Mental health is one of the most significant issues in our country — in terms of health care, national cost, social welfare and basic quality of life — and yet it is perpetually pushed to the margins because it is such a difficult one to handle.
Documentary has a proud tradition of confronting this issue, dating back to Frederick Wiseman’s groundbreaking 1967 film, Titicut Follies. Directors Todd and Jedd Wider continue that honorable tradition with God Knows Where I Am, now in theaters, a haunting and dramatic documentary about Linda Bishop, a mentally ill woman who chronicled her own slow demise in a journal in a farmhouse in New Hampshire. This is the flip side to popular shows like Mr. Robot, which thrillingly depicts a brilliant young man deep in psychosis. God Knows Where I Am similarly drops us into madness, but this story is unyielding, sad and all too real.
I had an email exchange with the filmmakers and brothers.
Tom Roston: How did you come upon Linda Bishop’s story and get to making the film?
Widers: The original inspiration for the film was an experience that Todd had when he returned to his home one cold February night and found that a homeless man had broken into his foyer. He was simply cold and was looking to get warm. After the police came, Todd asked them to take the man to a homeless shelter and then watched as the police car stopped at a stop light and the man jumped out of the back of the car into the darkness of night. A few months later in the spring, Todd walked out of his building and there was the same man sitting on a plastic chair a few yards away. He sat there for what seemed like seven days and seven nights, muttering and delusional, psychotic and covered in urine. Todd called the police and then watched as they briefly spoke to the man and left him there. Finally, after Todd had called too many times they sent a community rep to speak to Todd. She asked why he was calling and he told her he wanted them to take the man to a hospital or to someone who could provide medication and help. She responded that they couldn’t pick up every homeless person in New York and that it wasn’t a law enforcement problem. If he wanted to change this, change society. That was when we both decided to examine this issue through film and found an article about Linda Bishop in The New Yorker by Rachel Aviv. We then proceed to reach out to Linda’s sister and daughter and began to develop a relationship with each of them to learn more about Linda’s life and story.
Roston: The drama of a journal left after dying is undeniable; are there precedents in fiction and the real world that you considered while working on your film? What are your favorites?
Widers: Anne Frank’s diary has always been a major influence on all of us. It is so poignant and hopeful not only about small things, but about humanity in the face of such inhumanity. There is an innocence about the way it is written, which makes it so universal. There is a poignancy about Linda’s journal as well, but of course there are clear differences. Linda’s journal is intermittently delusional and paranoid, and as you read it, you learn you cannot necessarily trust the writer. But both diaries are documents left behind by two women who died tragically. While God Knows Where I Am was playing at IDFA [in Amsterdam], we, together with the actress Lori Singer, who voices the diary, and Brian Ariotti, a producer on the film, visited the Anne Frank house and saw where Anne and her family hid during the Nazi occupation. Her diary immediately puts you, the reader, in a very specific place. Linda’s diary does a similar thing in that it places you in the house with her. The film purposely makes that journey quite visual, and experiential. We wanted the viewer to experience, at least in some measure, what it was like to be in that house, through Linda’s eyes. We believe that empathy comes with displaying a person’s point of view, especially someone who experienced such a tragic and needless death.
Roston: Speaking of which, is there narrative feature interest in optioning Linda Bishop’s story or your film?
Widers: There has been some talk of turning the documentary into a narrative feature, and we think it would work quite well as a narrative. At this point, however, our efforts have been focused on the documentary, as the film is released theatrically worldwide, and plans for community screenings across the U.S. to help bring more attention to Linda’s story and the larger issues surrounding our country’s failure to properly care for the severely mentally ill and homeless.
Tom Roston: How has the New England community (Bishop’s and where she died) responded to the film?
Widers: New England has embraced the film. The film was the opening night film of the New Hampshire Film Festival and won Best Documentary. The New Hampshire State Division of Film has been incredibly supportive. Senator Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, recently sponsored a screening of the film for Congress in the Congressional Auditorium and a panel discussion focused on the issues concerning the failings of our country to properly care for the severely mentally ill and the homeless. The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), the largest nonprofit mental illness organization in the U.S., has been incredibly supportive as well both at the national and local levels, including in New Hampshire.
Tom Roston: There’s a new book about mental illness, No One Cares About Crazy People. What do you think about the title of the book? True? Can you speak a little about your thoughts on the state of the mental health system in the U.S. and what hope there is for people like Linda?
Widers: The title of the book, of course, speaks to the stigma surrounding mental illness. Calling mentally ill people “crazy” doesn’t really help further dialogue and openness on viewing mental illness as an illness, which is of course what it is. Severe mental illness takes an enormous emotional and economic toll on our country. Our society needs to be more accepting of those suffering from these diseases, and have more empathy for those suffering from them. In our own city, New York, our homelessness problem is completely out of control. Many of the homeless suffer from severe mental illness. Our mayor has said anyone can sleep on a sidewalk bench if they desire — it may not be illegal, but is this alright? We would strongly argue it is not, and that at times we hide behind protecting civil liberties at all costs, including the cost of life. Severely psychotic and delusional people should be medicated. This is the humane thing to do. Some might argue that Linda freely chose to starve to death in that house. But one cannot exercise free will if one’s mind is not free.
Tom Roston: What sort of outreach campaign have you created for the film? How have people interested in mental health issues responded?
Widers: The film has been embraced by the mental health community. NAMI has been incredibly supportive and we are in the process of arranging screenings in different NAMI chapters all around the country. We are also going to exhibit the film at the annual NAMI conference later in the year for many of the leading psychiatrists and mental health providers in the US. Psychiatrists across the U.S. have also embraced the film including two past presidents of the American Psychiatric Association who have embraced the film for its empathetic depiction of severe mental illness and its call for social action. They have joined our national efforts to bring more attention to these very important issues. To galvanize public will for sociopolitical change, especially around an issue like this one, we believe it helps to have a vehicle for empathy – a way to show an audience what it is like to be severely mentally ill and homeless.
Linda Bishop was a loving mother, sister, and friend, she had many interests, loved to cook, loved art, and loved nature. She embraced the world around her, and was very much alive, like many of us. But at some point, her mind became broken through faulty neurochemistry, her life took a very different turn, and the ever porous social service safety nets in our country failed to catch her and she met a tragic end. If our film makes you feel something for her, a measure of sadness and empathy, perhaps one might remember those feelings when one encounters the next severely mentally ill homeless person in our everyday worlds. There are Linda Bishops all around us, in every city and town in our great country. Linda Bishop is us. And we must do better as a society.