A while back I came across a “semi-documentary”, written and directed by English filmmaker Carol Morley, called Dreams of a Life. The haunting and speculative 2011 film attempts to piece together the life of 38-year old Londoner, Joyce Carol Vincent. A beautiful aspiring singer and seemingly gregarious woman of Indo-Caribbean and Afro-Caribbean extraction, Vincent’s decomposed body was found in her North London bedsit flat; having apparently died in late 2003, her remains went undiscovered for three years despite neighbors noticing the smell of decomposition emanating from her apartment.
I recall reading about Joyce some years ago and feeling somewhat bothered by the few fleeting details reported by the media about her; never able to recall reading anything else substantive about her personal life, how she died, or even a picture of her. Her story, or lack thereof, more-or-less dwindled and disappeared from the media. Before watching Dreams of a Life, I thought Joyce’s story was cut-and-dry, and that there was nothing more to be told, beyond that of the sad life of a friendless woman with no family, who died alone and unaccounted for. I never imagined, after all of this time, this posthumous follow-up of Joyce's life would present a story far more compelling than I could have ever imagined.
Fascinated by Vincent’s story and unwilling to let her legacy disappear, as if it were nothing more than a myth concocted for email chain-letters, Carol Morley sought to find out who Joyce Carol Vincent was; so she placed an ad in hopes of garnering the attention of and information from those who may have known her. In an article for The Guardian UK, Morley writes…
“I first heard about Joyce when I picked up a discarded copy of the Sun on a London underground train. The paper reported the gothic circumstances of her death – "Woman dead in flat for three years: skeleton of Joyce found on sofa with telly still on" – but revealed almost nothing about her life. (…)The image of the television flickering over her decomposing body haunted me as I got off the train on to the crowded platform. In a city such as London, home to 8 million people, how could someone's absence go unnoticed for so long? Who was Joyce Vincent? What was she like? How could she have been forgotten?
(…) News of Joyce's death quickly made it into the global media, which registered shock at the lack of community spirit in the UK. The story ran on in the British press, but still no photograph of Joyce appeared and little personal information.
Soon Joyce dropped out of the news. I watched as people discussed her in internet chatrooms, wondering if she was an urban myth, or talking about her as though she never mattered, calling her a couch potato, and posting comments such as: "What's really sad is no one noticed she was missing – must have been one miserable bitch." And then even that kind of commentary vanished. But I couldn't let go. I didn't want her to be forgotten. I decided I must make a film about her.”
Joyce lay dead on her sofa (the cause undetermined due to massive decay), surrounded by wrapped Christmas presents, her TV still loudly tuned to BBC1, seeming to have dropped off the radar to little or no fanfare, discovered by bailiffs who came to repossess her subsidized apartment for non-payment of rent, despite the fond memories her ‘friends’ and ex-paramours shared of her in Morley's film. None, however, thought to check-in with her.
Morley did relay in a Time Out interview that—while it wasn't mentioned in her film—Vincent's four sisters, who declined to participate in, but screened a pre-release copy of Dreams of a Life, hired a private investigator to look for their sister, because she'd seemingly cut them off.
Via re-enactments (played by English actress Zawe Ashton) and anecdotes from acquaintances and ex-boyfriends, Morley concocted a compelling story. Joyce was described as: “Bright”, “high-flying”, “magnetic”, “well-spoken”, “beautiful”, “educated”, "a chameleon", “clever”, “mysterious”, and “petite” with “great hair and well-manicured hands”. But also as a woman still profoundly impacted by the death of her mother-- who died when Joyce was just a little girl, and who navigated a strained relationship with her father (who passed just a year after Joyce did, much to the surprise of her friends, who thought he’d died years earlier), and also as a woman who was purportedly prone to periodically drifting away from people, who dated interracially almost exclusively, and who may or may not have had identity issues (as emphasized in the film ).
But, despite those minute details offered about Joyce, no one was conscientious enough to realize they hadn't heard from her in a long while, or that she’d been living a solitary existence in a domestic-violence apartment subsidized by the government sometime in 2001, after having left a stable job. On camera, Joyce's friends expressed shock and dismay upon learning that the final moments of her short life were fraught with instability and trouble with an abusive partner, as they assumed she was off somewhere traveling and living a glamorous life-- they were taken-aback to learn she'd been employed as a cleaning woman.
“Somebody must have said: ‘Hey we haven’t heard from her for two months, six months, a year, Christmas. We’re having Christmas dinner, where’s Joyce?’”
Everyone reiterated how much Joyce dreamed of being a singer and seemed to come to life whenever she sang; when Carol Morley played recordings of Joyce during a studio-session, for those who remembered and spoke fondly of her, some seemed chilled by the memory of her voice. Joyce Carol Vincent lived a very active life; she didn't grapple with any substance abuse issues or addictions, and she rubbed shoulders with well-heeled notables including Nelson Mandela, Stevie Wonder (who she dined with), Gil-Scot Heron, and singer Betty Wright.
Vincent lived somewhat of a yuppie lifestyle and held a well-paid job at Ernst & Young, but those who knew, dated, and socialized with her seemed more consumed by the more superficial and glamorous aspects of her existence, mostly familiar with the social life Vincent fashioned for herself; most of her friends seemed preoccupied by the fact that she was extraordinarily attractive and outwardly bubbly, and so couldn't possibly have had any problems that weren't self-imposed. According to friends, Joyce's issues were of her own doing: “(…) I know some people will turn around tomorrow and say: ‘Well what happened to friends and family?’ But I think she’s probably got to take responsibility for a lot of that”, says one; "Everything about Joyce was all very superficial, and she never really liked to let people in (…) She seemed to live a very nomadic existence", said another.
"It's really strange. It's like she never really existed. She was just a figment of our imagination; she was a story... it was like someone that we all just made up almost, partly because of the fact that we let someone that we all knew disappear off and die, that we all thought we cared about."
Joyce apparently left a series of jobs and reportedly had to fend off unwanted sexual advances from male colleagues. One of her male friends acknowledged having to come to her aid once at a social event, when a co-worker tried to take advantage of her after she'd had a couple of drinks; but in the same breath claimed not to understand why she left those jobs rather than deal with the uncompromising situations and flagrant sexual harassment she dealt with, after Joyce divulged that she'd left because she was "being hassled"...
In fact, I was most bothered by the commentary offered by the male acquaintances in Joyce's social circle, men who seemed to relish sexualizing her, yet complained about her being too guarded. Down-and-out and having lost touch with most of her social circle, Joyce resurfaced seeking help and shelter from a couple of male friends. Their help seemed to come at a price however, as they either wanted to sleep with her or possess her. One admitted having somewhat of an inclination to want to help Joyce and scratch beneath the surface to better understand her; but once he concluded that he only wanted to get in Joyce's pants, he decided he didn't want to be bothered with knowing what was plaguing his old friend. He confessed that he'd been "relieved" to come home one afternoon to find Joyce gone, because he was doubtful he would have been able to control whatever sexual urges he felt growing for her, after seeing her "walk around in her underwear".
Initially concerned and willing to help her, an ex-boyfriend asked her to leave his flat after she'd settled in for several months, because she wasn't interested in rekindling their romantic relationship. He tearfully expressed deep regret on camera, for having done so.
Being a woman with a solitary personality and one who’d much rather stand outside the perimeter and observe, and who’ll intermittently socialize as my mood sees fit; but who still wants to be valued and acknowledged as more than a novelty, Joyce’s story left an indelible mark on me. It prompted me to think about the pang of isolation, particularly for black women who grapple with invisibility, are seen as objects, and are often undervalued.
This film also reminded me how important building and cultivating genuine connections with folks (even if a few) is. Because despite being the life of the party, one can still feel very much alone out on that ledge, grasping for leverage, particularly during difficult times when that circle seems to shrink until there's no one left to wonder after you. Because folks aren't really interested in knowing that you’re trudging through a particularly distressing or shitty patch; they only want to hear that you’re none the worse for wear and up for a good time. It’s why I found the commentary offered by her friends troubling and sad.
I appreciated the effort Carol Morley put forth in Dreams of a Life because, while she wasn't able to fill in all the gaps and much of her documentary is presented as conjecture, she put a face and provided history (albeit a complex one) to a decayed corpse and she humanized Joyce.
Joyce may have grappled with demons and put on a happy façade for her friends, but in retrospect, it seemed none of them truly cared enough for her to forgive her of minor shortcomings, until it was too late. On some level, they were just as disingenuous as they suggested Joyce was being about her life. As someone pointed out to me on Facebook when I shared this story, “The social implications of her story are seemingly limitless (racial, sexual/gender, familial and how we function within our community)". And it's why I can't help wondering: If Joyce Carol Vincent had been a vivacious, upwardly mobile, and attractive white woman, would her story would have resonated with the press and would the public would have at least been offered more insight into her short life, including a picture of the deceased? Carol Morley herself acknowledged that she believes race played a part in how the press chose to report her story—they were opaque and sparse with the details.
Life happens and friendships are susceptible to drifting apart. While we can't always be our sister's (or brother's) keeper, can you truly say you care or love someone and that you're their genuine friend, when their imperfections makes you uncomfortable and falls short of the pedestal you placed them on? Do you truly value a life if you can't determine whether your friend is alive or dead and they're just a fleeting thought to you, or fantastical image you've concocted?