Beautiful, young, intelligent, well-off, adored, alone in her UK studio, dead, rotting on the couch for three years with the BBC still playing on the tube. Three years went by and no one missed free-spirited Joyce Carol Vincent. She wasn’t even 40, but she had met Nelson Mandela, partied with Jimmy Cliff and dined with Stevie Wonder yet, for someone so socially active, not one person– not even her sister, missed her for over 1,000 days? In the age of cell phones, emails and social networking how does this happen?
When I first heard about Joyce, I thought it was a National Enquirer joke or that my friend, who initially told me the story, was talking about an elderly lady who probably had nothing but the company of her cats and was living in the twilight of what used to be the prime of her life. But not only was this a true story, it was one about a 38-year old young woman from the Caribbean who was a bit of a big-shot at Ernst & Young by day and in her off time, worked on her dreams to be a singer.
Her death made news in 2006. The Sun’s headlines read: “Woman Dead In Flat For 3 Years.”
Lying on the sofa was the skeleton of a 38-year-old woman who had been dead for almost three years. In a corner of the room the television set was still on, tuned to BBC1, and a small pile of unopened Christmas presents lay on the floor. (Dishes were) heaped in the kitchen sink and a mountain of post lay behind the front door. Food in the refrigerator was marked with 2003 expiry dates. The dead woman’s body was so badly decomposed it could only be identified by comparing dental records.
I too am young, single, full of dreams and I live alone. Could this happen to me? For all the “friends” I have on Facebook, how many of them would really miss me if I stopped posting tomorrow? For all of our tweeting and texting how authentic and “real” are our interactions with people nowawdays? Think about it. Could this happen to you?
More recently The Guardian featured an in depth story written by Carol Morley, a filmmaker who made a documentary about Joyce’s incredible, yet mysterious life and death. As fascinating as I found the circumstances of this young ingénue’s death, I was more moved by her life– a life with all of the pop and fizz of two Alka Seltzers in a glass of water was one really, underneath the bubbly persona, without any substantial, if not meaningful connections to family or friends. One blogger said this about Joyce Carol Vincent and what her death signifies:
We fret sometimes about the loss of a cohesive family unit, the social community, how no one talks anymore, how instant communication has alienated us rather than brought us together. But in the case of Joyce Vincent, we’re reminded that genuine human connection is more complicated than merely exchanging words with a real person every once in awhile. Connection is about trust, about allowing yourself to be vulnerable to someone else, about offering some kind of truth about yourself. That, it seems, was what eluded poor Joyce Vincent. She didn’t move through life without human contact, as the original reports might lead one to believe — but perhaps she managed to do it without much genuine connection. A busy life, but maybe a lonely one anyway.
Last year around this time I was reeling from the sudden death of a writer/ blogger I adored. I missed her humor, her sarcasm and her keen eye for a good bargain and just couldn’t believe or accept how someone so well known with so many “friends” could’ve died in such an isolated and heartbreaking way. Then it dawned on me that I had only met her once and that most of the people who spoke of her had actually never met her at all. We were viewing our relationships with her through a social media prism that only showed us what she wanted us to see and only when she wanted us to connect with her. Most of us didn’t really know her. And indeed, most people have no idea why or what transpired in her life that led to her transition.
It’s so easy to hide behind Twitter; so easy to front on Instagram. You retweet someone’s witty 140 or comment on someone’s FB post and you feel like you know them. Our idea of friendship and community is so warped and like this blogger remarked, even when we do see folks we know in person, these moments lack rapport and depth of connection. And so I’m picky about accepting Friend Requests from acquaintances and people I don’t know. I just don’t do it. I’m such a loner to begin with, that if I decide to let you in and say you’re a friend— Facebook or otherwise, then I need to do it genuinely and completely. I don’t want or need to have a thousand friends to feel like I’m down or popular. Hell, I don’t even want people to misconstrue that I am popular! I’m so cool being mysterious and marginal! When I fall off the radar, which I tend to do, I’m grateful that I have the kind of friends who will call me and come look for me. As I get older these types of friendships matter so much to me. It’s a challenge to maintain, but this summer I’ve been pretty damn good. Just last week I had dinner with an old friend who I haven’t seen in almost a year. It was a rejuvenating blessing to have that hang. As busy as I can get working and freelancing, I know I need to put in the work with my friends and fam to make our connections mean something more than just one Facebook post a year on my birthday. Next month I’m even shutting down my FB and Twitter accounts for two weeks just so I’m forced to rely on spending real quality time with the people in my life.
How has social media affected the quality of your friendships? Has Facebook made you even more unsocial? How do you keep your friendships tight and meaningful? If you died in your home in the middle of the night, how long would you go without being missed? Think about it.