Canadian Council of Natural Mothers' Library

Missing Sarah
A Vancouver Woman Remembers Her Vanished Sister

by Maggie deVries

In this beautiful, honest and sad tribute to the memory of her sister, Sarah, Maggie de Vries makes clear connections between Sarah's adoption by her family and Sarah's incredibly sad life. Adoption of children of another background, heritage and race into white families sometimes (often?) doesn't go well, despite the best efforts of the family. I was struck in reading this book how many of the friends and acquaintances in Sarah's life were also adopted. Who is keeping the statistics of these outcomes of adoption?

For those unaware of this story, Sarah de Vries was one of at least 21 women who could only be identified by DNA found on a pig farm in Port Coquitlam, BC. The women were all sex workers or prostitutes, and the cause of their disappearance was not followed up in a timely fashion because they were engaged in selling sex to live. Because of this, more of them died than might otherwise be the case.

Even the choice of whether to refer these women as 'prostitutes' or 'sex workers' is difficult, because it's hard to find a term that honours their lives and human dignity while acknowledging that few people would make such choices freely. Rather, women (and men) drawn to this life are frequently those who have had few opportunities or been abused in various ways as children and adolescents.

This book is worth reading on many levels, but two primarily interested me:
1. The story of Sarah's life from babyhood to death is told with care, caring, and brutal honesty. It can't have been easy for de Vries to be so open about her family's life and ultimate failure to rescue Sarah from the life she found more bearable than that with her family.
2. The stereotyping and shaming of women in the sex trade is only a stronger, more open, socially approved and more entrenched version of what all women face who stray outside the bounds that society prescribes for women, and as such reflect what many mothers who lost children to adoption also feel to a lesser degree.

Sherry, a mixed race child, was adopted into the de Vries family at 11 months of age. They changed her name from Sherry to Sarah at that point. Did they think an 11 month old child would not know her name? Her childhood seemed happy and untroubled, but the family members did not realize the racism she faced at school, because they didn't face it. Sarah coped with it alone. When her adoptive parents divorced, Sarah found the separation very difficult, and this in itself may have been a precipitating factor in her ultimate choice to begin to live in the lower Eastside in Vancouver, becoming a sex worker and after a while, a drug addict. Sarah had two children while in this life and left both to be cared for by her adoptive mother, thus losing her children as she was herself lost to her own mother.

The book is remarkable for de Vries' clear love for her sister, showing deep empathy and understanding of the terrible circumstances and choices Sarah faced. Sarah's family tried very hard to keep contact with her even though she was earning a living as a sex worker and using drugs constantly. Their heartache is not the focus of the book, though it is apparent. While they do not examine how living a life of gratitude in their family might have contributed to Sarah's pain, their love for her is also plain. What shines through is Sarah's strength, her capacity for generosity, and her love for many in her life.

The chapters of the book are each introduced by the dates when women who disappeared were last seen by friends or family. This brings home how long it was before the police took seriously these women's disappearances. De Vries discusses very clearly the impact of societal attitudes upon sex workers compared with their actual situations and choices. The book is valuable reading for this discussion alone.

Ultimately, this book is a wonderful testament to a strong person destroyed by the circumstances and choices of her life. It is also an indictment of a society which sees some women as disposable creatures, outside the pale of our responsibility and humanity.

Reviewer: Sandra Falconer

(2003) Toronto: Penguin Canada
ISBN 0-14-3013371-8

© The Canadian Council of Natural Mothers