March 02, 2013

'Dreams of a Life'- The Complex Story of Joyce Carol Vincent


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 fa├žade 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?

30 comments:

Kay said...

I have become very interested in Joyce Vincent's life. I feel like she is someone I never want to forget. The story I just read is what I look for after seeing Dreams of a Life. I want to know more. I can understand everything that was written in this story. There are many lives that may have ended like Joyce's and many more that may still end that way. I hope we truely take more and more actions to show that we care about each other.

TiffJ said...

Even after all of this time, Joyce's story still resonates with me and I'm glad Carol Morley sought to humanize her.,We definitely should show our friends and loved ones we care, by checking in with them... even when they tend to drift away from us. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

dantresomi said...

You know while i feel like her friends were wack, many did admit that they would ask her about specific details of her life and she would brush them off. Like folks asked her where she would work at and she would respond with "in the city." From experience, when people tell me this it usually means "none of your business" and i have learned that if someone really wants to tell you they would.

her ex'es were wack. the one dude was really arrogant when he said "she wasn't ready for the dream.." like really ?

I learned alot, though. Like what do i really know about my homies. Working as an investigator i learned that there are some details we won't be privy to because we didn't met at that time. Like for example, what college we might have attended. 10 years after that fact that detail might not matter.

its sad that she had these issues and i know people who go thru the same EXACT thing and don't say anything to anyone for several reasons. Much of it is because too many of us would rather not deal with it at all.

whats scary is that people fall off the map all the time and then pop up. i know quite a few people who do that from all walks of life. and there are moments when i wonder if they are okay but when i reach out, i get no replies. very scary

Nicole said...

How could the tv still be on after 3 years. Bothers me that no one bothered to see if this lady was ok some friends she had!

Steph said...

I just finished the documentary this evening, and having been completely moved and upset by the whole thing, I found this article. It's really true that in life you hope you can develop connections with people that will carry you through the bitterness and darkness, but it's sometimes a very challenging and difficult process. I myself endeavor to make these connections, but I can be my own worst enemy and isolate myself from the world. Poor Joyce had so many demons, and I think the worst part is that even though this wonderful documentary tries to make mention of and explore who Joyce was, we'll never know her for sure. Joyce was given a heavy burden of a life that weighed her down, one her friends did not understand, and her struggles and isolation really push me to thinking about my own life, the people in it and the challenges we face. I don't ever want to forget Joyce.

TiffJ said...

@Steph, Thanks so much for your insightful comment. I also am guilty of sequestering myself from the world, because sometimes, in the midst of so much b.s. and uncompromising situations, it's the easiest and most comforting thing to do, particularly when folks aren't willing to fully accept you beyond the narrative they've concocted for their own comfort.

I do coerce myself to maintain at least a few connections and try to maintain some social interaction, so I'm not easily forgotten. When you're not constantly 'on' for people's entertainment, it does seem easy for them to forget you or cast you aside... and I can't shake the feeling that this is what many of Joyce's friends did, even if she *did* isolate herself. She suddenly deviated from the narrative they created of her, and displayed her humanity and vulnerabilities, and people seemed to distance themselves.


I also don't ever want to forget, because that kind of isolation resonates with me.

Black-Women Empowerment said...

They say that "no man is an island". Not sure if that is true anymore.

Christina said...

I just have a burning suspicion there is foul play here? I

TiffJ said...

@Black-Women Empowerment: I'm starting to doubt that adage, myself.

TiffJ said...

Christina, that's an interesting possibility; particularly since reports indicated she was in an abusive relationship with an unidentified boyfriend. There're so many questions... still... and the postmortem autopsy was inconclusive, because Joyce's remains were so decomposed.

I wonder who she'd been wrapping gifts for (Xmas gifts were found nearby).
Did police ever look for who her last boyfriend was?
Was Joyce ill or under any undue stress?
Once again, how was it that her 'friends' never reached out? Even if they thought she was doing well, it amazes me that they never followed-up or looked for her to, at the very least, catch-up out of their own curiosity. I know her sisters hired a private investigator to look for her.

If there was foul play, interested parties will never know. :-(

London is a large city, and I know urban living can be synonymous with fleeting/superficial friendships and solitary, transient lifestyles. I'm suddenly reminded of Reynold Reynold's film, 'Sugar'.

Maggs said...

But that's just the thing. We've become so sensitive, any small comment or criticism can lead to a lifetime of non talking for the people concerned. As a Londoner who has had the opprtunity of living in other cities, London is the least friendly and reserved, so relations are superficial and transient. So from my experience I've always found it difficult to sustain friendships, i just think it better to hold onto just a few. But regarding Joyce, I got the impression that she was not particularly close to her own people, with the exception of her two black male friends. She probably felt that white men are more likely to achieve the middle class dream. I also got the impression the her 'friends' seemed to be working class, which again seemed strange, considering that she was midIdle class herself.

Mary Burrell said...

I too have been intrigued by this. If she wasn't making payment on the rent, and the utilities were still on, this is like something from the Twilight Zone. Read about this on the Shadow and Act blog. Thanks love your blog. I am a long time lurker.

Mary Burrell said...

I first read about this on the Shadow and Act blog. i have to admit this is stranger than fiction. It's like an episode from the twilight zone or the X Files. Very strange and bizarre indeed.

TiffJ said...

Maggs, living in a large cities definitely breeds transient lifestyles and a lot of superficial and 'seasonal' friendships and relationships. Personally, holding on to a few close friendships and connections has always worked for me and sensibilities. While I think Joyce probably put up a wall, I def think she was grappling with a lot of demons that she, perhaps, thought her social circle was too ill-equipped to offer her support on... particularly since the relationships *were* so superficial.

I know her sisters declined to participate in Morley's film, but I so wish we could have gotten some perspective from them.

TiffJ said...

Glad you came out of hiding Mary Burrell!

Yeah, it's so strange that no one came knocking around sooner. I would think that the smell of decomposition and nonpayment of rent would've raised red flags. But considering she'd been living in an environment where folks minded their own business (par for the course in urban areas)... I guess I get how and why no one thought to see what was going on. Plus some of the residents said the thought the smell was trash or whatever... Although one would think a the smell of a rotting corpse would be even more pungent than the smell of rancid garbage. But who knows. It's like the Twilight Zone indeed.

When I first read about this story years before, I was disappointed by how vague and fleeting the reporting was. So when I happened upon this documentary and saw that she was a young, black woman who lived such an interesting life, it haunted me even more, because one would think the media would've been far more interested in investigating why such an attractive woman who lived such a storied life, and seemed to have more of it ahead of her, died lonely, a possible victim of domestic violence, and down-and-out in a small estate flat. :-(

kia said...

Most of her 'friends' did only seem to like her for the superficial and not much else. But at the same time, it also looked like she shut people out, when it came to discussing her personal life. Which is why its important for women to make genuine friendships with people that actually care about you.


It also seems like she might have had some type of family trauma, that she refused to get counseled for or even discuss with her friends. I think her own family might know about this as well, but doesn't want to air their own dirty laundry.

TiffJ said...

Hi Kia.

Seems like Joyce never got over the death of her mother, and according to information I read, I gleaned that her father was kind of distant and wasn't able to really comfort her the way she needed to be, when she was a young girl, trying to cope with her mother's death; Joyce was only 11 when her mother passed... that really precocious and crucial age where girls need their mother the most.

Seems her father also moved on relatively quickly, to a new relationships. Joyce was mostly looked after by her sisters. One thing I found interesting, is that she told people that her father had passed 3 years earlier than he actually did. He died in 2004, Joyce told people he'd died in 2001.

Joyce also seemed to be a victim of domestic violence, so my guess is... she kept people out, because she didn't want them to she was struggling and ruin the facade.

I also don't think her social circle would've known how to offer her support, as evidenced by their reaction to her being sexually harassed at work, and by the male 'friend' she reached out to and sought shelter from during her spiral, but who wasn't interested in her problems as much as he was just trying to figure out how to sleep with her.

kia said...

Yes, all these 'friends' she had seemed superficial, but who didn't seem genuine enough to discuss personal issues with. People that only liked her for her beauty and men wanting into her bed etc. Yes that's why its important for women to form genuine relationships with real people.

TiffJ said...

"...that's why it's important for women to form genuine relationships with real people."
--Absolutely. As solitary as some people can be (I have a very solitary personality), it's important to sustain a really solid support system, comprised of folks who are genuinely willing to listen w/out strings and offer a safe space. Even if it's just 2 folks. I def know how valuable those kinds of connections are, and am def thankful for them.
men to form genuine relationships with real people.

helent87 said...

I'll never forget you Joyce x

Crystal said...

When I'm having a "moment" I usually come back to this story. Like Joyce I live alone in my 30's and my family is in a different state. I just get the feeling that she may have wanted to keep to herself and was slowly trying to get back in touch with people. But unfortunatley it did not happen that way. It is sad that at one point she was trying to make some connections especially for love only to get rejected. If anything maybe one of those men could have told her we could still be friends and if you needed anything they could be there. But she was looking for something else. We are all responsible for our actions and the outcome of life. With Joyce it seems she may have been "burned out" and maybe her pride got in her way for really seeking support from family and friends. I know I'm guilty for not getting back with someone like I should. I'm quick to put myself in check and still reach out. But it's a bad feeling when the same friends that you reach out too don't even attempt to try with you. Let's you know who's really your friend. I hope Joyce is at peace and I'm so great full that Carol brought her story to life.

Octavia said...

So sad may her soul rest in peace...

Anonymous said...

That's my initial feeling and it's the arrogant ex that turned my attention...He acted like a sociopath and revelled in the negative...Maybe he was the violent ex she had been housed in wood green to get away from...

Jace Paul said...

I'm very late to the party, but I enjoyed Morley's film and find Joyce's story heartbreaking and telling. Steven Wilson just released a CD based on Vincent's life, called Hand. Cannot. Erase., that greatly captures some of the feeling of Morley's film and the great isolation that many people feel.

Dia said...

I've never heard of the story until today. I was way too young back then. I listened to Hand. Cannot. Erase this morning, I watched a few interviews with Steven Wilson, and he mentioned Joyce... I watched the movie, and now I'm here. A bit shocked, a bit unsure what to say. I won't ever forget about her. I don't think I would be able to do so, even if I wanted to... But I don't want to.

Anonymous said...

Who paid the electric bill for 3 years for the tv to still be on????

Anonymous said...

That's too long to not pay rent, not pay electric bill (which needs to be explained how she still had electricity), not to have spoken to anybody in which somebody had to have at least tried contacting her...I mean 3 years....come on now! Not one damn person even living close hadn't noticed never seeing her?? I call bullshit

SongSparra said...

I saw this program the other night on SBS here in Australia and it deeply troubled me, for all the reasons you have mentioned through out your article. Where were these friends, family, co-workers that knew her for those 3 long years she was gone?
The men who were supposedly her friends let alone the boyfriend I'd like to slap back into last century where they belong, and the women, I'd ask them to be honest with themselves and say they weren't sorry she was gone, they were glad a threat to their men was gone and that's why they didn't notice or care Joyce was no longer around!
This hits home to me in a very scary way as I use to be the out going one, life of the party, heaps of "friends", but after the death of my mother and my long term partner deciding screwing around with some old flame he caught up with the night before the funeral I have become agoraphobic. Don't get me wrong, 16 years like this now I'm ok with it but what worries me is, I see my brother once a fortnight (he's much older and wont be around forever) and a girlfriend here and there when she has time (not her fault she's now got a child) when will someone notice I'm gone?

Yellowbird said...

Like you SongSparra, I watched the documentary on SBS in Australia and it has haunted me. I wanted to tell Joyce that even if she was alone, she was more important than she realised, her worth could not be measured. I've thought it would be easy for people to be in a similar, unfortunate position. Talk to God, I know He is real. Tell him what you would like, tell him your inmost thoughts, yell at him if you like, He can take it. Make space to listen to Him, read the bible and see what happens. He can open doors no one else can. I have seen God do amazing things.

JC McGee said...

For clarification, the reason her electricity was still on and the bedsit took so long to repossess is that both the electricity and rent were heavily subsidized by funds for battered women - the very reason she lived there in the first place.