Are You a Joyce Vincent?

I

Joyce NY Times

still from documentary film on Joyce Vincent: “Dreams of a Life”

There is a defining 21st Century Western World story about a Black female Londonder who passed away in her government-subsidized bedsit/SRO flat in 2003, as she wrapped Christmas presents and wrote Christmas cards—and she remained in there, seated on her couch, putrefying in her death, finally skeletizing, for the next three years. In 2006, a government agency kicked in the door to collect rent. Local officials concluded she had been there for at least three years based upon expiration dates of food in the refrigerator, the last known paid rent check, and the earliest postmark on unopened mail. The woman was 38 years-old when she died at home in her living room.

During the entire time she sat on her living room couch in front of Christmas gifts and cards, her living room television remained on and audible in the apartment hallways. For a lengthy period of time no neighbors ever reported, there was a telling stench in the hallways outside her door. Little black bugs crept through her adjacent neighbors’ windows. The only way the police could be absolutely certain the skeleton belonged to the woman who let the apartment was to check her teeth against a portrait of herself found in the apartment and identified as her by the management office.

Because the skeleton of her body was so decomposed, a skilled coroner could find no tissue or details to determine cause of death. Because there were no signs of struggle in the apartment and her apartment door was locked, a forensics and crime scene team could rule out murder and foul play. Her name was Joyce. Her last name was Vincent.

To begin a search for any people who would sign this woman’s death certificate, bury her skeleton with dignity and shed some light on just what could have caused her death (a chronic illness or suicidal depression or murderer), the London media printed bite-size reports with freaky, tabloidish headlines such as: “Skeleton Found in London Flat,” and “Woman Dead in Flat for Three Years.” Her four sisters, heartbroken, must have been stricken with breathtaking sorrow at such headlines; within a few recent years before the discovery, they had hired a Private Investigator to try to find their sister; later accounts revealed the P.I. was hardly worth it. Not surprisingly, these women have never publicly spoken on their sister’s death.

carol-morley

British filmmaker Carol Morley

It took another woman to get to the bottom of not how Miss Vincent died, but how she lived. Disturbed and saddened by the lack of details about this skeleton with a name, a white female filmmaker named Carol Morley began a campaign entitled “Did You Know Joyce Vincent?” The campaign title, a hotline number, and declaration of “I am making a film about her life” appeared in newspaper classified ads, on a http://www.JoyceVincent.com website and even on door-side cab advertisements. In time, Morley collected an entourage of people who called this hotline to share their stories of Miss Vincent on film.

Oddly enough, Miss Vincent was not a mentally-ill loner who had been in and out of jail, or homeless, or addicted to drugs, or once abandoned to foster care, or otherwise on the social outskirts. She was not a person who sat in the corner in high school, graduated and fell off the face of the social Earth. She was not an only child with no parents. It was quite the opposite. Her father actually outlived her. She had been an underground singer who had nice successes and met famous people. She supported herself with a well-paying business administrative career at Ernst & Young. Men and women agreed she was an exceptionally beautiful girl most men fell to their feet for. The friends on camera eulogized Miss Vincent for how well-dressed, articulate, humorous, witty and popular she was. She was educated in above-average schools. Two significant men appeared—one a successful black music producer, another a white businessman; they both had long-term relationships with Miss Vincent and described her as the love of their lives, with pictures to show how robust her life had once been. In other words, Miss Vincent was not only “normal,” but above average at it.

The film even went back into Miss Vincent’s childhood and teenage years. Miss Vincent had been a beautiful and popular child, who expressed her dreams to be a famous singer very early, when she practiced and sang for family. She had been a good and studious student predicted to go places. Her mother passed and her father was distant, so some of Miss Vincents’s resurfaced “friends” ventured conclusions between possible Daddy-Daughter issues and her ultimate fate of decomposition alone in her flat. That is a stretch. Hundreds of other people who knew her in London. I could not see or connect how anything from her childhood could explain how old neighbors, friends, co-workers, colleagues, boyfriends, roommates and party buddies allowed Miss Vincent to vanish from the face of the Earth for that amount of time with no one reaching out to her.

These friends admitted they had not kept in touch or investigated why they stopped hearing from her. They accepted her disappearance. All these people were shocked and upset to know she died in such a scary, sad and weird fashion. All of them spoke of Miss Vincent as if she had been such their good friend and an overall solid person. And that is why I write here now.

II

Miss Vincent's Home

The exterior of Miss Joyce Vincent’s home

Apparently, the uncharacteristically early and young death for this type of woman began long before Miss Vincent took her last breaths in front of Christmas presents she intended to give. There had been some sort of financial, social and psychological death in progress for a few years before she died to remain undiscovered for a few more years after that.

Records emerged throughout government agencies and social services in London to quilt together a narrative of Miss Vincent’s last years spent in financial disarray, emergency room visits, welfare offices, domestic violence shelters and work programs. Her last known job was traced to be as a maid who cleaned a low-star hotel. As a matter of fact, the very apartment Miss Vincent was discovered within had only been offered to her through a transitional housing program operated by the domestic battery program she sought help in. She went from a “sexy,” gregarious, well-paid social butterfly with a passion for singing to an underemployed, presumably battered and forgotten corpse.

Over the course of this downfall, the London friends Miss Vincent had brought so much love and joy to, during the primes of her life, fashioned illusions to justify their unaccountabilities to her. Their mirages ranged from the idea Miss Vincent actually wanted to be alone, to verdicts she was a girl “all women wanted to be” (so she must have just been having so much fun with others she disappeared from them), to accusations she was mentally ill and drifted from group to group like a willing gypsy. It made me wonder that, if this woman had been a plain Jane who could not get a date and had to be dragged out of the house, would people have been more comfortable with her as a charity case—and therefore been around to save her life? Since when does being beautiful and poised curse one to others’ indifference?

One person described seeing Miss Vincent when she was alone on a park bench one day, when she would have otherwise been at Ernst & Young. This person reported her clothes, hair and makeup looked nothing like what was remembered of her and she was cryptic about where she was going. Another person knew Miss Vincent left Ernst & Young with no notice. Whatever happened, it had not been a gentle or mutual parting. Both these people said they shrugged their shoulders to say: “Well if that’s how you want it, then fine.” Why did not one of those people contact another of those people and that another contact another, and so on and so on and so on…until Joyce Vincent became shamed into showing her face among her London entourages again? This is how it happens in smaller communities or non-Western World villages, islands, farms, etc…I am from a small place. You can’t hide for too long.

If Miss Vincent appeared to have transformed from her optimal persona, one could conclude she was the one who may have had more weaknesses and drawbacks against getting in touch. Yet, according to their words in the film, her friends who were stronger and better off during Miss Vincent’s final dilapidating days skipped off to the conclusion Miss Vincent did not care—when it is possible she thought the same about them. How sad it is that no one made any first moves.

The carelessness for Joyce Vincent’s life and well-being is something I have experienced as a black woman who has spent the majority of my life in big cities. For me, as possibly for her, this carelessness has been compounded by gender, family style and profession. Women who have no husband or children are at risk to fall off the social maps simply because they are much less for others to think about. If Miss Vincent had collapsed while she had a crying infant for neighbors to hear, or lay in distress while her toddlers missed day care, neighbors and teachers would have come to check on the children. By default, they would have checked on Joyce Vincent—their mother. She would have been involved with a ring of caretakers and well-wishers who thought of her children, even if Miss Vincent did not think of them first. It is a shame when just what a woman chooses to do or not to do with her womb can make the difference between living and dying, or at least being discovered either way. Entrepreneurs or artists who work alone lose the daily camaraderie that guarantees they will be missed when they are missing; how many times does a tragedy begin with a preface that the victim “did not show up for work today”? Had she been working in an industry without high turnover or at a professional position where she was indispensable, she would have been hunted down.

Unless they have a strong coven of girlfriends and colleagues and family, single women are more likely to go days if not weeks without the presence of others in their homes. Women are taught to keep themselves safe, and to lock their doors. The concentration of so many life tasks they must complete alone makes their lives just as busy—if not more so—than women who have children and partners. Most mothers receive sympathy and support during their distant times (others assume they are swamped and busy caretakers, and will send support or spa gift certificates). Yet, single women who estrange to care for their lives are more likely to receive condemnation and scorn from others who cannot see how a single woman is possibly too busy not to make it her business to come find them. This inequity is an unfortunate societal creation. It dates back to the stigmas and archetypes of whores seducing Jesus, childless witches cooking up spells, spinsters pining away revenge fantasies against a long lost love and old maids burning bras.

I have been known for my above-average, if not extraordinary abilities to remain connected to people under busting social umbrellas. It was almost like three Kalishas walked the Earth- and they always RSVP’ed ‘Yes,’ answered every email and phone call, mailed cards and gifts on time, made straight A’s and called the parents. But my mark as one with abilities to do that became an enormous pressure on my life before I became a published novelist under mandate to entertain readers and take on new connections to promote my work. After I became a published novelist, what was once just a robust lifestyle I needed to manage became a disability that exhausted me many times over in many ways.

I always give warm, non-judgmental reception to friends and even acquaintances I have not seen or heard from in a long time–starting with never mentioning to them I have not seen or heard from them in long times. I think that is a moot point, because all time is right now. I recall bumping into people randomly, altering my plans to go home and instead going with them to hang out, or seeing people on the street right in my very neighborhood to invite them in for a meal. Judging from how Miss Vincent was described by those who saw her last, she was once like that had lost the ability to do that. I could understand. Over time I realized such encounters would not render me the same cool treatment, courtesy or respect I exhibited–but instead questions from about where I had been, guilt trips for missing important moments and hostility for my absences. If given the choice between staying absent or breaking through a wall of shame just to become present, most people would choose to stay absent. I can not believe any person would willingly disappear.

joyce in studio photo 2

Joyce Vincent studio photograph

As a creative professional, which Miss Vincent aspired to be, I have had to swirl throughout many groups of people on a regular basis as condition of the lifestyle of my work. When I am “hot,” the sheer number of resurfaced acquaintances and constantly-gathered new acquaintances has kept my voicemail full at all times and my calendar stuffed with a variety of engagements for which there is little intersection between groups. Because no one sees or understands themselves as part of a series of others a creative professional has tendency to collect, my periods of rest from a social life have been taken personally by individuals who thought it to be directed at them alone. In reality, I was tapped out and refueling my brain to do my jobs. The presumption of my open availability–with no desk job, spouse or children–sentenced me to relating primarily on other people’s schedule, location and preferential terms. It is backwards to be sitting in someone else’s home watching them complete chores and necessities while you have a pile of all that in your home you are absent from. Eventually, my life was a scattered mess all-around.

Many of Miss Vincent’s friends speculated she wanted to be left alone, to stay away from people and to remove from the social scene. She was near forty when she passed away. That age is about that time most people only want to run around for the closest connections, and not just every single party or haphazard invitation. Had she been nesting in a home with a husband and children, no one would have even expected her to be around too much. A married woman with children is never explained in such negative terms as wanting to be “left alone” and “staying away from people,” but simply involved with her family. That is different from purposefully alienating others. As a writer, my alienation from others must be done. It is the most dreadful part of the calling. The anxiety and guilt over the extended, self-imposed solitary confinement my work requires cost me a heartbreaking number or stories, books and plays–or “babies”

It was age, maturity, setbacks and health scares that helped me to get over that.

I began to visualize and imagine I had a few little ones tumbling around, a boss blowing up my phone and a busy businessman husband who was expecting a clean home, meal and cold beer once he got home. Suddenly, everything changed in the single/Black/female/artist life that had once tricked me to feel like there was plenty of open time and empty space I could afford to fill with loving others. I did not begin this practice because I felt my own life was incomplete or because I coveted life other than mine. I did so in order to get on equal footing with a world of people who had all or a combination of those presumed priorities above a known woman named Kalisha, and who privileged those priorities to protect the lives they already had and reach newer goals they wanted to reach.

Miss Vincent had the privilege of a filmmaker who cared for her life and sisters who wanted her body back. Each day, coroners’ offices across the U.S. and the world find, store, cremate and auction off the belongings of people who are simply not connected to anyone anymore. These offices will hunt and search for up to a year, sometimes two. Then, they will cremate the bodies no living person has come to claim. Ironically, any money or valuables the deceased leave behind are usually given over to pay back the cost of these services to their corpse. Ironically, the auction money goes back to these offices for the amount of work they have to put into searching for people who can take care of the deceased. Imagine…racking up a bill in death? Everybody should always, always have somebody.

Obviously, given the number of friends who came forward, Miss Vincent had a league of loved ones at points in her life who probably kept her safe when they were there. However, she may have been better off giving her life and free time to cultivate a family of stoic friends on London’s acting, singing and artistic crowd; those risk-taking type people who will do sex scenes onstage or go without sleeping to finish a record may have marched through the seedier parts of town (like Miss Vincent’s final resting place) to ask drug addicts and sex workers: “Have you seen her?” I know. I did it for friends in New York City. I found them in between parts or down-on-their lucks, with a bottle between their fingers on a mattress on the floor. I have brought food and cash for the electric or phone bills to Chicago’s most fed-up residents. This is a level of camaraderie among artistic and creative people which is missing among groups who work more conventionally. The assimilation and blending in which conventional work requires makes most people in it averse to jarring changes, while creative people/artists cultivate jarring change and therefore are not afraid of it. But even this is a blessing and a curse…it is wonderful to be adaptable and move through life easily with people, but it also lessens the pressure on others to come your way.

joyce-vincent-4

Joyce Vincent

Joyce Vincent’s story changed my life—for the better. Without her story and other interventions, I may have continued to smoke cigarettes: constantly bad nerves, psychically drawn and quartered across so many spectrums I could barely think straight, despite how difficult and rushed my life was. I may have continued to accumulate thinning and gray hairs based upon the highways miles I racked to see family and friends who never came to see me–but who teased and taunted me into reputation as one who was always “late” or who stayed a “stranger.” I would have continued to see my phone number giveaways expand due to the enormous “network” full of people who loved me as “The Writer” to show off to their book clubs, friends or others. Instead, I slowed down considerably. I stopped being the one who sparked the friendships and initiated contacts. The result of that was a very thinned, albeit more essential and cherished, herd of friends and confidantes who would certainly find out sooner than 3 years if I have died.

An advantage I have over a woman like Miss Vincent  came to be, in terms of being eventually discovered if I were to pass away alone, a capitalistic one. It further makes her life a sad commentary on black women and class. I have always paid rent on my own, with no subsidy from the government; any landlords would find me quickly if I skipped. Joyce Vincent, however (as more people of color are usually condemned to be), was on welfare rolls, with little care for her beyond the income a landowner earned for her place. As long as somebody received something for her unit, she was not worth checking on for more. It took her death for her rental agency to mandate annual visits to all tenants. So, a black woman had to die to be noticed- so long as her welfare benefits gave someone a profit. Still, the question remains: Where was one neighbor, girlfriend, old flame or relative to come look for her?

I spent my mid-twenties starving in New York City and crying alone in my Harlem apartments. Even then, in that uncertainty and passionate despair, I found the time and energy to risk my life with drives across the mountainous Pennsylvania turnpike or plane flights in a post-9/11 world, to come back to my home state of Illinois to see friends and relatives. With exception of seniors who raised me, everyone I visited was mostly gainfully employed, putting investments and cash into retirements, banking fortunes, and using their free vacation times to go to warm places rather than to fly East in wintertime to see me. I can count the number of people on one hand who thought I was critical enough to fly for or beg me to fly to them. Life was gold. I felt, against the Frost poem, the gold would stay. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought the time and energy and money and miles and thoughts spent were insurance against me falling off the face of the planet or dropping dead in front of my television with no one noticing.

III

I always cringed at the idea of “settling down” in the big city, planting my roots there and relying on its “New York minute” attitudes to give me comfort in later or troubled years. The very idea of it seems unnatural, impossible and scary even. But I am a single Black woman. I do not have the benefit of White female prioritization, a partner’s concern or a partner’s coven of people around me. I must be more careful about the hands I fall into; our planet’s larger metropolises provide too much risk for shady hands for me to be comfortable “settling down” within it. There is also too much rotation of people and packed relating to give us false senses of safety, security and love. I need deeper attentions, stronger hands.

A TIME magazine article, “The Childfree Life ” (Lauren Sandler, August 12, 2013),  opened discussion and debate about couples and women who have decided not to have children, and how they find themselves misunderstood if not diminished by a society which nearly mandates the creation of family to mark adulthood. The advantage to having children and marriage is a respected cop-out of the potentially destructive nature of shallow socialization, and indeed, how “friendship” can backfire into distractions against meeting necessary goals or even maintaining optimal health. I went to dinner once with a friend and her mother. My friend’s mother is a doctor. She is married to another doctor. She left practicing medicine to stay at home with her children while she helped with her husband’s practice. I and my friend were in our early thirties. Over a beautiful Thai dinner in downtown Chicago restaurant, she had “The Talk” with us–about finding husbands, getting married, having children.

I did not dispute with her. I told her how busy I always was, and how I was starting to feel pushed down lower and lower on the totem poles of connection. I told her that her daughter was one of the few friends who flew out to see me and actually ever spent the night in my apartment. I explained how, otherwise, I was always the one leaving my home for other people’s homes–like a pizza showing up at the door. I told her how I would be condemned for being late, without anyone knowing all I had to do before them. I told her how I took for granted that partnered people or parents were busy, so I had no hostilities about their disappearances or shortcomings; in turn, I was always either apologetic for my shortcomings or going the extra mile to accommodate presumably “busier” friends who needed my consideration to their jobs, spouses, partners, in-laws and children. Others could not picture me as busy doing anything, or see my invisible jobs of writing/ daydreaming/ thinking/ editing/ invoicing/ researching as real time. In reality, I was a one-woman operation going nights and nights without sleep to maintain my life–alone.

 This ex-doctor expressed exactly what I had begun to feel about being a little “Girl Friday” or Mary Tyler Moore or Carrie Bradshaw in the city: “That single life…it just wears you totally out. Get married, have some kids, leave it all behind, get a bedtime.” Amazingly, this ex-doctor with a bedtime looks half her age and shows no signs of stopping.

Woman Dead in Flat 3 Years

I think Miss Vincent, like I did, reached her mid-thirties to realize she was too much of a tangential pleasure to droves of people she circulated among in her life, whom she had integrated with very easily and joined through intense immersion in their lives; her own life sat neglected. Miss Vincent had a history of ulcers, as well as emergency visits for domestic violence. Other than that, she was a tall and thin woman with no medical issues in her own history or her family history. Her door was locked when she was found. No one broke in and hurt her. She died before a bunch of Christmas presents she planned to give, to show that the benevolent and gracious spirit people loved about her was still alive and well. I think Miss Vincent condemned herself, and ended her own life in a manner that could not be confirmed, given how she was found. People who commit suicide know they will be found, their story will be told and people will know. I think her accumulation of shallow “friends” and exploitation in social entourages was even more drastic than anything I have ever had, given the fact her suicide or death did not even gain her notice.

IV

The difference in the “Before” Miss Vincent and the “After” Miss Vincent was so startling many of her friends saw the news reports of a skeleton found in a London flat after three years of decomposing without an embalming or burial; they did not connect the story to the “Joyce” they knew. Rather than run her down to visit or connect, people used “Google” to check up on her. Wow. This was before Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, personal web blogs, etc…I guess today, these people who just “Googled” their friend and ex-girlfriend over 10 years ago would have been able to see what she was “Liking” on Facebook or if she had a real job in LinkedIn, in order to make themselves feel better about abandoning her. I have seen where my published author image and persona were so overwhelming for people that they could not see when I had real-life problems or challenges. Is being successful and happy and well-known some sort of curse for being un-nurtured? I suppose, with a good God and team in your life, it can be a better problem to have.

Another problem seen as better to have (when it is not) shows in Miss Vincent’s life as the enormous amount of male attention she received all the time from all directions—with her roommates, with her co-workers, with strangers in clubs, with guys on the street, with friends of friends. Most who appeared on camera noted how easy it was for men to be attracted to her: because she was not only physically pleasing and feminine, but also because she was warm and friendly. These people indicated she did not flirt with men or tease men. It was the opposite. She would go out and have a hard time getting rid of male suitors who came on to her. She would hang out with men she thought were her friends, but wind up pushed by them to make out. One friend noted how they were in a studio recording love songs, and he suddenly entered the booth to kiss her. In his mind, there was “something about” how she sang and looked at him which suggested to him that she was coming on to him. She was placed in the uncomfortable position of turning him down.

Despite all this sexual and prurient interest in her, not one paramour found her dead or knew she was dead. I can speak from personal experience that the amount of male catcalling, flirtation, pressure, propositioning, attention and even backlash for rejection is enough to run any woman away from the world at large. One would think that the type of woman who is subjected to that would have no trouble finding strong partners. Yet because there are so many and all the time, it makes it nearly impossible to give any one of them too much consideration. Myself and other women I know who can be described in Miss Vincent’s way have a tendency to cut off from men and guard heavily against them. The sheer numbers coming on, rather than innate hatred or resentment to men in general, warrants this composure.

It was sad to witness the sincerity and self-belief of these strangers who came forward as “friends” in their discussions with filmmaker Carol Morley (who asked no questions on-camera, but simply allowed her subjects to talk freely off top of their heads). Like Joyce Vincent, these friends appeared educated and articulate. These people did not look financially poor, uneducated or strapped. These people were dressed well and able to communicate their memories of Miss Vincent in an exceptional fashion. A few of these people appeared as couples. Years after they had last seen Miss Vincent, these people were shrewd and sensitive enough to show up on camera with pertinent questions they had not owned up to themselves:

“How in the world could no one have checked on her?” “Why didn’t they put a picture of her in the news articles for more people to recognize her?” “Why didn’t the electric company contact the management office?” “We are all just disgusted how someone could just go off the radar without no one at all reporting her missing?” “She had FOUR SISTERS! How could they…” “It says a lot that after three years not one person came looking for you.” “It does seem strange…she was in that flat and nobody questioned it.”

Posthumously, Joyce Vincent’s friends speculated she had a bad relationship with her father and needed a Daddy-figure. They gossiped she had acted like she could possibly be interfered with as a child (molested). They used academic talk: “Everyone has been talking about dislocated communities and societal breakdown in the 21st Century.” People blame the victims to protect themselves and avoid accountability; to make themselves feel better, they will hunt down flaws with those they may have offended or hurt. What no one talked about was how they were accountable to the fact that a “friend” they just accepted as disappeared from the lives was going through an enormous degree of problems for which she needed the majority of her strength and could have used a hand with—but they may have been too busy shopping, Googling, moving up the professional ladders, finding new loves, and condemning her to know it. I have compassion in my heart and life. However, I am sorry. If someone I knew was in a makeshift-coffin of his or her own apartment for three years, I would have nothing to say about him or her except: “Wow. I think this person loved me and gave me joy at one point in my life when I needed it, and I wound up a really bad and terrible friend for it. Shame on me.”

V.

Carol Morley’s biopic/documentary about Joyce Vincent is titled “Dreams of A Life.” Initially, I thought “Dreams of a Life” referred to the dreams Joyce Vincent may have had for herself, and how her life ended too early for her to realize them. But upon repeated viewings, I fell into a deeper and stronger interpretation of the title. “Dreams of a Life” most likely refers to the false mirage and illusions Joyce Vincent’s friends, some of whom may have really missed her and thought they were the actual victimized or neglected friend, are vulnerable to in this generation I live in with many more like me. I do not ever remember my parents or grandparents being able to know too much about people without going to their doors in Kankakee, Illinois, or dialing the telephone numbers listed in our handy, fat phone books. I had to drive miles, or fly miles, or call across miles to see my friends. We need those days back.

We have a very false sense of security in this Internet age, very false. We think because someone changed their profile pictures or has a website or whatever, they are okay. We look at people posting pictures of the highlights of their lives to believe there have not been some low points along the way. We are able to curate ourselves on Instagram to look like we are not human...

I am unable nor would I try to add a “positive” or universal spin to this sad story of a black female human being I did not know. I know I do hope other women like Miss Vincent, like a younger Kalisha Buckhanon, like Phyllis Hyman (made famous by her song “Living All Alone,” and dead from suicide at 45), like Erica Kennedy (a popular African-American female novelist who is rumored to have taken her own life, in her beautiful early forties) stand up to know their value and worth in the world. I did not go through all of these memories in order to talk to Internet surfers I need to give their “positive” dose of the day to: a sweet reminder to care about their black female sisters or single women friends in the city. That is something no writing has the power to do, if it is not already instinctual for people to do it. I wrote all this to reach the women like Miss Vincent, or like I used to be before the period in my life when I discovered her society-shaming life story and became my own best friend. I learned from Joyce Vincent, and hope more women do too, that: “If you don’t care about yourself and your dreams and your life, no one else will.” Thank God I was still alive to learn it. Thank God I am still alive today to write of it.


Dreams of a Life, written and directed by Carol Morley, with Zawe Ashton playing Joyce Carol Vincent, New York Times Film Review Here, was shown at the BFI London Film Festival in 2011 and released on 16 December 2011.

Zawe+Ashton+-+Dreams+of+a+Life

Zawe Ashton as Joyce Carol Vincent in the biopic “Dreams of a Life”

 

 

 

36 thoughts on “Are You a Joyce Vincent?

  1. A great article. But on watching the documentary, I got impression that with the exception of the two black male friends, she wasn’t all that close to her own people. In a society that is so class conscious, probably, she had to be with white people if she wanted to achieve the dream of living a middle class life style. There are too many of our men in jail, on drugs, under educated to give her what she needed. But also, London is a reserved city. People keep themselves to themselves, meaning, they can talk to you in the office, but when you see them somewhere at lunch, you are ignored. But you get used to that. Being pretty and well spoken sometimes is not enough. As you said, as a woman, you have to take care of yourself.
    I thank the director for bringing Joyce to life, and provoking the audience to consider what is important. It made me to think that no matter what, if you have family, stay close to them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comments and they mean a lot coming from one who knows your culture/country better than I could living here in America. The racial component is a great point I did not even think about. While more than a few of my greatest friends and adopted relatives are not Black, those gems of unbaised people are far and few between. There have certainly been marked shifts in my overall well-being, safety, contentment and productivity depending upon the density (or lack thereof) of educated, progressive Black American people around me at any given point in time. During moments in my life where I spent too much of my waking days and general comings-goings estranged from Black faces, things got weird. And with the exception of White/foreign Americans I grew up with and a few college friends, the majority of my adult friendships with non-Black people have been ephemeral and fleeting based upon the narrow situations we met within. I appreciate your thoughtful engagement with my parallels to her as well as the continuance of Joyce Vincent’s legacy. It is important. Peace and Blessings, Kalisha

      Liked by 2 people

      • I only recently learned of Joyce Vincent’s story and have watched the movie. Very compelling and disturbing and very sad. As an Asian-American male, I fully agree with your comments about relationships being fleeting and ephemeral. I grew up in an affluent mostly white town, went to elite private schools (all WASP) and worked for lily white finance firms.

        Living as a minority in this country has been traumatizing for me. In a profound way, I completely connected with Joyce’s story and became obsessed with reading everything about it. Hoping to learn what happened, and yet deeply disappointed. Somehow, through my own life’s ups and downs I can see how people had let her down since my own personal reaction in similar situations has been to vacate uncomfortable situations whether related to work, family or relationships.

        Great discussion here. Sorry I’m so late to the party!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hello John, Thank you for reading and much better late than never. I am unsure what country you refer to, UK or US, however the facts remain the same for people of color in both I am sure. The fact that you, with your identity as a minority man, would find her life worthy of belated interest and love is some consolation, I guess, to the disappointment life really is this way. I do think the tendencies I talk about and you experienced are much more prevalent for people of color fated to leave behind the worlds where they are not the different novelty. I am happy you at least know what you are dealing with and why, because many people never figure it our or do so too late. Many Blessings, Kalisha

        Like

      • Hi Kalisha. Just reviewed your impressive bio. So you’re American living in London? Not sure. I was born in NY and moved to Hawaii to escape the stifling racism. It is paradise here for Asians and non-whites.

        Like

      • Hello John, Thanks for checking me out further! I wish I could join you Hawaiians right about now. We are in the middle of an artic assault in America. I actually only became aware of Miss Vincent’s story through Netflix, not any London channels. I have many friends who are military servicemen or artists, and they love Hawaii, and have found peace there and similar respect to their hard work. I am looking for a similar change myself 🙂

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      • I know all about harsh winters and summers in NY and Boston, and that’s one of the main reasons I moved to Hawaii. Everyone loves Hawaii. But too many mainland haoles move out here and due to the high cost of living and lack of jobs, they wind up homeless. It’s a huge problem.

        With your skills and talent you should be fine. Plenty of teaching jobs for you here.

        Strange story: Just met a gorgeous Black/Indian girl and we are becoming friends! How bizarre is that? Haven’t discussed Joyce Vincent yet.

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  2. Thanks Kalisha.
    I know what you mean. I, likewise, have had white friends but only for them to dump me as and when it suits them, leaving me to figure out what earth went wrong. I guess the weird thing is that I have also become reserved and cautious, but as we know with Joyce, you have to be careful in how far you shut yourself off. It’s a balancing act. Take care.

    Maggie

    Like

  3. This was one of the most thrilling stories that I have read this year. I mean it gave me chills, cause I thought for a second this could be my story within a week or even a month. I saw the documentary and it made me wake up in a way I would have never thought about. I live alone and I’m also in my 30’s. On top of that I live in Hawaii and my family is in Arkansas. I’ve always thought if something was to happen to me how soon would it be before my family would know. I have people here that I can depend on work and friends. But you’ll never know until something happens. This story only proves how imperative it is to have close tides with people. I don’t care if it’s your neighbor or your yoga instructor. I wished she would have known how important she really was and hopefully she would have made better decisions. It can be hard living in a city and far away from you family. But how you handle your situation is what will make the difference if something were to happen. Single life isn’t always the easiest for some and for her it seemed as if she hit rock bottom. Maybe her pride is what got in her way and she thought she could do all of it on her own. But she needed to really reach out to someone for help. After watching the documentary I went on a calling spree checking in on many single women that I knew and of course I got the report that “all is good on my end”. That’s what you want to believe but you never know what is going on behind close doors. I really feel for her family cause I’m sure they may have felt like they failed her. Thanks for sharing your own story as well.

    Like

    • You’re welcome Crystal. I have heard Hawaii has a glamorous image but it can be fairly isolating, even crime-filled, so it’s a happy thing you sensed the disastrous consequences of that and reached out before it came to a head. Her story still resonates with me all the time and more women-and people-should understand the power of real human connection in these fast-paced, digital times. It’s important to see people in person as well as to share the truth of your life with the closest people who have your back. Thanks for reading my work and best of wishes to you! Kalisha

      Like

  4. Love your article. Very well written and poignant insight you have there especially on the burden of loneliness that comes from being a creative professional…Long live Joyce and I hope she she enjoyed her life more than not. I revisit her story from time to time as it resonates with mine. I look like her (not being vain) but I mean the black/Indian look. I’m now 38, been living alone and being alone in a small city not too far from NYC. I hate my existence right now because it has become nothing but a trap. I cut off superficial people, my family included as there was a lot of abuse in the past and continuous bullying especially from the people who are supposed to protect me I.e my parents. So when people shut others out it’s usually because they feel betrayed or unsupported by them. I was hospitalized for ulcers the same year and month as she was but for 4 days…I was in a horrible relationship and again had shut family out because I found them unsupportive. I’m also very bubbly and outgoing. ..the few friends that I confided in the past with about my sadness distanced themselves because i guess they were not genuinely interested in being friends in the first place…so I stopped revealing too much to new comers, which is more isolating. Men don’t want anything but sex and someone to show off to their friends. They’re not interested in knowing me so I almost want to give up. I understand this pain and hope if you are out there reading this and feeling the same way, you are not alone.

    Like

    • Hello, I appreciate you finding not only Joyce’s story but my writing. I think what happens is, outside of the structured environments of school and church, people have no way to really define themselves to others in a quick manner that keeps us with those we are most compatible with. I can certainly understand people only wanting you around when you’re bubbly and “on.” As a novelist, I endured a very shattering period of collecting so many hoards of people I sometimes didn’t know if I was coming or going. Of course, when the fanfare died down and my real life had been neglected for the ephemeral and ethereal relations who felt good being around a noted person, nobody wanted to deal with the mess left behind. This is a prevalent problem for women who are expected to take care of folks, and those who work in isolation. The most important thing is to have just a few good people who care about you. It only takes a few…not a crowd. I’m sure your wiser perspective is going to carry you further now. Best wishes! Kalisha

      Like

  5. This article literally made me question my interaction with individuals and my connections with friends and family. It’s always a joy to meet people, and it seems that she met a great deal of people with her singing, personality, etc., but it’s disheartening to know that out of all of the joy that she brought into their lives, no one bothered to check on her for 3 years. I’m so glad I clicked on your article, it gave me goosebumps to think that this could happen to me or to anyone else for that matter.

    Peace, Love, Happiness, & Satisfaction in life,

    Moriah

    Like

    • Hello Moriah, Thank you for reading the article and sharing in Joyce’s story. I am happy it made you think about how human beings relate in this new century. When I first discovered Miss Vincent’s story in 2012, my entire perception of my social landscape changed entirely. Suffice it to say I am much more secure in the reasons why any one person is in my midst. The situation was actually much more deep than I could convey in an article, but the “Dreams of a Life” film is on Netflix or able to be ordered from filmmaker Carol Morley’s website. Best wishes, joy and success!!! Kalisha

      Like

  6. Reblogged this on Negression and commented:

    In this National Blog Posting Month, I decided to pick my favorite or most important work so far on my blog Negression. My eulogy of a total stranger, Joyce Vincent, remains the most personal piece of writing I have ever done publicly for the sheer emotional response I had to her story’s resonance in my life at the point when I wrote it. I think this chilling black female version of a “Sex in the City” tale will always stick out to me and beg attention. It is something I wish I had never had to write, because that means it would have never happened.

    Like

  7. Brilliant piece Kalisha! This was the FIRST post I read on your blog months ago and should have commented back then but I felt so heavy after reading. I was so pulled into the story. I started to write a short about it (not to exploit her of course but sometimes fiction is the best way to express myself and if it’s ever published if it makes ONE person pick up the phone to check on another person then that’s good).

    And YES, I have felt as though I imagined she may have felt. Smiles, and good family and friends but I have felt extremely lonely at times.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Candace,

      Thank you for reading this piece way back when and yes, it stays on my mind as one of my best uses of this space. Sometimes our most honest work comes from the most harrowing and unfortunate things on Earth. I would encourage you to follow your instincts in your writing. I think it is up to us Black women, and women in general given the film’s producer/director was a White woman, to keep Miss Vincent’s memory alive and own up to what her life shows. Many blessings, Kalisha

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Brilliant piece Kalisha! This was the FIRST post I read on your blog months ago and should have commented back then but I felt so heavy after reading. I was so pulled into the story. I started to write a short about it (not to exploit her of course but sometimes fiction is the best way to express myself and if it’s ever published if it makes ONE person pick up the phone to check on another person then that’s good).

    And YES, I have felt as though I imagined she may have felt. Smiles, and good family and friends but I have felt extremely lonely at times.

    Like

  9. I read about Joyce nearly 2 years ago. I wrote something short about her for my blog. Her story moved me deeply. I can’t imagine dying alone like that. If there is an afterlife, what was she thinking seeing her body sit there, day after day, no one caring about her enough to call her or remembering she even existed. Even worse, she’s wrapping presents for someone she remembers and wants to give a gift to. Maybe more than one person. Yet those same people she wrapped for never gave her a second thought to check on her. Can you imagine? You are thinking about people who are not even thinking about you. From this I learned that it is important to cultivate genuine relationships, not surface relationships that are meaningless and easily forgotten.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey lady, you know I never thought about what her soul must have been thinking for all that time with not one person banging down her door. NOT ONE. I know it sat there for 3 years and those people who knew her will never have peace. It is very hard to cultivate authentic relationships in big cities, and it sounds like she just went through so many people on a level I recall with almost nightmares in my case. But, when you don’t know, and you are just a naturally loving person, and you really think you have friends, well…anyway…let it go…love, Kalisha

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Hi Kalisha,

    I stumbled on your take on this tragic story and your perspective which highlights what we should really be asking, anyway I watched the documentary on 4od, and as I watched this story unfold I realized that I may be a “Joyce Vincent” for lack of a better phrase. It’s seems hard to believe that someone can be attractive, smart, charismatic and generally well rounded with a total lack of long term bonafide friends, in fact the only friends you acquire for the most part are through work or boyfriends for short periods of time in the big scheme of things and then you lose touch, and no real family attachments to speak of.
    I had to question if it’s entirely my fault that at 30 this is my situation and that I really have no one to call a friend and family that well are strangers, I would say that I am kind and a good person but still no friends, not from childhood, not from my teens nor my 20s and the prospect of spending my 30s in same way scares me, I cried watching the documentary selfishly not just because of sadness I felt for Joyce but I felt for myself, everyone says if they would have known they could have been there for her or saved her I guess, but the point is they didn’t, what does that mean?
    Is there a psychological factor behind people like this like me, or is this just circumstantial and if her life had taken a different path we wouldn’t be talking about her, how many others lives lead this way, these are the questions I ask myself. I think I’m looking for a cure that doesn’t involve me having a baby not to be alone or just staying with someone because I don’t want to be alone, he becomes my lifeline but at same time he’s knows this and this is why he’s sought me out because I have no one and my lifeline is really a slow death.
    I know that at some point there were people in life that I called a friend but was I ever a friend to them, am I responsible for why we are no longer friends did I stop calling them or vice versa. Is it too late for me to establish new lifelong attachments to people and have friends not just for right now or will the rest of my life follow the same pattern and will I end up approaching 40 dead on my living floor and no one knows.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Lonely in London, I believe you have found the film on Ms. Vincent as well as my post or other things about her to wake you up to the reality you never have to be alone…but you do have to be proactive about filtering surface entourages from your life immediately. You do NOT have to wind up at 40 dead on your living floor at all. Plenty of chances for companionship, love, friendship, fun and joy exist but you MUST remove the bs from your life or you will never make it there.

      Also, if you have a job which allows for it or some other way to do so, a great female therapist is sometimes the best friend you can have. If you miss your regular appointment, she’ll come for you! It took me long after my 30th birthday to understand the things I wrote about, so technically you are ahead of the curve. I would say to give your good friends a chance. People do become estranged for various reasons that are just normal life. Make a list of 10 diamonds from past and present, let them know you have missed them, make a commitment to not stray and keep it limited at those stronger connections. It will work.

      Many blessings, Kalisha

      Like

  11. Thank you for such a wonderful article. I can identify on so many levels. I first came to know about Joyce Vincent two years ago through Netflix and again on Hulu. I like most Black women who find themselves in similar situation (living alone with very few friends) often wondered if the same could happen to me. It appears that Joyce was depressed and lonely using the tv as company and living a life not of her choosing. It is also sad to find out she was not discovered after three years. And there lies the problem. This what we believe, but a lot of us choose the isolation to avoid some of societies phonies and if we die of natural causes so be it. We just want our bodies discovered sooner or if we did not die of natural causes for someone to notice it. I think that is why I perform a search every year hoping someone will come forth and tell us more about her in the last two years. I just want to know if she died of natural causes and was not depressed but just turning her life around. However if she was hiding from someone I find it troublesome that all the agencies that helped her do not know who this person was.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, Thank you so much for finding my article about Joyce and I appreciate its resonances with you. Even though she suffered in her life Miss Vincent has given so many women, including me and you as well, a way to talk about what her life brings up. Best of everything, Kalisha

      Like

  12. I found your article on Joyce very interesting.

    I watched “Dreams of a life” last night and it resonated very strongly for a number of reasons. I have lived in the Borough of Haringey, where Joyce sadly died, for 20 years. I have walked past the block of flats where she died on numerous occasions and, in fact, I must have walked beneath her flat (where the shops are) back in 2002-3 blissfully unaware of the tragedy 50 metres or so above. It’s chilling to think about it.

    There is no doubt that Joyce’s story is dreadfully sad and heartbreaking. I can’t help but wonder though if her situation didn’t conspire against her. For instance, if she had fallen ill whilst she was staying at her ex-boyfriends flat, no doubt he would have looked after her and made sure she was OK.

    The fact that Joyce was living alone in a block of flats where most people don’t know each other (she only had one neighbour) and with her friends and family also unaware where she was, seems to have resulted in her flat effectively becoming a tomb. This also goes someway to explain why no one picked up on either her TV being on all the time or the smell that was emanating. Her flat was high up and isolated and people living there blamed the bins (it’s a very large housing complex and the huge bins would give off a bad smell). If she had been housed in a flat where people were more aware of their neighbours, things may have been different.

    We need to remember that Joyce died in 2003 when most people didn’t have mobile phones, as they were still very expensive. Nowadays, she would likely to have remain “connected” and her friends or family would have been calling her and raised the alarm when they had got no response or hopefully she would have called someone when she had started to feel ill.

    Obviously, this wouldn’t have been the case if Joyce had purposely cut herself off from everyone. In truth though, we don’t know whether she had made a conscious decision to isolate herself. It does seem likely that she had bought those presents to give to someone for Xmas.

    However, I do find it difficult to fathom why the support group that found her the flat didn’t check up on her. But, perhaps they wrongly assumed that as they hadn’t heard from her, that she must be fine and were focusing on more recent women who were at risk and needed their help. Not necessarily justifiable, but understandable.

    A topic that the documentary did not touch on is the fact that Joyce’s mother also died around the same age as her. Did Joyce have some hereditary health issue that made her more susceptible to dying at a young age?

    If Joyce hadn’t died, we would all hope that she would have got her life back together again and found happiness. The fact that sadly things didn’t turn out that way, combined with the points I have made above, resulted in the potential for Joyce to become a tragic outlier, i.e. the rare person who ends up dying alone and being undiscovered for a long time. If Joyce had been found a couple of days or even a couple of weeks following her death, there would have been no major news reports and there would have been no documentary.

    It’s the combination of situations that when combined resulted in her remaining undiscovered for such a long time. We can blame her friends, her family, the support services and even society for not caring but, ultimately, the truth is no one is to blame.

    What makes Joyce’s story significantly poignant is here was a beautiful woman who had the world at her feet and yet things ended so desperately badly for her. We look at Joyce’s story and think “if that happened to her, why can’t that happen to me?” It can, but we must keep in mind that Joyce was the extremely unlucky outlier. It sounds harsh but helps us keep things in perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Trevor,

      Thank you for your response to my post about Miss Vincent and feeling so much of where I was coming from with how and why her story resonates for me. To this day, I do think of her and why it happened to her as it did. We all hope to be honored and celebrated in our deaths, or at least missed. The fact this did not happen for this vibrant, beautiful black woman says so much about our devaluing and unappreciation in society as a whole. I also found it strange her mother was not discussed too much.

      I do think her story is rare and uncommon, thank God, and why the documentary was made. But, according to the number of times morgues and coroners bury unidentified or unclaimed bodies, it is not as uncommon as it needs to be. Thanks again for reading. Peace and blessings, Kalisha

      Like

  13. While interesting, I found this article troubling. It would make for an interesting plot for a novel. I had a mere 4 days when I couldn’t get hold of my mother. She was blind and deaf in one ear, but still insisted on living alone. Occasionally, she would go out with a lady from church or nap lying on her good ear and not hear the phone. By the fourth day I became concerned and checked with my sister who lived near her. She had not talked to her since getting her groceries a few days back. My niece went to her apartment and found her deceased. She died in her sleep so even going on day one would not have made a difference. She’s been in heaven 15 years now.
    Thank you for following my blog. I hope you continue to find articles of interest.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for reading my work here and I, too, am still at a loss to understand how something like Ms. Vincent’s ending could occur in our modern times. I am happy your family is close and tight as all should be, and I wish you continued celebration of your dear mother’s life as well as many more days in your own to write. Sincerely, Kalisha

      Like

  14. Joyce…we are trying to put together a march in Chicago to match the Million Woman March in DC on January 21. We feel that more women will be able to participate that way. Many can’t afford to go to Washington, and some have obligations that will not allow them to attend. If you are interested in this plan, let me know. I’m going to a meeting on Friday night to see what we can do. Just wanted to let you know. Thank you. My email is hitandrun1964@gmail.com

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for letting me know this Gigi! I think marches in all cities across the country, especially for women, is a brilliant idea. I am unsure what I want to do at this juncture in our world- moving is on the list, and not necessarily out of the country but just more remote, insulated, hang it up. But, If I am here in Chicago in two months I would love to march with you. Blessings and Love, Kalisha

      Like

  15. I’ve only just watched Dreams of a Life, it touched me so much I had to google her afterwards to try and find out more, and came across your article. So sad, it breaks my heart. I’m a single woman, 36, barely any friends, and I worry that this, too, could be my ending.
    I wonder if she died through natural causes, or by her own hand. We’ll never know I guess. But it’s made me realise how important family, and societal ties are. Sometimes I hate this modern, fast-paced, shallow world we live in.
    Best wishes to you Kalisha, and thank you for writing such a thoughtful piece.
    C

    Liked by 1 person

    • I appreciate you reading this article, and yes, her life touched me when I was about 36 as well. I believe a strong church or spiritual group, school friends and a supportive, positive job will keep you from this fate. It is in your hands! Many blessings, Kalisha

      Like

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