Authors / My Sister’s Keeper
April 02nd, 2008
[Maggie de Vries and Sarah de Vries were two of four siblings who grew up in a privileged West Point Grey home that became divided by divorce. Sarah was adopted; Maggie was not. Maggie became an author of children’s books and a teacher. Sarah turned to prostitution in her teens.]
When my book, dosage Missing Sarah came out in early August, symptoms it hit me that people were going to read it, that there was no turning back. I felt as if I had peeled off all my skin and thrust myself out into the public eye. What could have possessed me to do such a thing? The decision to write the book did not come easily.
I began to consider writing something in the spring of 1999 after I had spent an exhausting year facing up to Sarah’s death. Along with many others, I organized a memorial for her and all the other missing women and pressured police to resource the case, to offer a reward and to admit publicly that there was a possibility of homicide in at least some of the cases. I had read Sarah’s journals and had read one of her poems on television several times and seen it printed in the Globe & Mail. Through the course of that year, I experienced the best and worst of the media. And I wrote a short piece that was printed as a Voices column in the Vancouver Sun. There were my thoughts in print exactly as I wished them expressed. Perhaps I should write more.
But by June 1999 I was exhausted. I was tired of talking to media. I was tired of focusing on my sister’s disappearance in a public way. I wanted to retreat into my own life and grieve my sister’s death. In the next three years, I took time for myself. I worked through Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way. I wrote a children’s novel and two picture books. I became children’s book editor at Orca Book Publishers, a children’s book publisher in Victoria.
Then, in February of 2002, the search on the Pickton property in Port Coquitlam began and I was thrust back into considering what had happened to my sister and back into the public world of the investigation, the case against Robert Pickton and media response. I became reacquainted with family members of other missing women and I met many family members whom I had not known before. As murder charges began to be laid, I attended memorials. I was reminded that what had happened to Sarah and through her to me, my family and all who loved her, was in many ways not private. Her death was in part the result of a set of societal norms and attitudes. Change would only come about if people knew more about women like Sarah.
Rather than talk over and over again with those who wanted to wrest Sarah’s story out of me, sometimes with sensitivity and intelligence, other times without, why not tell her story, as best I could, myself?
I had had a rest. I thought that I was ready. And Sarah had something to say that was worth sharing. People could learn from her. I would write a book that would incorporate Sarah’s own writing. I had no idea, though, how much I was going to learn in the process. I found a collection of letters that Sarah wrote to me as a child. Women who knew her during her fourteen years downtown appeared in my life over and over again as I was writing, eager to share their stories. Then, at the very end of my last major rewrite, I came into possession of an audio-tape of Sarah giving an interview. The tape was seventeen years old. On it, my seventeen-year-old sister answers many of the questions that I had been collecting for months.
It is not easy on a family when one family member decides to write a memoir. When I decided to write Missing Sarah, I did think about the impact the book would have on my family, especially my parents and Sarah’s children, but I couldn’t know what that impact would be. Every member of my family was generous in sharing their own stories, in looking back through their own journals and notebooks, in digging Sarah’s childhood stories and artwork out of filing cabinets and basements. They answered my questions, gave me what they could, and then had to stand back while I wrote the book. I think that that must be hard to do, since each of them would have written a different book from mine. They have to deal with all the publicity the book generates, with many people in their circles reading it, and with the document itself.
I did not know when I began how painful the writing would be. If I had, I might not have done it. I thought that writing about my sister’s life and my own together would be healing. And perhaps it has been, or will be. But it hurt, a lot. I had found an agent, written a book proposal and signed a contract with Penguin before I began to write. I knew from experience that I needed someone standing over me with a big stick. My editor, Cynthia Good played that role beautifully and with kindness. So when the real pain began, I had no choice but to go forward. My deadline for a first draft was January 7, 2003. Sometime in November I discovered a stack of letters that Sarah wrote to me over seven years, beginning when she was seven years old. Working with those letters was the hardest thing I have ever done. I was writing at a friend’s empty house over Christmas. Every few minutes I had to retreat to the couch and sob loudly, full body crying, until I was able to return to the computer. Sarah is utterly alive in those letters and so full of energy and hope.
If I had not written the book, I would not have spent the time with Sarah’s words, those she wrote as a child, as a teenager and as an adult. I would not have met and talked in great depth with women who knew Sarah in their teens and twenties. I would not have rediscovered all that life, all that energy, that love, that pain, that rage that was my sister. And I would not have learned from others who she was in the life where, although I saw her regularly, I never truly entered. Ironically, the creation of a public document, a book, has been one of the most intensely private experiences I have had in my life. It brought my sister back to me and allowed her to rest at last, both.
Essay Date: 2003