A few months ago, I posted on one of my social media networks about the haunting story I stumbled upon of this beautiful, popular, seemingly-well-loved woman who died alone in her subsidized apartment in London at the age of 38, tv on, surrounded by Christmas gifts she had just wrapped. For the next three years, the cool, blue-tinged light of the television flickered over the slowly decomposing corpse of Joyce Carol Vincent. It was only when the authorities came to enforce her eviction that the remains were discovered.
By then, and in the absence of any evidence of bone-cracking force, the cause of death was no longer determinable. Indeed, they were only able to identify the remains by comparing the teeth with teeth in photographs of her.
I recently saw Dreams of a Life, Carol Morley’s documentary about Joyce, based on what little she could dig up of the other woman’s life. It wasn’t much. A few friends and co-workers consented to speak about Joyce, and discuss what they remembered of her. Most of them still seemed in shock and swamped by bewilderment at the fact that she had died under those circumstances, alone and unsought after, and this became the crux of the film–this sense of bewilderment that such a young, lovely, vibrant, well-loved person would have disappeared, and no-one would have looked for her or missed her.
Morley fills out the gaps in information with an approximate re-enactment of scenes from Joyce’s life, including an interpolation of her final hours, based on the way things had been left in the apartment when she was found.
One of my main issues with the film was in the pacing. Morley is clearly seeking to fill out the vast gulfs of information with something, to add the substance and weight of reality to what must have been thready and ephemeral fragments of information from the few sources that emerged. The result, unfortunately, was a fair bit of repetition. Lots of clips featuring people expressing disbelief, commenting that she was the last person the would have expected to die this way, and so on. Morley is creative in addressing the gaps through re-enactments, but sometimes the emotional subtext felt a little overly obvious, in part because the pace of the film already felt slow, and so I felt impatient with the extended sequences that seemed to focus on a few limited emotional/thematic notes.
The other issue for me was focus. Morley focused her lens on the mystery of how it could happen that someone like Joyce could die alone and not be discovered for three years. Didn’t anyone miss her? Didn’t anyone wonder?
This is of course the question that everyone in the film asks and that I asked when I first read the article. And yes, of course her friends who remember a vibrant, lively, charming, smart and well-loved woman would be shocked and wonder how.
But the answer seemed fairly clear from relatively early on in the documentary: Joyce, for all that she was all of the above, was also a deeply solitary and private person. Some who knew her indicated that she adapted herself easily to any context, but didn’t seem to have any underlying interests of her own. Others pointed out that she would come and go from people’s lives, slipping in and out over time and that she moved from flat to flat often.
At one point, she left her well-paid job. Co-workers from that period of her life said they believed she had quit to go travelling and have adventures. But evidently, she did not. For the last couple of years of her life, the information about what she did was patchy. Sometime after she left that job, she ended up staying with one of her old friends, who said she claimed to have an office job, but he later learned she was doing cleaning and janitorial work. She slept on his couch for about six months, then one day, he came home from work to find she was gone. From there, it seems as though she may have ended up in at least one bad relationship, as records indicate she spent time in a shelter for abused women, and subsequently moved into subsidized housing–a small bedsit above a shopping mall. And that’s where she died.
I suspect that we all have an unknowable core, but I would also concede that her emotional isolation may have had a more compulsive quality to it than it does for the average person. Given that–and the fact that she had often flitted in and out of her friends’ lives over the years–it also isn’t surprising or unreasonable that everyone assumed she had simply moved into someone else’s life, and that they’d hear from her sooner or later. The fact that she wasn’t close to her family, meant that she also didn’t have any kind of lodestone in the form of people she’d keep in contact with no matter what. She had no fixed routine that would give rise to people wondering why she hadn’t shown up to work, or to a regular coffee klatsch.
And so, though her cause of death will likely always remain an unknown (an extreme asthma attack? An unexpected heart attack? Suicide?), the question of why no-one thought to track her down when she fell out of touch actually didn’t seem much of a mystery at all. What struck me instead was just a sense of sadness, that she died so young and that the bright, radiant potential that people saw in her appears to have dimmed as life–or perhaps her own need for isolation and her tendancy to disconnect from people and disappear–disappointed her again and again, until she ended up dying alone in her bedsit and not being found for three years.
The commentary, both in the film and in other posts about her, also seems to be dominated by some kind of blame on the isolation that has arisen because of social media and online lives–that people don’t connect anymore. Or that modern life is so disconnected that this kind of thing can happen. But that’s a somewhat myopic distortion. Now, more than at any time in history, people are more traceable than they have ever been. It’s really hard to disappear completely, where even a century ago, it was relatively easy to slip out of your life and never return. The notion that at some mystical time in the past, we were all in small communities and so people would notice if you disappeared is inaccurate. There have always been ways in which a person could leave that would lead people to assume that her or she was off somewhere, living a life.
The story is unsettling because it’s an outlier example the way we conflate two very different ideas: not being missed and not being found for three years. The fact is, Joyce was missed. But, while people might have wondered what she was up to and where she’d gone, they also had no reason to imagine she was dead, so they would also have had no reason to feel the need to track her down. The likelier outcome in their minds was that she’d gone off somewhere wonderful and was busy meeting Nelson Mandela (again) or dining with Stevie Wonder (again–and yes, she did both these things at different times in her life).
That’s the aspect of this story that I find deeply poignant but also rather lovely–that long after Joyce was gone, under circumstances that are both strikingly mysterious and sad, those who cared about her and whose lives she had touched, had been imagining such a beautiful life for her.