Ray Duckler: Oscar-winning film crew documents Linda Bishop's story
Todd Wider, second from left, works on preparing things for a shot while working with a film crew outside the home on Mountain Road in Concord where Linda Bishop was found dead in 2008. Bishop, a mother and sister from New Durham, suffered from mental illness and stayed at the house, which was unoccupied at the time, for a number of months until dying from cold and hunger. Her story is part of the film that Wider and his brother Jedd are helping to produce about the shortcomings of the mental health system in the country.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
Set equipment is reflected on the window looking in on the home on Mountain Road in Concord where Linda Bishop was found dead in 2008. Bishop, a mother and sister from New Durham, suffered from mental illness and stayed at the house, which was unoccupied at the time, for a number of months until dying from cold and hunger. Her story is part of the film that Todd Wider and his brother Jedd are helping to produce about the shortcomings of the mental health system in the country.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
Todd Wider, center, looks at the monitor while filming carries on outside the Mountain Road in Concord where Linda Bishop was found dead in 2008. Bishop, a mother and sister from New Durham, suffered from mental illness and stayed at the house, which was unoccupied at the time, for a number of months until dying from cold and hunger. Her story is part of the film that Wider and his brother Jedd are helping to produce about the shortcomings of the mental health system in the country.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
The Oscar-winning filmmakers and their crew see more than the old white house on Mountain Road when looking at the images captured by their cameras.
They see a broken mental health system, and a struggle to balance a solution with civil rights. They see our prejudicial attitudes toward the homeless, and a society that prefers to step over them rather than face the problem.
Mostly, though, they see a woman, a mother, an artist, a college graduate, who starved to death alone in that empty house five years ago because she believed she had nowhere to turn.
And in some ways, Linda Bishop was right.
“We have such a strong character here,” said one of the producers, Jennilyn Merten, whose work has been shown at the Tribeca Film Festival and featured on the Oprah Winfrey Network. “The mentally ill are not always considered persons, and that’s part of our goal here, to bring this woman back to life, to grant her that personhood.”
Merten is working with directors Todd
and Jedd Wider, brothers from New York City who have turned to filmmaking to create awareness about issues important to them.
“Film activism,” says Todd, 49, who is also a surgeon. A man with silver hair, silver stubble and a welcoming manner, he was the executive producer of an Academy Award winning documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side, a study of abuse by American soldiers during the war in Afghanistan.
Jedd, meanwhile, is a 45-year-old attorney, quiet and soft-spoken. He was a bit more distracted with his work on a bright day, leaving most of the media relations to Todd and Merten, a slender, pretty woman with flowing blond hair.
Jedd also helped produce Taxi, and this year was nominated for another Oscar for Kings Point, a poignant look at relationships among seniors at a Florida retirement community.
They’ve been here all week, at the house where Bishop’s body was discovered, and will stay until Tuesday. They’ve been working on the film for a year and will continue into next year, using Bishop’s story as a springboard for a project they hope will create a dialogue and, eventually, a better way to treat mentally ill people.
“Theoretically, we are a kind and generous nation, and a rich nation, and we should be able to afford to take care of these people,” Todd said. “That’s the point of society, that we’re interrelated. We reach out to those who have fallen and push them back up. That’s my inspiration for the film.”
They’re using a 60-foot black crane with a camera attached to it, the same one used to film Spider-Man and Pirates of the Caribbean. It allows them to film aerial and sweeping shots of the house and adjacent barn, adding what Todd called an artistic element.
They like that idea, because Bishop herself was an art major at the University of New Hampshire. She was 5-foot-7, with wavy light-brown hair, bright blue eyes and a big smile.
She liked to fish and camp. She loved wildlife, and she traveled through Europe, riding the rails with friends.
She also suffered from bipolar disorder, diagnosed in her 40s.
Her behavior turned bizarre, which included lowering flags to half staff in her hometown of New Durham; flipping her car while driving drunk; disappearing, with no mention to her family, to ground zero in Manhattan, before receiving treatment at a New York City hospital; and tossing a cup of urine on a corrections officer.
Medication helped, and Bishop moved to Rochester to live with her daughter, Caitlin Bishop Murtagh, for her senior year in high school. She took her medication, bonded with Caitlin, even re-established a relationship with her sister, Joan Bishop, who works for the court system in Concord.
But Linda refused to take her meds as often as she needed them, and no one could force her to continue.
She was admitted to New Hampshire Hospital in October of 2006, fighting the staff’s attempts to medicate her the whole time.
Joan tried to become her sister’s legal guardian, but the court rejected her application, for reasons that remain unclear today.
That meant Joan was not entitled to Linda’s medical reports, nor any updates on her progress, nor her release date.
In fact, it was only after Joan received the Christmas card back that she’d mailed to Linda late in 2007 that she realized her sister was no longer at New Hampshire Hospital.
Joan was at the shooting site this week and plans on watching the operation through today. Following her sister’s death, she pieced together Linda’s route to the home, owned for decades by a family who had not, and have not, yet sold it.
“Behind where I work at the Supreme Court building, and behind the Department of Safety and Fish and Game,” said Joan, who is thrilled that the movie is being made. “She came out onto East Side Drive and walked up here on Mountain Road. She’d never been here, and she did not know where she was going.”
Linda broke in through a window, around this time of year, and lived on apples she found at night, according to the notebooks, one spiral-bound, the other pocket-sized, found by the police near her body.
She wrote that she was too scared to leave the house during the day.
Here’s a snippet, released by Joan, written near the end of Linda’s three-month life at the house:
“It’s sad to be dying when you thought you had so much to look forward to and to live for. I’m so hurt and wounded and there is such a huge amount of pain and anger and sadness in me – which I can’t let go of . . .”
Her final entry was dated Jan. 13, 2008. The page was blank.
Linda was found by the police, alerted by someone who peeked in the window, attracted by the for-sale sign out front.
Chet Batchelder, then the superintendent at the state hospital, cited confidentiality in May of 2008, while I was digging through the maze of Linda’s life, trying to understand how something like this could happen.
He offered hard facts only, including how many people were needed to sign the release paper: a physician, a representative from a mental health center, the patient (if there’s no guardian) and Batchelder himself.
Batchelder told me at the time that he believed the system “works quite well.”
These are the people the filmmakers hope to speak with, after reading about Linda in the New Yorker two years after her death.
They emphasized, over and over, that they don’t wish to point fingers. But they do want to address the issues, like why the medical community can’t legally force a patient to take medication when it’s obvious the person is a danger to themselves and others.
“Doing a better job of protecting them and combining that with their civil rights,” Jedd said. “These are some of the key questions. All over the country there are different cities that relate to this story.”
But the topic is sensitive, and filmmakers say they’ve met resistance here from hospital officials, who are no doubt worried that documenting a death like this one could cast them in a negative light.
“The point is not to blame or praise the person,” Todd said. “We just want to understand what occurred and how we can make things better for a society, not just in this one particular case.”
Added Merten, “If there are no conversations, and the people involved in the very issues we’re discussing can’t participate in that dialogue, how do we improve things? How do we change things?”
So they came here, to tell a story. A story about a woman who lost her way through no fault of her own, about a woman who fell through the cracks of a system with many cracks.
Three years ago, Joan filed a lawsuit in Caitlin’s name, alleging the state was negligent when it failed to diagnose the severity of Linda’s illness and released her prematurely, while failing to verify that she had somewhere to go.
The case was settled out of court for $275,000. The money helped Caitlin, who works at a retail store and lives in New Durham, buy a new car recently. Joan says her niece supports the film’s making.
Joan, a vital resource, was on the set Wednesday, as people pulled over to watch or rubberneck, wondering what that huge crane and those huge spotlights were for.
The movie won’t be released until sometime next year. Todd said he’d like to see Red River Theatres serve as one of the opening-night venues, along with heavyweights such as the Cannes and Toronto film festivals.
By then, those involved with the film know, the issue will still be here, affecting people.
“This issue needs to be examined in this way,” Joan said. “We can no longer push people aside because they’re different or they’re acting strange. We have a human being who starves to death in a horrific way. As a society, I think that is unacceptable.”