God Knows Where I Am
2017, NR, 97 min. Directed by Jedd Wider, Todd Wider.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 21, 2017
In early May 2008, a woman’s dead body was discovered in an unoccupied New Hampshire farmhouse by someone peering through the window, intrigued by the “For Sale” sign out front. Apparently dead for several months, the decomposing remains were nevertheless easy to identify due to the two handwritten notebooks left “to whomever finds my body,” which detailed the woman’s thoughts and experiences while squatting in the empty house. She was Linda Bishop, a middle-aged woman who, months earlier, had been released from a psychiatric facility. From there, she wandered until she found this farmhouse, bereft of furnishings, heat, and electricity, but located by an apple orchard that provided her only source of food and a stream that offered water for bathing and drinking. The house was situated only yards from the nearest neighbor, so it’s clear that help might have been available if she had wished to pursue it, but instead Linda locked the doors from the inside and shut out the world. This sad documentary explores how this unnecessary death came to pass.
With the help of her journals (read aloud by Lori Singer); on-camera interviews with the farmhouse’s owners, Linda’s sister, daughter, and others who knew her; and home-movie footage, God Knows Where I Am strives to get inside Linda’s head and understand why she allowed herself to starve and/or freeze to death. Elegiac camerawork by Gerardo Puglia that captures the pastoral beauty of the immediate landscape and the haunting emptiness of the vacant house also adds to the film’s evocation of Linda’s mental state. Her mental troubles began manifesting several years before her arrival at the farmhouse, mostly in the form of delusional thinking. The situation had gotten so bad after she stopped taking her psychiatric meds that Linda’s daughter Caitlin and her sister Joan had her involuntarily committed to a mental hospital. After a while in the facility, Linda was discharged without the knowledge of her daughter and sister, who previously had been denied guardianship. On her own and off medication, Linda reveled in her long-sought independence and bucolic surroundings, while her delusional thoughts continued to be recorded in her daily journals.
The film’s heartbreaking mystery is not the discovery of the corpse’s identity or determining how it met its demise. Rather, the unasked question that percolates throughout is: “Why?” God Knows Where I Am implicitly questions the American mental health system, but in a much more muted manner than in the 2011 article in The New Yorker under the same title, in which Rachel Aviv examined Linda Bishop’s mental history and interactions with the medical adjudicators whose dictates required that Linda be released back into society despite concerns about a relapse. At times, the film is reminiscent of the unknowability of Into the Wild, in which a naive young man ultimately starves to death in the Alaskan wilderness while seeking some greater truth. What these sibling first-time directors (the Widers are longtime documentary producers, however) aim for in their film, however, seems like something more akin to the morality questions that cling to Brother’s Keeper, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s award-winning documentary about mercy killing. God Knows Where I Am probes with curiosity and concern, but it results in very little fresh insight that might allow us to feel that Linda Bishop didn’t die in vain.