A homeless woman’s last months are recounted in this deeply personal exploration of mental illness.
Directed by brothers Jedd and Todd Wider, God Knows Where I Am (2016) tells the story of Linda Bishop, whose tragic life ended quietly in an abandoned New Hampshire farmhouse. This powerful and captivating documentary uses Linda’s own words, left behind in a notebook, and interviews with friends, family, and social workers to piece together her last weeks on earth. The result is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen.
The documentary tells the story of Linda Bishop, who in 1999 abandoned her 13-year-old daughter and began wandering, convinced the Chinese mafia, or some other unknown agency, was after her. Her travels even brought her to Ground Zero in New York City after the September 11 terrorist attacks, where she handed out American flags and gave tours. While working at a Chinese restaurant, she briefly met a man named Steve, who she became convinced wanted to marry her. In real life, the man once called a jail to ask them to block her letters.
For years, she checked in and out of psychiatric hospitals. Doctors diagnosed her with schizoaffective disorder and bipolar disorder with psychosis, but she denied there was anything wrong. Finally, in October 2007, Linda was released from New Hampshire Hospital in Concord and squatted in a vacant home, where she survived by eating apples until winter. She then slowly starved to death, writing diligently in a notebook, with neighbors a short distance away.
There were many tragedies about Linda’s life, but when the New Hampshire Hospital simply released her into the streets without contacting her closest relatives, that was the beginning of the end. Linda refused to acknowledge her illness, and no one could force help on her. This failure of the mental health system forms the central debate in this film. Was there anything that could’ve been done differently to save her life?
The filmmakers recount this tragic story through interviews, footage filmed on location at the actual home where she died, and readings from Linda’s journal. This narration, provided by actress Lori Singer, is performed with such authenticity you feel like you’re hearing Linda’s own voice. The narration alone is an incredible part of this documentary, a window into its subject’s mind you rarely see.
God Knows Where I Am raises a number of important questions that might not otherwise be in the public consciousness. What obligation does the state have to care for someone who doesn’t want help? Where is the line between eccentric beliefs and mental illness? What are the social and personal costs of homelessness?
The only potential problem with this documentary is that it walks a fine line between decency and voyeurism. Nina Metz at the Chicago Tribune wrote that it “is filmed with the kind of care and Pinterest-ready aesthetic that almost — almost — tips into fetish.” It lays bare Linda Bishop’s last moments to an extent that Linda herself likely never wanted anyone to see. I watched the film with the very uncomfortable sense that I was watching a person’s most intimate moment completely uninvited.
God Knows Where I Am is almost universally praised and currently holds a 84% positive rating from critics and 88% audience favorability on RottenTomatoes. This simple but powerful tale takes the deeply personal and turns it into something universal. With every scene crafted to emotionally connect the audience to Linda’s story, it is an excellent example of documentary filmmaking done right.