Months after her death, in May of 2008, Linda Bishop’s body was found after a prospective homebuyer noticed it while peering into the window of a large, sparsely furnished farmhouse in Concord, New Hampshire. Bishop didn’t own the home, but she spent her final weeks there, subsisting on a diet of apples and melted snow as she read books and filled out two journals that became a poignant document of her decline. In a suicide note, revealed early in Jedd and Todd Wider’s documentary God Knows Where I Am, Bishop says her death “is a result of domestic violence/abuse,” but from the outset, it’s clear that this film is less another chapter in the true-crime genre than a more earnest, searching act of tribute to a woman who struggled to assert her independence as her mind began to unravel.
Composed of home videos, digitally shot interviews with friends and family, and 16mm and 35mm film footage of the yawning New Hampshire estate, God Knows Where I Am employs a diversity of formats and voices in order to situate the viewer inside Bishop’s fractured headspace. As actress Lori Singer recites Bishop’s journals via voiceover, occasionally turning sentence fragments into more complete and elegant sentences, the filmmakers underscore Bishop’s keen eye for beauty and nature. An opening shot dramatically circles an apple tree, richly illuminated under a twilit sky, forging a connection between art and nature that honors both Bishop, who was an art history major, and the food that kept her alive through her last weeks.
Despite their film’s heightened aesthetics, the Widers tell Bishop’s story with familiar methods. Relatives and community members reveal the details of her past, from Bishop’s happy and conventional childhood through her loving, devoted instincts as a mother to daughter Caitlin. All of this falls apart after an indistinct psychic rupture, sending Bishop through cycles of hospitalization and medication, much of which she fiercely resisted. Singer’s recitations of Bishop’s journals sensitively present Bishop as a sharp observer with a paranoid streak (a sense that’s corroborated by the film’s interview subjects), and they’re invariably accompanied by creeping shots of ever-diminishing collections of apples, styled to recall Magritte still lives. The directors take a more dynamic approach to discussing Bishop’s mental illness, allowing her family members to discuss the ways in which Bishop wound up hurting and abandoning them without ever demonizing anyone involved in the proceedings. Though the film excels at subjectivity and interiority, asserting that Bishop maintained a strong philosophy even as her brain began to betray her, it tends to falter in conveying more rudimentary information.
Juicy hooks turn out to be red herrings, and interesting avenues (Bishop’s experience as a volunteer guide at ground zero in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks, and her late turn toward religion) are barely explored. Bishop’s ultimate decline is prolonged and beautifully realized by the filmmakers, but it sits unsettlingly beside an undernourished condemnation of the social safety net, as it relates to cases of mental illness. These issues are given their due in Rachel Aviv’s 2011 New Yorker article about Bishop (published under the same title), but much of God Knows Where I Am‘s final act rushes hastily through a knotty, fundamentally irreconcilable policy debate. When Bishop’s relatives announce that “the system let her down,” they suddenly feel like characters from a less delicate, more conventional film.