A 'Sex Worker,' And A Human Being

Presented Here By

Bonnie M. Wells

A 'Sex Worker,' And A Human Being

By

BY KELLY ROESLER, // The OTTAWA CITIZEN SPECIAL

AUGUST 24, 2010

Reading the recent revelations in the case of serial killer Robert Pickton, my thoughts turned -- as they always do -- to the lost women.

And I was inspired to dust off one of my favourite books, which in turn, led to a revealing encounter.

The book is Missing Sarah, a biography of Sarah de Vries, most easily identified as a "sex worker" who vanished from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in 1998.

The book about de Vries, one of the 20 women for whose murder Pickton will never be tried, was released in 2003, shortly after her DNA was found on Pickton's Port Coquitlam farm. A sex worker she may have been, but of course, she was much more: a daughter, a sister and mother of two who was artistic, creative, friendly and a joy to those who knew her.

Written by her sister Maggie, an author and teacher, Missing Sarah is a compelling portrait of the human being Sarah was, piecing together her many journal entries, poems and illustrations with Maggie's own recollections and interviews with teachers, family and friends over the course of Sarah's 28 years of life.

I've long followed the Pickton case, Vancouver's missing women and the general state of the Downtown Eastside, often referred to as "Canada's poorest postal code," from my days as a journalism student, profiling the area and its issues.

And with the news that Pickton will indeed spend many years in prison for the murders of six of the missing women, but won't be tried for killing Sarah de Vries, I picked up the book and experienced her life again through this exquisitely told narrative.

As I sat reading in a public spot, I heard a voice over my shoulder. It was an older gentleman, inquiring as to the book I was reading. I showed him the cover and described the book, anticipating a lively discussion, given the recent news. Instead, he sputtered, "I'd just as soon not read about that," before walking away, leaving me speechless.

He may have been referring to the gruesome nature of the case against Pickton -- which was certainly not the focus of, and is in fact barely mentioned in the book -- but his response seemed to encapsulate the dismissive approach that many seem to have taken to the notion of a serial predator hunting drug-addicted sex workers. Accordingly, there are many calls for a public inquiry to examine why it took so long for Pickton to be charged, as it's now widely known that he first surfaced as a person of interest in 1998 -- the year Sarah de Vries went missing -- as well as why it took so long for police to acknowledge that a) foul play was possible or likely in the cases of the missing women; and b) that some or many of these cases could be linked to a serial killer.

Many families of the victims, along with area residents and activists, feel the sluggish, problem-plagued investigation and subsequent arrest was greatly influenced by the women's involvement in the sex trade -- as though their lifestyle choices and addictions made their disappearances less urgent, or somehow mattered less.

They're so marginalized, so alienated from the mainstream, that many find it difficult to empathize with the lives of these women, and it's dangerously easy to adopt a "she was asking for it" attitude. That is what makes these women's life stories essential reading material.

Sarah de Vries was a mother, like myself. She loved music, poetry and drawing. Her favourite dessert was lemon meringue pie. She was also a troubled youth, who lost her focus at a young age. These are all characteristics I share with her. How did she end up lost forever on the Downtown Eastside and I did not? I'm not entirely sure.

But as her sister Maggie wrote in her book, of all she learned about her sister's life and motivations after her death, most disturbing was realizing how close she herself could be, how close we all could be, to a needle in the arm, to the hell of somewhere like the the Downtown Eastside. It could happen to any of us, to those we love.

Amid all the debate over police procedures and legal wrangling and the "coulda-woulda-shouldas" that are bound to come, there remain the tragic and compelling stories of the lost women who lost their lives. Stories, and people, we can learn from.

As Maggie de Vries once said in an interview: "When I started writing, I knew that Sarah had something to say that was worth sharing. I knew that people could learn from her, that reading about her life and reading her own words could humanize her for people and, through her, humanize all the women who are missing and all women who engage in sex work for whatever reasons."

Sarah's is but one story, one book. There are many others that need to be told. And we need to read them, not turn away from them.

Kelly Roesler is an Ottawa freelance writer.

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