Joyce Carol Vincent – Dreams of a Life
I first came across the story of Joyce Carol Vincent (pictured above) when reading an article in The Guardian in October 2011. The article by film maker Carol Morley explained that Joyce Vincent was 41 years old when she was found dead in her London bedsit in 2003. But what made the story so disturbing was the fact that Joyce died at the age of 38. She had been found three years after she had died, her almost skeletal remains lying beside the sofa next to some Christmas presents she had just finished wrapping, the television still on, broadcasting to Joyce’s lifeless body.
The film Dreams of a Life is Morley’s way of trying to piece together Joyce Vincent’s life leading up to the time of her death. Why Joyce actually died is a mystery. Joyce didn’t fit the average profile of someone who was a loner who would end up dying by herself in, as the newspapers described it, a lonely bedsit. She didn’t drink heavily and she wasn’t a drug taker. She was brought up well by her parents in West London and although she didn’t pass any exams at school she did end up in good, stable employment and had a circle of friends.
Dreams of a Life is part documentary part dramatization and features testimonies from the people who knew her – boyfriends, work colleagues and housemates. Judging by their testimonies, Joyce was intelligent, bright, beautiful, well spoken, friendly and a social magnet. But just as dreams are hazy when trying to remember them, there are plenty of conflicting views from the people who seemed to know her best. Joyce had ambitions to be a singer with some friends claiming she was an excellent singer while one of her past boyfriends said that, “Joyce wasn’t a singer.” At one point Joyce had a friendship with American singer Judy Cheeks and they had dined one night with Stevie Wonder. She had friends who were professional singers but this seemed to be a life that she simply drifted out of or lost touch with.
To some, it seemed Joyce led a double life, only telling people so much about herself, and sometimes lying to others about her life. Her work colleagues were under the impression her father had died, which was why Joyce took time off from work. Morley found out that Joyce’s father had actually died a year after Joyce did. At Joyce’s 21st birthday party held in a pub, all of the friends who attended were her boyfriend Martin Lister’s friends, not Joyce’s friends. The impression given by friends and colleagues is that people knew Joyce but didn’t know the real Joyce, she was friendly but there was a distance to her. When Morley brought up many facts that she had discovered about Joyce the common reply from the various friends was, “I wasn’t aware of that” or “I would never have thought that about her.”
When friends read of Joyce’s death in the newspapers they found it hard to connect the Joyce they knew with the person described. Although she moved around London on an almost a yearly basis no one imagined she would end up in social housing – or as someone described it, a grotty bedsit. Joyce had been in good employment and for four years worked in the Treasury Department for one of the world’s biggest accountancy firms, Ernst & Young. Yet before she died she was working as cleaner, this fact was kept hidden from her ex boyfriend Martin who she stayed with in later life, as a friend, for six months, at time when things in her life seemed to be unraveling. Morley was also able to find out that in later life Joyce had also spent some time in a refuge for victims of domestic violence. It seemed that an unknown boyfriend may have been subjecting her to abuse.
In itself this catalogue of a life doesn’t seem out of the ordinary. There are many people who seem to drift through life in this way, touching other people’s lives but never allowing others fully into their own life and then sometimes simply disappearing. But Joyce wasn’t without a family; although her mother had died when she was young, Joyce had four sisters, none of whom took part in the film but going by newspapers reports some were at the death inquest. It is telling that when Joyce was admitted to hospital at one point for a peptic ulcer she had marked down on the admittance forms that her next of kin was her bank manager.
The film does leave many unanswered questions about Joyce’s life and death, not least of which is why she lay undiscovered in her bedsit for three years. Most people in Britain know that if they are behind with payments on rent, gas, electricity and council tax they would expect a knock at the door within a few months, never mind three years. Joyce was only found because a repossession order was given over unpaid rent. When Morley contacted these companies to find out why no one had appeared sooner she received no answer; they had washed their hands of the matter and it was nothing to do with them.
Morley had asked the police to reopen their investigation on Joyce but they had decided there was no foul play and the coroner recorded an open verdict stating that Joyce’s death was unascertained. Of course it isn’t unusual for the police to simply not investigate any further if someone dies in these circumstances, and by all accounts Carol Morley has probably found out far more about Joyce’s life than the police would have. The cause of death remains a mystery with theories including Joyce had an asthma attack while some friends claim that maybe something more sinister had led to her death. It’s doubtful that the cause of death will ever be known as Joyce’s body was so badly decomposed that it could only be identified by comparing dental records with an old holiday photo of Joyce smiling.
If no foul play did occur then Joyce simply died alone in her bedsit, wrapping Christmas presents for people who would never receive them. Wrapping Christmas presents for people who never wondered or made the effort to find out what had happened to Joyce in her three year absence from the world. Maybe Joyce hadn’t told anyone where she had moved to, and, according to one friend in the film, maybe Joyce had to take some accountability for her death because Joyce wanted to be alone.
London can be one of the loneliest cities, I can attest to this first hand. It is a city of eight million people, all interacting with each other but also, a great deal of the time, simply trying to avoid one another. But while I was an interloper just passing through for a few years Joyce had lived there her entire life, and yet no one at all raised a question or tried to find out where she was for those three years. Zawe Ashton portrays Joyce throughout the film but has only one line of dialogue. It’s a scene where Joyce is discovered sitting alone on a park bench by her ex boyfriend Martin who has assumed she has gone to work and asks why she isn’t there, to which Joyce replies, “I’m not feeling very well, Martin.”
This line sticks in my mind. The amount of times people ask others how they are doing and not really taking much notice of the answer given or not giving it much thought, it’s simply a social politeness to enquire, and that’s supposed to be enough. We are all too busy with our own little lives to take the time to go past the social politeness, and it seems sometimes that the ones who are often in need of help are the ones who hide it best. It’s only after, if a tragedy like this does occur, when we go back and pick up on the small things that people have said that suddenly seem to make sense of the situation. It can be all too easy to blame it on the way our society has evolved but that’s an easy way to deflect any blame.
Another line sticks out from Dreams of a Life. A friend of Joyce, describing the 38 year old woman who would eventually be discovered in her bedsit three years after she had died, “Joyce was always the centre of attraction. People gravitated towards her like a magnet.”
Dreams of a Life is available now on DVD through Amazon and Itunes.
Tags: carol morley, dreams of a life, film, found dead, joyce vincent, London, three years