Dreams of a Life: A Glimpse into a Golden Apple | Film
The film to watch if you’re on the fence about love and marriage is Dreams of a Life by British documentary filmmaker Carol Morley. Based on a true story, the film re-creates snippets of a life behind a disturbing case from London. In 2006, housing officials discovered a three-year-old corpse belonging to Joyce Carol Vincent, a woman who died alone at age 38 around Christmas 2003. Vincent died in a bedsit for women who were victims of domestic violence.
The case was shocking because the dead woman was relatively young and had no history of substance abuse. She had been born and raised in London, was popular, attractive, magnetic, well employed at one time, and had plenty of suitors and acquaintances. Vincent had cast a wide social circle, met famous people, and earned a good income at large firms like Ernst & Young. When she died suddenly no one looked for her or came by the flat.
So the next time your friend or family member calls you in a fit of worry because they haven’t heard from you in a month, be happy. Dying alone and being forgotten can happen to anyone in this social media world that tricks us into thinking we are connected. It happens to the young and healthy with few or no social anchors. Dreams of a Life is a kind of urban warning of the isolation of modern life. If anything, this is Sex and the City’s dark side. Remember that one episode when Miranda panicked over being an old woman who died alone and whose face was eaten by her cat? That is not an irrational fear.
Morley pieces together the lifestyle and character of Joyce Vincent. A few details emerged. Vincent was a drifter. She moved every year, changed friends often, had different lives and personas depending on who she was with, and it was not unusual for her to go out of communication for long periods of time.
The Vincent had a distant relationship with her family who lived nearby. She had four sisters and a brother who had no idea where she was. She had been at least one abusive relationship and spent time in a shelter for battered women. Her family had hired a private investigator to find her and also approach the Salvation Army for help in locating her. For whatever reason, Vincent did not want to be found. Her family thought she did not want anything to do with them until Morley began her research. Accounts of her in the documentary differ and it appears that Vincent had blocks to intimacy even with friends.
Other aspects of the life behind the woman who died and was left forgotten was the lack of female friends of her own. Vincent relied on her lovers to provide a social circle. When the relationship ended she was gone from the friends she made through her significant other. Vincent’s early life included some traumas such as the death of her mother at age 11. Her father was distant and a lothario who frequently chased women. Morley gives us a character sketch that reflects back to us how similar many of us are to Vincent as we relish busy lives as urban dwellers in large cities. Too bad anonymity has its price.
Dreams of a Life is only available in theaters in the UK and Ireland but the DVD is due out in March 2012. Thanks to a trip to London this film came to my attention. So far there is no official date for a US release of the documentary. Many are keeping their fingers crossed to be able to watch this in America. If you’re lucky enough to be in the UK during the scheduled screen dates, see this film. It shocks you into action. You will call old friends and create a plan for people to check on you. Single people do not have the infrastructure of a spouse and children who will worry about their absence right away. Don’t rely on your neighbors to notice you are gone. Most importantly, create strong anchors your life, it depends on it. Humans are social creatures. Isolation is dangerous on many levels.
Vincent is symbolic of many women who hide behind a veneer of being successful and well put together. She may have been hiding deeper issues that eventually pushed her to retreat into herself. Whatever the case, the first thing one needs to do when they want to be a hermit, is to reach out. Join a church, community center, volunteer, or seek out and make use of social services and community resources. You can’t be Carrie Bradshaw forever. Even Carrie got hitched.
The answer is not to get married but have a social group that functions as a family if you don’t have one. Vincent’s friends used to her going in and out of their lives and she paid a high price for her invulnerability and fierce independence. For Vincent, no one visited her dead body for three years. One of the screening locations in London was the Wood Green Shopping Center in North London. This was in the building below Vincent’s bedsit. Despite the high traffic of people in the area every day the neighbors and shoppers were oblivious to the stench of rotting flesh and the 24/7 of her TV set.
Vincent’s rent was partially paid by a housing benefit and a system of automatic debit payments and debt forgiveness for utility bills that allowed her to go unnoticed. Her mail was still delivered through a slot on her door and nothing was out of place enough for anyone to sense that something was wrong. Vincent just vanished from the grid of life without the requisite checks. Since the case, housing officials and social service agencies have made it a mandatory practice to check up on residents in social housing complexes at least once a year and confirm their existence in person.
Lynne Featherstone, the Member of Parliament for those riding that Vincent lived in when she died, wrote letters to government officials and police for a formal investigation into how the system failed Vincent in death. The answers are still unclear but the greater cause behind such failure is that community spirit has died in urban and transient areas. In the past, if your neighbors haven’t seen you for several months they will worry. Vincent was unfamiliar with her neighbors and they also with her. The police ruled out the possibility that Vincent was a victim of foul play. An autopsy was not possible due to the state of her corpse. Unless the remains are examined by forensic pathologists, the only conclusion is that she died of natural causes. Vincent had asthma and a peptic ulcer before she died but it is impossible to know if this resulted in her death. The women’s shelter who helped her get the bedsit has not commented on why they did not check on Vincent for nearly three years.
Morley was able to speak with Vincent’s family and former fiancé but they declined to participate in the film. Accounts state that they are devastated by her death. While the film hints at family estrangement and possible abuse in Vincent’s past nothing has been proven. By the reviews so far, there are enduring mysteries about Vincent. How did she end up in the state she did in the last two years of her life? Vincent quit a good job suddenly in London in 2001 and rumors were unclear why. Morley does not answer the details of the last 25 months leading up to Vincent’s death. For those who want answers, only an account of the final details of how Vincent lived her life can satisfy their curiosity. Nonetheless, Dreams of a Life is intriguing and haunting still.
London is a metropolis of 8 million people living in high density areas. The cosmopolitan and famous British capital is home to all types of people. Like other international cities, London also has a transient subculture where foreigners who intend to live elsewhere once their studies or work assignment and is common. If one is not from an established British family it is easy to be one of the unknown faces on the streets.
Loneliness is an epidemic. Pop culture celebrates the single girl or bachelor well into their 40s. It promise a life of endless parties and lovers. Every night you can paint the town red. Who cares about a foundation of family and community that is stable when you think is that Sex and the City rules. This prescription appeals to those who are unwilling to commit or secure place themselves in the world. Bad medicine. You end being the old person in a nursing home with no visitors. Sometimes people choose this lifestyle in reaction to a disappointment or broken heart or inability to bond early in life that remains unhealed. The cure is worse than the illness. The solution to loneliness is connection. We heal through healthy relationships with others.
Vincent’s life and death is a cautionary tale of what happens when you don’t have a strong anchor in the community. If ever anything can shock you into being open to love, this film is it. Vincent was an exotic beauty, a Caribbean and Indian Aphrodite, a daughter of parents from Grenada who attracted men in droves. By the descriptions of her from the friends who appeared in the documentary she was a goddess who was fancied by a Baronet and MP. Sadly, one day the Belle of the Ball and Toast of the Town got older and men stopped calling. Simple as that. A middle-aged tramp is not attractive …. only desperate. Think Kim Kardashian single and childless at 40 but still acting like a 26-year-old. Kourtney and Khloe grew up but Kim still may be the one trying to be the aging Aphrodite well into her 40s without the talent and intelligence to fall back on. This is not to suggest that Vincent was in any way a tramp. The point is that a beautiful and popular woman can only rely on those traits until they fade. Vincent was clearly not able to secure a grounded sense of life in her existence. She left a good job in 2001 and ended up cleaner a years later who lived in a shelter for reasons unknown.
The antidote to Aphrodite is Atalanta. In the myth of Atalanta, a woman who has been widowed at a young age resolves to become so independent that she never needs anyone again. To avoid the pain of loss, Atalanta rebuffs suitors one after the other. And all male interest, Atalanta says that only the man who can beat her in a race can marry her. Atalanta is confident that she is unbeatable but thanks to the three magical golden apples it allowed Melanion and to beat her in the race. This happened because each time he threw an apple in front of her on the ground, Atalanta couldn’t resist picking it up. What she saw in the reflection of the Apple was that she would die old and alone. The three golden apples were enough to shock Atalanta into living again. The moral of the story was that she married and had a family.
Women today have been brought up by a feminist perspective born out of anger. It has transformed the collective female rage into cold detachment that blocks intimacy. The result is a lonely life, death, and unattended tomb. If Joyce Vincent and Dreams of a Life has any value it is that they are our golden apples.