A definitive 21st Century Western biography concerns a Black female Londonder who passed away in her government-subsidized bedsit/SRO flat in 2003, at a time she was wrapping Christmas presents and writing Christmas cards—and she remained in there, seated on her couch, putrefying and finally skeletizing, for the next three years. In 2006, a government agency kicked in the door to collect back rent. Local officials concluded she was dead at least three years based upon expiration dates on food, the last paid rent check and earliest postmark on unopened mail. She was 38 years-old when she died in her living room.
During the entire time her body sat on her living room couch in front of Christmas gifts and cards, the living room television remained on and audible in the apartment hallway. For a lengthy period of time no neighbors reported, a telling stench filled the hallway outside her door. Little black bugs crept through adjacent neighbors’ windows. The only way the police became absolutely certain the skeleton belonged to the woman who let the apartment was to check her teeth against a portrait of smiling woman found there, and the management office verified that portrait as the resident they knew there then.
Because her skeleton was so decomposed, a coroner could find no tissue or details to determine cause of death. Because no signs of struggle existed in the neat apartment and her apartment door was locked, a forensics and crime scene team ruled out murder and foul play. Her name was Joyce. Her last name was Vincent.
To begin a search for any people to sign this woman’s death certificate, bury her skeleton with dignity and shed light on just what caused her death (a chronic illness or suicidal depression or a murderer), the London media printed bite-size reports. Their freaky, tabloidish headlines were “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; in 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.
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 filmmaker named Carol Morley saw the newspapers and could not let go of Joyce’s story. She began a campaign entitled “Did You Know Joyce Vincent?” In a Guardian essay, she detailed her heartbreaking journey to scare up people who knew Joyce. 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 on cab door ads. In time, Morley collected an entourage of people to share their stories of Miss Vincent on camera. The result was her film Dreams of a Life.
Oddly enough, Miss Vincent was not a mentally-ill loner who was 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. She was quite the opposite. Her father outlived her. She had been an underground singer who had nice successes and met famous people. She supported herself with a well-paying administrative career at Ernst & Young. Men and women agreed she was exceptionally beautiful and most men fell to their feet for her. The friends eulogized Miss Vincent on camera for how well-dressed, articulate, 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 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 in many ways.
The film even went back into Miss Vincent’s childhood and teenage years. She was a beautiful and popular child. She expressed her dreams to be a famous singer very early, when she practiced and sang for family. She was a good and studious student predicted to go places. Her mother passed and her father was distant, so some of Miss Vincent’s resurfaced “friends” ventured conclusions between possible Daddy-Daughter issues and her ultimate fate of decomposition alone in a flat. That is a stretch. Hundreds of people knew her in London. I could not see or connect how anything from her childhood explained 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, 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.
Apparently, Joyce’s uncharacteristically early and young death began long before she 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.
Records emerged throughout government agencies and London social services to quilt together a narrative of Miss Vincent’s last years: financial disarray, emergency room visits, welfare offices, domestic violence shelters and work programs. Her last known job was traced to be as a maid in a low-star hotel. The very apartment Miss Vincent was discovered in was only offered to her through a transitional housing program operated by a domestic battery program. 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 brought so much love and joy to, during the primes of her life, fashioned illusions to justify their unaccountability to her. These 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 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 seeing her as a charity case— and therefore stuck around to save her life? Since when does being beautiful and poised curse one to others’ indifference?
One person described seeing Miss Vincent 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. She was cryptic about why she was there and where she was going. Another person knew Miss Vincent left Ernst & Young with no notice. Whatever happened, it was not 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 other contact another, and so on and so on and so on… until Joyce Vincent had no way out of showing her face among her London entourages again? This is how it happens in smaller communities or villages, islands, farms, etc… I am from a small place. You can’t hide for too long.
If Miss Vincent transformed from her optimal persona, the she was the one who may have had more weaknesses and drawbacks against getting in touch. Yet, according to their words in the film, friends who were stronger and better off during Miss Vincent’s final dilapidative days skipped off to conclusion Miss Vincent did not care. It is possible she thought the same about them. How sad no one made any first moves.
The carelessness for Joyce Vincent’s life and well-being is something I’ve experienced as a black woman who has spent the majority of my life in big cities. For me, as possibly for her, this carelessness is 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. 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 and 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, her job would have had her 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 other people 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 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. Most people 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 for long lost love and old cat ladies with brooms.
I have been known for my above-average, if not extraordinary abilities to remain connected to people under busting social umbrellas. At one time 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 travelled home often. But my personal brand as someone who did all that became an enormous pressure even before I became a published novelist, now with professional mandate to engage strangers and make new connections to “promote” books. After I became a published novelist, what was once just a robust lifestyle I had to manage became a disability that collapsed 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. I 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 but lost the ability be so.
Over time I realized such encounters would not render me the same cool treatment, courtesy or respect I exhibited. Instead I received 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.
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 with little intersection between people, so I can’t combine time to see a lot of friends or family at once. 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. 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. After 10 years of this, my life was a scattered mess all-around.
Miss Vincent 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. If she was 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.” No. A wife or mother is simply “busy with her family.” That is different from purposefully alienating others.
It was age, maturity, setbacks and health scares that helped me respect myself in that same way. I began to visualize and imagine I had a few little ones tumbling around, a boss blowing up my phone and a busy husband who expected a clean home, meal and cold beer once he got home. Suddenly, everything changed in the single/Black/female/artist life that once tricked me to feeling 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 life was incomplete or because I coveted any lives 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 person they knew 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 corpses. 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.
Joyce Vincent’s story changed my life—for the better. Without her story and other interventions, I may have continued to smoke cigarettes. I finally realized I had bad nerves because I was 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 will certainly find out sooner than 3 years if I have died.
One advantage I had 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 will find me quickly if I skip. Joyce Vincent, however was on welfare rolls as more people of color are usually condemned to be. In those situations, tenants have little care for the state of their homes or their lives. As long as somebody received something for her unit, she was not worth checking on for more. It took her death for her subsidized 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.
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. I became less sure.
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 build her husband’s practice. My friend and I 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. I told her how 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.
The ex-doctor expressed what I had begun to feel about being a little “Girl Friday” 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. Nobody bothers you then and you an rest. ” Amazingly, this frank ex-doctor with a bedtime looks half her age.
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 was not a real priority to; 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 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 believe Miss Vincent condemned herself for her own pain and loneliness, and ended her 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. Her accumulation of shallow “friends” and exploitation in social entourages was even more drastic than anything I can even imagine, given the fact her suicide or death did not even gain her notice.
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 persona was so overwhelming for people that they could dismissed any real-life problems and challenges I shared or which became apparent. In light of Miss Vincent’s story, I can say it may be a better problem to have when you are presumed to be perfectly fine when you live online.
Another problem seen as better to have was the enormous amount of male attention she received all the time from all directions— her roommates, her co-workers, strangers in clubs, guys on the street, 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 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 she was coming on to him. She was placed in the uncomfortable position of turning him down. I have certainly lived that life, where most contact with men (both partnered and not) leads me down a trail of defending myself or fending one off that keeps me at home often.
Despite all this sexual and prurient interest in her, not one paramour found her dead or knew she was dead. 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 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.
Maybe they were too busy shopping, Googling, moving up professional ladders, finding love, 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. I moved on. I had better things to do, or better people to do. I took her for granted. Shame on me.”
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 loved ones, some of whom may have really missed her and thought they were the actual victimized or neglected one, are vulnerable to in this generation I live in. 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” spin to this sad story of a black female human being I did not know. I just 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 fishing for their “positive” meme or viral moment 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, people don’t really care at all to do it. I wrote all this to reach the women like Miss Vincent, one 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: “If you don’t care about yourself and your dreams and your life first, no one else will later”
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, was shown at the BFI London Film Festival in 2011 and released on 16 December 2011. New York Times review Here.