VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
By Mary Frances Hill
An author reveals the truth of her sister's hard life in "Missing Sarah"
Who: Maggie de Vries
What: Author of Missing Sarah, a heartfelt account of life with her adopted sister Sarah de Vries, a young woman who disappeared from the Downtown Eastside in 1998. Last year Sarah's DNA was found at the Pickton farm. De Vries is an award-winning children's author and the niece of legendary children's author Jean Little. De Vries launches Missing Sarah on Sept. 9 at the Alice McKay room, Vancouver Public Library, 7: 30 p.m.
Maggie de Vries
Roots: Grew up in Vancouver and Guelph, Ontario, one of four children of a Point Grey family. Studied at McGill University, and published books like How Sleep Found Tabitha, and Once Upon a Golden Apple. Missing Sarah conveys Sarah de Vries' intelligence and great sensitivity through her own letters, poetry and journal-writings, interspersed with the harrowing account of Sarah's descent into drug use, abusive relationships and prostitution.
Of her own mind: In her teen years, Sarah rebelled, committing petty theft and experimenting with drugs before she left home and worked in the sex trade. "It was painful for my mother, because there really isn't that much you can do. There are extreme measures people take but if the person doesn't want to go home, you can't make them go home. Just like no one can force us to change, you can't force anyone else to change. It's disrespectful to think that we can."
Painful paradox: "Sex work is a choice people can make if they want to make it. But so many people who do end up in sex work are there for a set of tough reasons and they hate it, including Sarah. These are irreconcilable ideas, and they are both true. I had to come to the conclusion that she had the right to do it, whether she loved it or hated it. That idea was a turning point for me. I do lots of things I hate to do. I do things that are bad for me every day. But I have a perfect right to do those things."
Sarah's legacy: Sarah became a mother twice, to Jeanie and Ben, both of whom are being cared for by de Vries' mother. Around this time, Maggie de Vries and her mother went for several months without hearing from Sarah, who was then very heavily into drug use. "In a way, having Jeanie was a link with Sarah, because we were always letting her know about Jeanie, but in a way it came between Sarah and us because Jeanie had to come first. Our focus had shifted onto Sarah's children and our idea of rescuing Sarah had to come second. (The children, now 13 and seven years old,) are both very loving, quite athletic beautiful children."
Protect the innocent: The number of people who go on a little spiel about Pickton, about the way they would torture him or 'take him out' disgusts me. He's not real to me, so I don't have these emotional feelings. There is so much more we could focus on. We could focus on drawing the marginalized in, and to open ourselves up to them."
Not getting it: When families of the missing women were lobbying the city for reward offerings from the city, then-mayor Phillip Owen was concentrating on offering rewards for information on Westside home invasions. "His suggestion that a reward of $5,000 be offered for each woman who called home was not needed. What was needed to be said is there was a possibility for violence.... It was insulting to suggest that Sarah would call home not to say that she was okay, but for money."
My home, my prison: De Vries notes in Missing Sarah that her sister was caught in a tough cycle. To quit drugs she would have to leave every one of her friends and leave her community forever. "The drugs trap people in a cycle they can't get out of, but if Sarah had decided to leave, she would have to leave everybody there who cared about her, her home and quit drugs. If I were an alcoholic, I could quit drinking and still keep my community. I wouldn't have to walk away from my whole life."
Investigating the investigation: There were the tips about the Pickton property in fall of 1998, and (police detective) Lori Schenher gave every ounce of herself to try to build a case back then, but she couldn't. When all the facts come out, we need to find out what exactly went wrong.... The police are supposed to serve and protect these women, but also stop them from doing what they do every day. That is untenable."
Sisterly ties that bind: De Vries' writing conveys a sense of guilt about being a young woman, leading a healthy, normal life, going to school and travelling, while her sister dealt with drug addiction and prostitution. "I'm more conscious of that (guilt) looking back. In your early 20s you're pretty selfish. I was worried about Sarah but it was so so painful...it's hard to live in the presence of so much suffering and figure out how to balance it so that we continue our lives in a full and meaningful way. It's not wrong to be affluent, but it is wrong to shut oneself off from others' suffering."
Sarah spent much of her time at my home in Vancouver. For Sarah this was her home and refuge from the downtown eastside.During these times she was able to continue her journaling and sketching in a peaceful and quiet place. When Sarah disappeared in April of 1998 I began the search to find her and started this website in her memory. In honor of my missing friend, I personally turned over her many journals and sketches to her sister Maggie and traveled to Guelph Ontario to give her mother Pat and her children Jeanie and Ben the rest of Sarah's personal belongings. It was through Sarah's many journals that the book 'Missing Sarah' came to be written. I am grateful to have been a part of her life and to have been able to share my feelings for her in 'Missing Sarah.' Sarah has a special place in my heart.
Updated: August 21, 2016