Book Review: “Missing Sarah” by Maggie de Vries

by Allan McDougall

missingsarah1This post is a review of an excellent Canadian memoir that probes themes of female agency and victimization in the face of poverty, drug addiction, and neglect. Missing Sarah (2005), by Maggie de Vries, is the author’s autobiographical memoir of her sister, Sarah de Vries, a sex worker living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
 

Sarah was adopted as a baby, and grew into a bright, funny, artistic child. Yet, as Maggie reflects, Sarah’s mixed-race heritage—partially African-Canadian, Mexican, and Native—caused her to feel isolated from her white siblings. In the book, Maggie reflects that these feelings of segregation may have driven Sarah to seek solace on the streets of Downtown Vancouver, partying, and experiments with drugs in her teens.
 

Sarah ran away from home before completing high school and eventually became addicted to cocaine and heroine, working as a prostitute to pay for drugs. As Maggie grew to accept and deal with Sarah’s lifestyle, she implicitly learned about street life. Missing Sarah is as much a memoir as a social commentary on urban prostitution policies.
 

Though Canadians idealize Vancouver as Canada’s California, the city has a sordid history of prostitution laws. During the late 70s and early 80s, rezoning laws allowed police to harass prostitutes from all over Vancouver into the Downtown Eastside neighborhood, thus isolating them from safer, more well lit areas of the city. This process of ‘city beautification’ exacerbated violence against prostitutes, and between 1979 and 2003, 69 female sex trade workers disappeared from the Downtown Eastside and were never seen again. The fundamental goal of Missing Sarah is for readers to recognize that these weren’t just “sex trade workers,” these were women with families, often with children of their own.

Sarah DeVries
Sarah de Vries

Sarah disappeared on April 14, 1998. She was never seen again. Shortly after her disappearance, one of Sarah’s regular tricks, Wayne, gave Maggie a stack of journals that Sarah had left in his apartment. Maggie pored over these journals, realizing their importance now that her sister was gone. And this is the scene for the book’s opening: in 1995, Sarah wrote, “I’ll try to begin. Just try to remember this is not a story with a plot. This is me, my thoughts, emotions, opinions, and just plain ‘Sarah’ and situations I’ve found myself in.” Maggie continues for her sister: “Throughout her journals, she addresses a readership. When she wrote, she imagined readers. She imagined you” (xiii).

 

Later, in a poem about her experiences on the streets, Sarah wrote:
 

You may find the prostitute sleazy and easy
But I know for a fact they don’t find it pleasing.
They’re alive and breathing
With a functioning mind
And a heart that ticks in perfect time.
There is the odd one who wants it all
And will use everything, even her claws.
But if you’re friends, you’re friends for life
And fight side by side to prove your right.
In this business, you lose a lot of friends
And that’s where the terror begins. (112)
 

Sarah also wrote her views on pimps and johns, her experiences with violence, and her regrets and fears for her future. In one striking example, Sarah wrote about the unexplained disappearances of dozens of female sex workers from the Downtown Eastside, and about suspicions within her community that there was a serial killer on the loose: 
 

Am I next? Is he watching me now? Stalking me like a predator and its prey. Waiting, waiting for some perfect spot, time or my stupid mistake. How does one choose a victim? Good question, isn’t it? If I knew that, I would never get snuffed. 

So many women, so many that I never even knew about, are missing in action. It’s getting to be a daily part of life. That’s sad. Somebody dies and it’s like somebody just did something normal. I can’t find the right words. It’s strange. A woman who works the Hastings Street area gets murdered, and nothing.

Yet if she were some square john’s little girl, shit would hit the goddamn fan. Front page news for weeks, people protesting in the streets. Everybody makes a stink. While the happy hooker just starts to decay, like she didn’t matter, expendable, dishonorable. It’s a shame that society is that unfeeling. She was some woman’s baby girl, gone astray, lost from the right path. She was a person. (159)
 

Missing Sarah memorializes Sarah’s passions and complications, and, as the book unfolds, we learn of Maggie’s search for Sarah, her difficulty getting local police to admit there was a serial killer at work, her research on how Vancouver’s rezoning laws allowed serial killers to prey on sex workers for twenty years, and, finally, her advocacy in spearheading the British Columbia Missing Women Investigation that would eventually lead to the arrest of Sarah’s murderer
 

Missing Sarah provides an alternative to the dismissive, uninformed, stereotypes surrounding street life. By putting Sarah’s work and life into context, and recalling the Downtown Eastside community Sarah lived in, readers of Missing Sarah can use Sarah’s poetry and prose as their guide on a journey that probes themes of family, justice, and obligation under the crushing shadow of drug addiction.

 


 

Allan McDougall is a graduate student from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Allan is a staunch believer in language as social action, with a focus on reading and writing. Allan is currently writing his MA thesis on Changing Lives Through Literature, and writes about professional and academic issues on his blog: allanmcdougall.wordpress.com.

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22 thoughts on “Book Review: “Missing Sarah” by Maggie de Vries

  1. A powerful story, Allan. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.I am reminded of the distinction Lawrence (I think) made between empathy and pity.Through the story here, the reader seems to be invited to empathize with, and understand, Sarah, but not to pity her. She is a complex human being who deserves our attention. Thanks, Allan.

  2. “Yet if she were some square john’s little girl, shit would hit the goddamn fan. Front page news for weeks, people protesting in the streets. Everybody makes a stink. While the happy hooker just starts to decay, like she didn’t matter, expendable, dishonorable. It’s a shame that society is that unfeeling. She was some woman’s baby girl, gone astray, lost from the right path. She was a person.”

    This is all too true, especially in America (my knowledge doesn’t extend to what happens other countries–perhaps someone else out there could enlighten us). Folks have a tendency to see women like Sarah as unpure and “ruined,” and consequently somehow less human. Their disappearances and murders are investigated less and are often discussed with a startling lack of gravity.

    When Elizabeth Acevedo, a prostitute in NYC, was murdered, the NY Post proclaimed
    “One-Legged Hooker Slain.” CNN didn’t do much better when they reported about multiple sex workers being killed. The degradation of prostitutes is so profound that we allow high profile video game manufacturers to feature prostitute-killing in their games. (Hover over the text in this paragraph to see links to the evidence).

    It seems to me that everyone could benefit from reading more personal accounts like Maggie’s story of Sarah and Sarah’s own writings. By reading the stories of others, we become more compassionate towards our fellow women and men. We realize that the labels “prostitute” (and all derivatives thereof), “john,” “rapist,” “murderer,” etc. are one-sided and that we can’t write off a person based on a few bad choices he or she has made.

    Thanks for sharing this book with us, Allan. It sounds like it would be a valuable contribution to some CLTL groups.

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  4. Allan, it’s a good review of Missing Sarah. I agree with jennib that our placing labels on people only shows the one side of a person and that we are so much more than the label, every one of us. Sarah was much more than a prostitute as was written in the book Missing Sarah. There was much more to Sarah’s life than what was written by her sister Maggie, and so the book is from her perspective and knowledge. You only know what you know. As you have mentioned me in your review, I could not help but respond just to let you know that none of us are one dimensional. Sarah was also a very close friend and I knew her intimately and I have a good understanding of the reasons for the path that Sarah’s life took, that are not written about. Many of her close friends do.

  5. Hi Wayne,

    As one who has read Maggie and Sarah’s story, I know you had an important part to play as a resource and advocate. Maggie does a great job of relaying her intimate knowledge of Sarah growing up and the great divide that occured after Sarah began living on the streets. I think Maggie does an excellent job of pointing out the assumptions she makes about Sarah’s life, while using her life experiences to explain her reasons for making such assumptions.

    Wayne, it’s my understanding that Missing Sarah was used to begin a book club for prostitutes. Do you know any more information on that from an insider’s perspective? This is similar to the CLTL program that Bob W is asking about.

    Thanks,

    Allan

  6. Hi Allan,

    Thanks for your informative post. It’s interesting to note that Missing Sarah is a real life version of some of the “street lit” I wrote about earlier in this blog. Except, from what you say, the reality is really much worse than the fictional version, with no happy ending. Though you could say that the book itself is a kind of fortunate, human outcome of her story. Many sex trade workers, and I hope law enforcement people, will learn from it. A small but strong step toward change.

    Tam Neville

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  12. I miss you mom.. i really need you in my life, it hurts all of us so much, no one can even think they understand. they dont. i see happy families together and i want to be like them.. I want to go out shopping with you and i want you here on christmas.. I Love you, and i wish that horrid man never took you away, you didnt have to go with him, you idiot, i hate u for ngetting in that car, i hate what you did, but i we love you more.. I miss you so much, you’ve missed so much. How could you? I know you didnt want to.. you wanted to be here, and im sorry for all those aweful things i said to you, i thought you’d always be here…

  13. I HATE YOU WAYNE LENG.. UR A JERK WHO KEEPS ALL MY MOTHERS BVELONGINGS AWAY FROM US, U make everyone think ur this good person, BUT UR NOT UR JUST ANOTHER DIRTY JOHN

  14. and me and my family will always think that of you UNTIL U GIVE BACK HER STUFF TO US,.. its in storage eh? THATS BULLSHIT

  15. you claim to be her “good friend” your not… a good friend wouldnyt hide stuff for his selfishness.. He would give her belongs to her family who misses her more than u could ever- after all, you are a john, you used her.. Just like all those other guys. The fact u go aroudn saying all thise nice stuff about my mom and how you were imtimate and close??? I dont think so.. U may have been a sweetheart to her, but the YOU she knew and the YOU her family knows, is totally diffrent. and i hate that.. I thought u were our friend too, U lied to us, and hurt us, even almost sent her stuff away to someone who doesnt even know her? you can lie and say thats not true BUT it is.. and its sad.. Y’know i wanted to know the person my mother knew, the kind guy who came to visit us, but now.. I dont think your so kind, and everytime i see your name, i hate u more than pickton.

  16. I have never met Sarah jr. but I can feel for the mixed emotions she expresses in the absence of her mom, and in having the knowledge of such terrible crimes that claimed (and claim) far, far too many young women who are just trying to get by in the best they know how, including her mom. As a society, and individually, I believe the lesson from all this is to make safer and better the life situations for women who struggle with poverty and addictions. To Sarah jr. I’d like to say… having such anger about your mom’s life being cut short makes me feel sad for you. I can see you’re struggling with mixed emotions, and understandably. But I don’t see how the things you’ve said help her memory. Hopefully you can turn the hate you’ve expressed into an equal passion for finding loving ways to understand young, female, addicted survivors and maybe even help them in some way….. Angry words directed at your mom do not do her memory justice nor do they acknowledge the humanity, dignity and compassion she expressed for all people in her writing — Sarah’s writing was shared in the book Missing Sarah thanks to Wayne Leng offering Maggie a large portion of her journals… and it would not be the same book without Sarah’s own words and without the interviews with Sarah’s friends Wayne put Maggie in touch with. When I read Missing Sarah I was moved by Sarah’s expressions. I commend Wayne for helping Maggie enormously in her undertaking to write the book, and also for his efforts to bring attention to solve the crimes along with many family members doing the same, most of which he remains friends with today. He introduced your Aunt to the DTES and supported her work. He actively looked for your mom. I’ve met Wayne and many family members and friends of missing women — including people who worked with your mom back on Davie Street, and they are all descent people trying to do some good by bringing attention to the tragedy of the DTES, make things better for addicted women and have something good come from the crimes, even if it’s only keeping the memories of loved ones alive and honouring their spirits. Wayne Leng is a friend of mine. You may not like him… that’s your choice, but your mother had a loyal friend in him which can’t be denied. Remember, your mom had run away from home and her family at a very, very young age, not to return. She chose to live part time at Wayne’s for several years. You may want to put yourself in her shoes, and ask yourself why. Obviously she valued their friendship enough to put her worldly possessions in his hands. What would your mother think of the things you say about him? I only wish she were here to ask, may she RIP. As you find some inner peace I hope you can see the humanity and compassion for all people your mom did. I never met her but her spirit lives on thanks in large part to Wayne, his friendship with her, their loyalty to each other and his generosity in sharing her journals with your aunt. You are lucky indeed to be a part of her. With warmest wishes, Janis Cole

  17. Sarah, you made the street brighter with every step you took on it.

    The Street will never forget you…nor forgive ‘him’. We’ll love you always.

  18. Reblogged this on hurdygurdygurl's Blog and commented:
    ‘Missing Sarah’ is a book you can not put down, until you’ve read the whole story. I feel, as if, I know Sarah DeVries, after reading, ‘Missing Sarah’, even though I never met her. May you rest in peace, Sarah. Till we meet on the other side.

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