Joyce Carol Vincent's body lay unnoticed in her English apartment for three years
In 2006, someone finally decided to check up on a London woman named Joyce Vincent who was badly behind in her rent.
What they found was a skeleton on the couch. She had been dead for nearly three years, the TV still on and the Christmas presents she had wrapped for friends lying on the floor along with a landslide of mail piled up inside the front door of her apartment.
Vincent, 38, lived alone in Wood Green, a declining but packed area of London, a city of eight million people. Her corpse was so desiccated that the coroner couldn’t figure out a cause of death, couldn’t even identify her from dental records until the police tracked down a photograph of her that showed her smiling.
It could happen to any of us. Apparently she just sat down and died as the TV, turned to BBC1, flickered and chattered away for cycles of leafy springs, hot summers, endless rain and every news event you and I lived through in those years. Her window was open in her busy apartment block above a street-level shopping mall, but the smell from nearby garbage bins disguised the stench of her rotting body.
Vincent had been estranged from her father and four sisters — her much-loved mother had died when she was 11 — but by all accounts, she was a vivacious, accomplished woman, said to resemble a pre-decline Whitney Houston. She had a pile of friends and a terrific job at Ernst & Young until, without apparent reason, she quit in 2001.
Not that there were many accounts. It took a determined filmmaker named Carol Morley many years to hunt down any truths about Vincent’s depressing — even horrifying — death and make a documentary called Dreams of a Life, now playing at the London Film Festival. Morley posted ads in newspapers and on the doors of the black cabs that shoot around the city, but even then it was tough to track down people who’d admit their shame at having let Vincent slip from sight.
The story is paralyzingly sad, all the more because Vincent was the model of what women especially set out to be: smart, kind, ambitious and attractive, and yet these qualities failed her. Perhaps they actually doomed her and contributed to the howling loneliness of her death. Morley talked to her local MP, Lynne Featherstone, one of the few who tried to investigate how and why she died. “I gather she was very beautiful, which for reasons totally spurious makes it more poignant because we always think beautiful people have everything go their way,” Morleywrote recently in The Observer.
The boyfriend of her youth, who kept in touch with her until 2002, bitterly regrets his inattention, but told Morley that Vincent always seemed confident and in control. “The trouble with Joyce was that she was very fanciable,” he said. “Wherever she went and whatever she did, there were people trying to get her into bed. It was a burden that she was so beautiful and she was very clever, a lot more intelligent than she let on. I think she had several lives.”
She seemed to have linked up with a brutal boyfriend. It was a battered women’s shelter that placed her in the subsidized rental where she died, and she may have felt ashamed of her perceived failure.
But why didn’t the friends whose names were on the wrapped gifts ever track down their mysteriously vanished friend?
The scariest thing about Vincent’s death is of course that with a few wrong turns, any of us could die this way. A lost job, divorce, a time of lying low and the remorseless nature of living in one of the huge cities that dot the planet and, bang, you vanish.
This is the kind of truth that keeps serial killers like Robert Pickton going, but there’s no indication that Vincent was murdered, no knife nicks on her bones at any rate. It’s just the nature of the city. It’s why Liz Lemon of the TV comedy 30 Rock teaches herself the singleton’s Heimlich manoeuvre, throwing herself onto the back of a chair to regurgitate a piece of steak.
Urban non-myths like Vincent’s death tableau are why people gird themselves to date even the sad prospects they have met online, their faces frozen into panicked smiles. It’s partly why people marry unsuitably or have children they don’t really want, why rural people resent urban types who seem to have prospered by definition, why so many of the seven billion on earth flock to the city—they fear solitude but think it surmountable.
Urban loneliness is asphyxiating, as Jonathan Raban wrote in his poignant 1974 sociology classic, Soft City. “Just as the city is the place where you can choose your society, so it is also the place where you can ‘drop’ discarded friends, old lovers, the duller members of your family.” And where you yourself can be dropped, as happened to Vincent.
The city is hard, not soft, Raban wrote, meaning that you can make no impression on it. “Lonely people often feel sick with guilt that they are suffering in the middle of such apparent abundance; what is wrong with them that they should be singled out to watch TV while millions are on the street below their windows.”
No one questioned Vincent’s non-stop TV. No one smelled her from the littered pavement. This was the price she and hundreds of millions like her pay for chasing the urban dream and finding it “vain, wanting and destructive,” as Raban described it.
I often look at the condo towers seeding like a forest all over Toronto and its suburbs and wonder about the stark lives being lived. People put out hopeful little café tables and chairs on their balconies, but I have yet to see a brunch party a few hundred metres from the Gardiner or Hwy 407. Who is huddled inside staring out at a city of sociable plenty and yearning for recognition?
Ah, look at all the lonely people. Shuddering at Vincent’s awful end, I suspect we could all end up like Eleanor Rigby. We must die alone by definition, but who will help us if no one notices.