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This Dust of Words
written and directed by Bill Rose
In 1999, fifty year old Elizabeth Wiltsee went missing. This film traces her steps from her precocious childhood to the final journey she undertook after saying she was going home.
By all accounts Elizabeth Wiltsee was exceedingly uncommon. Rated with an IQ of 200 she was always on the fast track for tremendous success. She read Homer in the original Greek, taught herself Mandarin Chinese, and was equally adept at both Science and Literature. She possessed an uncanny ability to penetrate into the very heart of things and much of this film is based upon an essay written by one of her Stanford English Professors, a man named John Felstiner. Felstiner relates his take on Elizabeth and its fraught with tension and tenderness and allows for something of a portrait to emerge.
After Graduation Elizabeth eschewed furthering her education and au paired in Paris for a bit before moving to Spain for a year. She moved back to the States and found work in various libraries along the way. She also wrote feverishly completing two novels, numerous plays, and critical essays. She took a job as a proofreader but she couldn?t restrain herself from adding her own editorial commentary on the works as well. Eventually, she ended up in California where she rented a room in Watsonville. A few years later she was kicked out and became from that point on a homeless person. At some point she began hearing voices and became acutely paranoid that her phone was being tapped and that she was being watched.
Elizabeth?s family have put the pieces together and concluded that she suffered from Paranoid Schizophrenia although she was never properly diagnosed mainly because she both feared and loathed the prospects of visiting a doctor for any reason. She fell ill with adult-set measles when she was thirty and her family believed that the difficulties she later faced were born with that sickness. This is never discussed in the film because director Bill Rose felt it would pervert the narrative.
Regardless of the source of her illness, one cannot help but ponder over the connection between near genius and mental illness. Elizabeth seemed to be the classic free spirit who refused to be pinned down and who moved around without constraint. There is no explanations here about what happened to her or why. All we are left with is a portrait of a beautiful, vivacious young woman who managed to slip into the skull of Samuel Beckett in her 1970 senior thesis.
This is a story that proves the adage, ?There but by the grace of God go I?. The line between mental illness and so-called normalcy is of course paper thin. One feels baffled that such a gifted person, with rare and possessive talents, could ever find herself grappling with imaginary voices and periodic fits of absolute rage. She took refuge in a parish and slept in the doorway. She spent her days in Watsonville at the library where she studied Chinese poets and read everything she could get her hands on. One wonders about her lucidity and perhaps if she did indeed retain her unassailable ability to see more clearly than just about everyone else. What solace did it give her if any? What does a brilliant mind do when parts of it start to shut down?
Elizabeth Wiltsee is a phantom who haunts this film from start to finish. Through a voice over artist we hear her words from her novel as the camera moves slowly over water. It?s calming, soothing, but her words are deeply melancholic and fueled with dread and a quiet resignation.
A key aspect of this documentary are the individuals who stretched out a hand when Elizabeth was sleeping on the steps of the parish. One concerned woman named Toni Breese gave her peanut butter, yogurt and apples as well as a list of all the church goers along with their pictures so she might be able to connect with them. Another was a man named Walter Washington, a language arts teacher at the school attached to the parish, who brought her into the Fishes and Loaves soup kitchen and managed to get her to open up to him about her past. In fact a reporter wrote a piece on Elizabeth whom everyone seemed to know and concluded that the entire town had pitched in and were supporting her.
This film does not attempt to capture its subject because she will always remain elusive. She is an enigma that forever will remain distant and strange to anyone who attempts to solve her if only for a short while. All that is left are fragments that do not remotely express a viable truth about this single individual. Indeed, this film articulates a basic fact that will always separate even the closest friends. It is impossible to effectively read every facet of another person and there will always be gulfs that develop, lacks of understanding and empathy. Elizabeth Wiltsee lived through texts. They became her escape and most likely kept much of the violence in her head from spilling out in even more dramatic outbursts.
Elizabeth existed in a mental realm populated by the very few. Clearly her life was consumed with a mad array of possibilities regarding any type of future she might have desired. She turned her back on it and decided to pursue a more low-key existence on her own terms. It?s not easy to understand the nature of her motivation for skipping out on the brilliant future others had already mapped out for her. Perhaps it has most to do with her disdainful attitude for academe. She wrote furiously for much of her life and many of her later works were politically-oriented plays although she herself did not confess to being remotely political. Somewhere along the line the words betrayed her and began to come at her in frightening and unpredictable ways. She who filled her mind with phrases, formulas, arguments was ultimately crushed underneath their collective weight.
Overall, the film provides a rich portrait, one of many possible portraits, of a complicated woman who was difficult for many to effectively know as far as it is possible to know another person. Her mind soaked up everything she encountered and she is remembered as impossibly bright, vibrant, and consumed with an overarching desire to know everything. She never lost her thirst for knowledge, not even when the voices were attempting to impede her progress. There is something terribly romantic about someone spending most of her day obsessing over this or that special text. One can?t help but wonder if her ability to process all this material changed as her disorder worsened. Did she move from more or less a full understanding to one that was more fragmented or were the fragments always there? Are there always signs that precede the development of major mental afflictions? Can these be extracted from her Samuel Beckett thesis, plays and novels?
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