A woman’s battle with mental illness in Concord set to unfold on the big screen

  • Linda Bishop, always on a quest for freedom, drives in a Studebaker Lark VIII years before her mental illness surfaced. Years later, that search for freedom took her from the state hospital to an abandoned home in East Concord, shown above.TOP: The house and barn where Linda Bishop was found in May 2008 on Mountain Road in Concord. Courtesy

  • Linda Bishop is shown with daughter Caitlin Murtagh. Bishop, a mentally ill woman who spent the last several months of her life alone in an abandoned Concord farmhouse, is the subject of a documentary being shown in Concord on Friday night. Courtesy

  • Bishop with sister Joan —Courtesy

  • A page is shown from Linda Bishop’s journal, which she kept in the months before her death at a Concord farmhouse. Courtesy

  • The house where Linda Bishop was found on Mountain Road in Concord is shown. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • The house and barn where Linda Bishop was found on Mountain Road in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 4/19/2017 11:30:25 PM

Sometimes, Linda Bishop would peer through one of the dirty windows from her final residence, a vacant white farmhouse on Mountain Road.

She stayed invisible, behind a curtain, in the shadows, off to the side. She knew she was sick and dying. She knew she’d reached the end of the line. She was free and imprisoned, at the same time.

Trapped in mental illness, betrayed by a system that failed her, and lonely and hopeless like the furniture in the house, Bishop died there from starvation, in the freezing cold, sometime in January 2008. She was discovered in May of that year.

The two journals found beside her body explained the pain she felt during the final four months of her life. The documentary that will be shown Friday night at Red River Theatres, called God Knows Where I Am, will pull the camera back and give you the larger view.

It has played in major cities across the country, including New York and Los Angeles. It has been on tour for more than a year, showing audiences how a woman had lied to medical professionals at the New Hampshire Hospital, after years of bizarre behavior, and then sought shelter without contacting those closest to her: her sister, Joan Bishop, and daughter, Caitlin Murtagh.

Terms like schizoaffective disorder and bipolar with psychosis will be introduced. They robbed Bishop, 52 at the time of her death, of her potential, part of which she had already reached by then.

“She was always very smart and funny and interested in different things,” Joan Bishop, who retired to Florida recently after working in the court system here for 30 years, told me by phone. “She wanted to know about things she didn’t know about. She loved gardening, books, music. She never had a TV in her house because she’d rather read or listen to music. A fun person. A cool person.”

I had no idea what I was investigating when former Monitor editor Hans Schulz, who now works for the Boston Globe, told me nine years ago that a body had been found in a house 400 yards from the Monitor offices.

Schulz always pushed me to attach names and backgrounds to down-on-their-luck people, who were often homeless with no families, often slipping through society’s cracks into anonymity. Soon, I met Joan Bishop for lunch in Concord, and she introduced me to her sister and a story so compelling that The New Yorker magazine came here three years later to write about Linda. Two years after that, production began on Friday’s documentary, produced by nationally known, award-winning filmmakers.

The film casts a spotlight on a tragedy that seemingly could have been avoided. Murtagh lives in Rochester and is a department manager at Wal-Mart. She’s seen the movie and, along with her aunt Joan, will see it again Friday night. I asked if she believed something good could come from the movie. Something that could create more supervision or monitoring once a patient is released from the state hospital.

“I’m hoping,” she said by phone. “That is what we want, but for me, I more want people to know, not so there can be big changes, but so they know they’re not the only ones going through this. There’s not a lot of talk about mental illness and the way it pertains to references in this movie. It needs to be shared more.”

Her mother’s story is as haunting as the eerie black-and-white visions seen in the movie. Linda Bishop was fine for decades. She earned a degree in art history from the University of New Hampshire. She traveled through Europe. She got married, had a daughter and always displayed an independent spirit that others admired.

“The center of the party,” Murtagh said. “One of those people, very vibrant, telling stories, the person you are attracted to when you’re together with a group of people.”

The weird behavior began late for Linda, around age 40. Murtagh was 13 and said, “I still don’t know how to fully deal with it. Mom came home and we took off.”

Murtagh said she was not attending school at the time, the victim of bullying. Mother and daughter got in the car and drove to Colebrook and through upstate New York. They visited Linda’s parents in Florida, then returned to New Hampshire.

One day, Linda told her daughter to stay with a neighbor. Then Linda disappeared. Just like that.

Over the next few years, while Murtagh moved in with her paternal grandfather and father, Linda drove to the World Trade Center, feeling a sense of duty to be there after the Sept. 11 attacks. She was hospitalized in New York City. She flipped her car over while driving drunk in Rochester. She thought the Chinese mafia was after her while she worked at a Chinese restaurant.

There were signs of hope now and then, when Linda stuck to her medication. She moved back in with her daughter in Rochester when Murtagh was at Spaudling High School. But Linda never fully believed anything was wrong with her, so she often stopped taking her meds.

“She could not keep up with things and she would not take her medication and she would deteriorate,” Joan said. “In New Hampshire, there were not a lot of easy-to-access resources for her.”

Leading up to her yearlong stay at New Hampshire Hospital that began in October of 2006, Linda mistrusted her sister, the person who, more than anyone else, could have helped her.

“She talked about me as being the terrible, evil person who was the enemy,” Joan said. “She talked about things that were not true. No one bothered to fact check. She had a family that cared.”

Mistakes were made along the way, from the judge who believed Linda’s story that Joan wasn’t needed as a guardian, to the hospital’s belief that Linda had a place to live upon her release, and she’d maintain her medication program.

Chet Batchelder, superintendent of the state hospital at the time, declined to discuss Linda’s case with me back then. But he told me he and three others had signed off on Linda’s release. He also told me, “We need to validate that everything is set up for the person to go back to the community. From my perspective, it works quite well.”

In this case, it didn’t. Without guardianship, Joan wasn’t entitled to updates, nor medical records. She wasn’t notified when her sister was released on Oct. 3, 2007.

Linda broke into the farmhouse soon after. Joan found out her sister had been discharged only after a Christmas card she’d sent to the hospital was returned.

Linda lived on apples and rain water. She kept two journals, one in a spiral notebook, the other a pocket-sized pad, a total of about 75 pages. She wrote, read books she found at the house, gathered apples and enjoyed the warmth and color of fall.

But this mentally ill person, who had finally left the state hospital, had finally broken out onto her own, had fooled the medical community and successfully hidden her life from her family, knew she was a prisoner with no way out.

Winter set in and the apple supply faded.

“It’s sad to be dying when you thought you had so much to look forward to and to live for,” Linda’s entry from early December 2007 reads. “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 last entry is dated on Jan. 13, 2008. The page is blank. Linda was found four months later, on May 3.

In November 2010, Murtagh received a settlement from the hospital for $275,000. Three years later, a camera crew gathered at the old farmhouse to document Linda’s final resting place.

A 60-foot black crane held a camera on top, allowing for aerial and sweeping shots of the house and adjacent barn. Many of the scenes inside the house are filmed in black and white.

“Hushed tones,” Murtagh called them. “It portrays sadness. It feels like a dream.”

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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