Joyce Carol Vincent – Dreams of a Life

Joyce Carol Vincent

 

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.

The official Dreams of a Life website.

 Dreams of a Life Official Trailer

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Rating: 9.5/10 (11 votes cast)
Joyce Carol Vincent – Dreams of a Life, 9.5 out of 10 based on 11 ratings
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About the Author:

Garry Crystal is a freelance writer living in the UK. His short stories and articles have appeared in print and online including Expats Post, The Andirondack Review, Turnrow Journal, Roadside Fiction and Orato. His first book Leaving London is available on Amazon and other retailers now. View My Profile

  • Now this was an interesting read and such a sad one too. When I started reading the first thing that popped in mind was “How could she be left undiscovered for 3 years?! What about the bills she has to pay??”…so when I read your paragraph stating the same I was like “Exactly!!” haha.

    Such irony for someone who always was the center of attention, a people magnet, to die all alone, without someone looking for her or wondering where she is. Sadness.

    Great article 🙂

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    • Thanks TJ. Yep, very sad story and like you I couldn’t imagine how anyone couldn’t be missed for three years. Someone said in the film along the lines of -- there’s always family celebrations, birthdays, Christmas, etc and no one thought, where’s Joyce? Very sad.

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  • Cher Duncombe

    Garry, this is such a heart-breaking story. The lines you quoted from the film will not only stay with me, but have enticed me to rent this ASAP. Since my in-laws were from London, I can believe that it must be a lonely place indeed. They seem a very proper people but given to enormous privacy and a lack of speculation about so many issues. Sad, that someone would die so alone. Terrible sad, this unnoticed death but a great writing by you!

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    • It is a good documentary Cher but is very sad, the ending especially had the hairs standing up. London can be lonely but I don’t think more than any other place, it all depends on the people you have round you. And I also suppose the saying ‘you get what you give out’ also has a bit of truth in it.

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  • Garry,

    What a fascinating report! It also seems a bit of a cautionary tale.

    We amble through life and seem to think we will always be here. Then, as this article demonstrates, we are gone.

    Joyce must have touched some people during her life; just from her picture it seems she would have been noticed. Nonetheless, she slipped away and nobody seemed to realize she was gone.

    This is probably what people mean when they say “Truth is stranger than fiction.”

    Larry

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    • I think this could happen to anyone (especially to those who don’t have a close network of friends/family) Larry, it’s the way society is just now. But lying for three years is more than a little strange, it just doesn’t seem possible. In the UK is you miss paying your council tax by a few weeks they start phoning and sending letters, and continue to miss it and you could actually end up in jail, it’s happened to plenty of people. I know people can slip through the grid in big cities but this seems ridiculous.

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  • Libby

    Undoubtedly it is a brilliant, thought-provoking docudrama but I wonder why it wasn’t considered that Joyce Vincent may have intentionally taken herself away and hidden herself. She was the victim of domestic violence and was found dead in one of their refuge accommodations. She refused to speak to anybody close to her about what was happening in her life. Perhaps out of a sense of pride, or shame. The documentary doesn’t emphasise this but I noticed that in 2001 she dismantled her life: In March, she sold her house and quit her well-paid job of 4 years. Was she running away from something or somebody? In August 2001 she stays with her ex-boyfriend Martin for 6 months. Where she went after that we do not know. Then she is linked with a battered women’s organisation and rehoused in Feb 2003 when she dies in Dec. Had she not died during that period of self-imposed silence then she probably would have resumed relationships with people and rebuilt her life. I never saw this as a story of ‘neglect’ or of somebody falling through the cracks…

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  • Libby

    I forgot to add that 2001 was the last time that her family was in contact with her -- which is also significant.

    Something that shouldn’t have been omitted from the film is that Joyce’s family did hire a private investigator to search for her before and after her death but were unable to find her.

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  • Libby, thanks for the additional information there, it adds to the picture. The film did make Joyce out to be someone who didn’t share her problems with others, she would ask for help in finding somewhere to live but she didn’t seem to want to discuss what had led her to, for instance, sharing Martin’s flat for six months. You are right regarding what the documentary explored. I watched it twice and wasn’t aware she owned a house or how she found herself in that bedsit -- I thought it was a council accommodation not something to do with the refuge she had been in, and I was a bit “how did she get from there to there”.

    I also didn’t really see it completely as neglect but it did leave questions about some of the people around her, but as you say she did seem to be cutting herself off intentionally, telling people she was going travelling etc, maybe through fear of the person who was abusive to her. I wasn’t aware either that her family had hired a private investigator. If a person wants to cut themselves off from others it isn’t too hard to do. I’ve still no idea why she wasn’t discovered for three years, her electricty not being cut off, unpaid rent etc, although maybe this was something to do with the nature of the type of accommodation she lived in. The reason for her actual death probably won’t be discovered.

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  • Libby

    Thanks for your reply, Garry. I’m still haunted by images that Joyce was running away from something or somebody. The extra information was from Carol Morley’s timeline in the film. It’s also struck me as odd that a person whose professional career was in reasonably well-paid, responsible jobs in Finance would have taken a job as a cleaner. The only reasons that I can think of is (a) that she was so emotionally depleted (due to the abuse) at that stage in her life that she just didn’t want the contact or responsibility of a better job; even just an ordinary secretarial/clerical position which she could have easily obtained (b) that she was intentionally covering her tracks and had taken a job where she was sure that if somebody came looking for her that she wouldn’t be found. Cleaners also often work early mornings or at nights.

    Housing benefit was in part paying her rent. Her rent may have been inclusive of electricity as it was only a small bedsit.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/4906992.stm

    The arrears was reported to be £2400. They thought she died in Dec 2003 (odd that the food around her was marked Feb 2003 as it would have expired 10 months before she died?) and she wasn’t discovered until Jan 2006, so roughly 25 months. I think benefits are paid weekly so the debt would only be accruing by £24 per week in debt which is quite a small amount. The bulk of her rent would have been continued to paid by Housing benefit.

    Of course, if she didn’t want to be found, that would explain why it took so long.

    I guess it is silly to be preoccupied by the death of somebody that I didn’t even know! Joyce’s story is just so tragic, gripping & mysterious and I hate mysteries. Frustrating also that Carol Morley has disclosed in interviews that she uncovered a lot more information about Joyce that she chose not to include in the film. Her main obstacle was that most of her interviewees didn’t want to be filmed, so she could only use the information given by those who did and what was already out in the public domain -- the information in the news stories. She already had an agenda about the film she wanted to make and didn’t want to produce a factual expose. The end result is really more about ‘how would people remember you?’ which then throws up questions of ‘which people?’. Doesn’t it all depend on the people asked?

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    • Thanks Libby. It does seem as if Joyce was running away from someone. I remember in the film Martin couldn’t remember whether she had said something to him about someone hurting her. I know people can close up but if it was one of my friends I would have kept pushing until I got some answers if I thought something was seriously wrong, but I suppose if she were one of those people who didn’t want to talk about it then what can you do? How she actually died is one of the big questions and I know there are a lot of theories. Personally I think maybe it was a medical thing after seeing the scenes where she was in hospital and also someone said she had asthma; I do personally know someone who died in his house after an asthma attack, they were actually talking on the phone to someone when the asthma attack happened, so that can happen as well.

      The question of how she died must also be frustrating to those who were close to her as well, as there is no answer, no one knows.

      I think Morely did a great job on this film though and you are right, it is haunting and sad but hopefully it will make people think about the people they know and how it doesn’t really take that much to connect with people. Thanks for all the additional information, you’ve added a lot to this article.

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  • What a bizarre and sad story. I don’t even know where to start…

    I, like Libby, got the sense that she was in hiding from something. It could have been a real thing like a person, or demons manifesting in the form of a mental illness.

    To think that she was dead for three whole years before someone found her is seriously baffling.

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    • The three year thing is baffling but Libby has added some information about how this can actually happen, although three years still seems over the top, doesn’t seem possible but it actually did happen. As for the mental illness you mentioned she did seem to be under some emotional and physical strain -- she basically went to from having a good job and friends to no friends and working as a cleaner and it looks as if she also had an abusive boyfriend. Sad stuff that this can happen to someone.

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  • Apparently her family was looking for her even before her death. Please re: bluecentric.com/?p=39430ath.
    I was somewhat relieved to find this out after the shock of seeing the story. While watching the documentary I was constantly haunted by the fact that there was no mention of her sisters looking for her. Now, I know that she was loved and missed by someone.

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  • This is so sad. Maybe she was depressed about her life and that’s why she pushed people away, I can say from personal experience that that does happen, also getting abuse, verbal and physical can really put a deep feeling of shame and low self worth into a person, they said she was always the centre of attention and really happy, maybe after the abuse she was so deeply depressed she didn’t want people to see her that way and closed up, the longer it went on the harder it would have been.
    She must have been alone for a long time if it got the point where she died an nobody noticed for three years.

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  • Esther

    I was deeply upset that she lived and died alone.
    No one went looking for her.
    Her sisters didn’t care i can’t think what pain
    she was in.
    God rest her soul.
    Something we should all think about make up
    with our family and tell someone where we are.

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