to mind Tarkovsky and painter Andrew Wyeth with a catholic selection of both digital and historic cameras and film to suggest what Linda saw. Images of trees at night are Edenic, the frost and snowbound days chilly white and dreamlike, and Linda’s increasingly hungry thoughts of Thanksgiving Dinner coloured like Fifties magazine adverts. The interviewees ranging from local officials and journalists to family members and friends were filmed inside the house – which has its own tale to tell as a one-time family home to a working farm. Indeed, owner Brian Smith talks of visiting and seeing a person at the window at the time Linda was living there, but being unable to find anyone in the vast building.) This is a documentary that has the shiver of a ghost story about it.
Piece by Piece Unpicking Of The American Dream
To all intents and purposes, Linda Bishop had once been an effervescent character, bright, creative and well-adjusted and a good mother to daughter, Caitlin and a life-enhancing friend. Born into a 1950s white middle class American family, hers was an apparently happy and loving upbringing benefiting from an era of burgeoning consumerism combined with her parents’ love of the wild and determination to teach their daughters to thrive within it. Flashbacks to cinefilm holidays capture Linda and her beloved sister, Joan enjoying Christmas dancing in front of the fireplace.
Caitlin, in her 20s can only talk of her memories of a happy childhood and her hatred for who her mother became. Joan Bishop loves her sister still but is clearly torn by how Linda died alone without help and starving. (In Linda’s apple-only diet we are reminded of the hungry mother in last year’s I,Daniel Blake. We know how Linda’s tale ends, where her writing is taking her and us, her unknown listeners from the very beginning of this thought-provoking documentary. She does too: she writes of God, and wonders when Advent begins, she writes out Psalm 23 and records Epiphany when the Kings arrived at the Bethlehem stable. She can only hope that ultimately she is not alone, even as she has been left entirely alone. Her footprints in the snow disappear with the social contract that was supposed to protect her.
At Christmas, Linda writes of finding sorrow in the coloured lights she can see, not in her house, but in those across the way. A police officer tells of his view of a neighbour’s large flatscreen television from a window in the farmhouse had Linda only chosen to look, and then seek help. Ms Bishop’s story is a tragically ever-diminishing one, expertly and hauntingly told.