In Missing Sarah, Maggie de Vries recalls the life, disappearance and death of her sister Sarah de Vries, whose murder was confirmed when her DNA was eventually found on a psychopath’s farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C.
Published in 2003, the book won the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness, the VanCity Book Prize, and was nominated for a Governor General’s Award.
I’ve wondered about Missing Sarah every time I’ve heard about another missing woman, but only recently read it… after chatting with a friend about books that need to be discussed more often.
Sarah de Vries disappeared from a Vancouver street in 1998. She was a young mother, an artist, a keeper of journals, a poet. She was kind, loving and funny, honourable and dignified. She had gorgeous wild hair and a big smile and in the last house she lived, in the scruffiest part of town, where junkies often stayed, there was a small, thriving garden planted beside the front door.
This image has stayed with me, this need to nurture, this need for beauty.
“The tragedy is that she never seemed to be able to turn that love and caring toward herself or accept from others in a way that would allow her to change her life as she always wished she could.”
She had two brothers, a sister, loving parents. A regular family. The family were white. Sarah was black. She’d been adopted as a toddler. She loved them deeply but on some level didn’t feel she fit in. When she discovered Vancouver’s downtown scene, something clicked for her. These were people who also didn’t fit in and together they made a different sort of family, dysfunctional and real as any other.
In her journal Sarah writes about the idea of home… “… but it’s too late. You’re already on your way and you don’t want to hear the words “I told you so”.”
Through letters, drawings, journal entries and conversations with people in Sarah’s life and the various relationships each had with her, Maggie de Vries comes to know her sister in a way she never managed while Sarah was alive.
She feels guilt over this, and it breaks my heart. Because how could she have known her any better? When Sarah was alive, things were chaotic. Not only with the drama of Sarah’s life—the constant coming and going, the worry over her safety, her health, her children—but the way it played havoc with her parents, whose marriage eventually broke down, which in turn caused further stress on family dynamics and individuals.
It’s in the writing, from this distance, that de Vries begins to realize there was never an opportunity to ‘get to know each other’, that everyone was simply getting through things in their own way.
This is the way of families. We only think we know them.
We barely know ourselves.
I was struck with the bravery of de Vries’ writing. How she said that it’s easy to believe that drugs are the problem rather than what’s going on at home.
“Kids are not only responding to tempting bait on the outside, they are driven by some deep discontent on the inside.”
She adds that getting rid of the ‘bad people’ out there won’t solve the problem, that it’s not enough to arrest the creeps and murderers.
“More ‘bad people’ will appear in their place; and, as long as we do not solve our problems at home, our children will continue to leave.”
Now there’s a hard truth. It would have been so much easier to blame anyone else. But de Vries doesn’t play the sympathy card, or even the shock value card. She’s writing this book, she says, “…to make it real for myself, to gather all that has passed in the last four years and pin it to the page.” In the process she shares her road to understanding as she realizes that to effect change, we have to look at what we’re doing in our homes before we point fingers to the problems in society.
It’s beautiful, honest and bare-naked writing.
It’s about Sarah but it’s also about so many others, women, who found themselves working on the streets to survive.
They are individual stories and yet share a common bond.
Your story, mine. Different and the same. The point, it seems, is to know this.
It’s about being human.
And it’s the kind of book you can read again and again and, like getting to know someone, you learn a new thing each time. And your eyes are opened and this world that you know nothing about suddenly becomes part of the world you live in, not the separate place you pictured. And you might be surprised to know the people in it bleed and laugh and love and *need* the way people do.
It’s a book to read and discuss as long as there are women disappearing from streets and dying in hotel rooms after ‘rough sex’ and perpetrators of ‘rough sex’ are being allowed to live their lives as if nothing happened.
Not everyone has a sister who will write books about them.
Sarah de Vries did.
2 thoughts on “this is not a review: ‘missing sarah’, by maggie de vries”
Thank you for bringing this book to my attention. Lately, I’ve been thinking about my own family, and about how, as we get older, we spend less and less time trying to stay in touch. There is so much going on in each of our lives. I have often wondered how well I really know them anymore, which makes me sad. A good reminder to make a greater effort.
Another thing that strikes a chord with me, is that out of my 5 siblings, 3 are adopted and 2 are black. In a white family. My sister has sometimes talked about what it is like to be of mixed race in Canada, but not so much within her own family. It breaks my heart to think that they might feel like they don’t belong.
There’s a real sense of common ground in this book. The way Maggie de Vries has shown her own need to understand what happened… and why there was a disconnect in the first place, within the family I mean. As she learns more about her sister, she begins to see the broader picture, that for every person out there, there’s a different (and yet similar) story. I think you’ll enjoy this, Naomi. Especially given your own family dynamic. We don’t necessarily have to have the drama of Sarah’s life in order to not know one another. Being disconnected is a universal story, really. In this case told *because* of, rather than from, a tragic perspective. Always so good to hear from you…