by Allan McDougall
This 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 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.