In 2006 Joyce Carol Vincent was found dead in her London flat. The cause of death was not determined due to the advanced state of decomposition of her body. Joyce was 38 years old when she died. Her body had lain undisturbed in her flat for nearly three years. The story of Joyce, what there is to know and tell has been documented in the film Dreams of a Life.
Joyce was not a shut-in, had no history of mental illness of drug abuse, and had three living sisters. She was widely described as beautiful , vibrant, and successful. By all accounts from those that knew her, it is as though the Joyce they knew simply slipped away; they seemed unable to reconcile the woman in the flat with the person they had known. Contrary to the image of a recluse she was found surrounded by freshly wrapped Christmas presents; there must have been people in her life.
While there is something morbidly compelling about the unresolved cause of her death and the grim tableau of how she was found, the more disturbing element of this story is the three year wait before her discovery. Where were family, friends, and coworkers? Where were the neighbors or the mailman? Where, even, were the bill collectors? In the end, it took even the landlords three years to come and clear her out for unpaid rent.
I think that the we learn more about ourselves in Joyce's story than we learn about her. When she died in 2003 we were pre-Facebook and post nuclear-family. 2003 was right in the transition point between the constant connections of the social media age and the isolation and lack of community of the end of the 20th Century. Three years? How can this be? It is not hard for me to imagine friends of mine disappearing and not being noticed for three or four months. The free spirits, wanderers, or troubled souls, but three years? There is no one I know or have ever known that was in any way functional that could disappear from all things for three years and not have someone ring the bell.
What are we to think of this? Is Joyce some kind of social canary warning us of the dangers of our modernity? Is it an isolated case; one sad woman's quiet decline? Is it possible that we have reached a place where people can live out their lives with no real connections? How acceptable is distance between family members? How important is the building of community? How long do you want to wait before someone finds you?
This terrifies me. Joyce's story tapped into some deeply rooted fears about mortality and loneliness. I think that we all have these fears. It's why we bother to call up old friends, love and lose and love again, and hassle our way through the holidays to spend time with family; so that when things go awry, someone is there to help us. Somewhere along the line either Joyce stopped bothering, or everyone else did. Probably a little of both. I think a consequence of contemporary culture may be the devaluing of substantive connections with other people. I think that we are all not so far away from being Joyce as we might like to believe.
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Dreams of a Life: