The linked words "pig farm" and "missing women" pierced my caffeine-deprived brain one morning this week as I blearily switched on the coffee maker and the radio. There was an interview with Pat deVries, the mother of Sarah deVries, the latest victim to be connected to that disgusting burial pit in Port Coquitlam, B.C.
Sarah was 28 when she disappeared in April, 1998. The adopted daughter of an academic and a nurse, Sarah was raised with three older siblings as the only black child in a white family in the affluent area of West Point Grey in Vancouver. Her family says she suffered prejudice as a child and she began running away from home in her early teens. Living on the streets, she succumbed to drugs and prostitution.
Although her family had long since concluded from Sarah's silence that she must be dead, the discovery of traces of her DNA at the farm belonging to Robert William Pickton made it official. I expected her mother to sound shocked, angry, grief-stricken at her loss. Instead she was composed and reflective and seemed much more concerned about how her grandchildren, Ben, 6 and Jeanie, 11, were coping with the death of the mother they barely knew.
One of her strategies is to read them J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books at bedtime. Ben had been reluctant at first, but he had been seduced by the sounds of the story being read aloud to his sister and now he, too, is an avid listener.
DeVries's choice of Harry Potter was deliberate. She wasn't trying to divert her grandchildren with wizardry, fantastic creatures and Quidditch matches, but to connect them to the emotional suffering of a little boy whose own mother was murdered when he was a baby. The circumstances were very different, of course. Harry's mother died trying to protect him from the evil Lord Voldemort, but while Sarah deVries loved her children dearly, she "could never cope with being a mother."
Depression and death are central themes in Rowling's Harry Potter books. Harry survives the murderous attack on his family, but bears his signature jagged scar on his forehead from his nearly fatal encounter and continues to grieve for his parents. Very early in the first book, Harry looks into a magic mirror and sees his dead parents. Later he learns this is a reflection of what he longs for most in life.
Despite all his magic spells and potions, Harry remains vulnerable to the Dementors, the black spirits that can suck all the hope and optimism out of people. The Dementors are Harry's kryptonite. If they land a kiss on your lips, they can rob you of your soul, but leave your body functioning in a kind of spiritual death. The point is that children, just like the rest of us, can be victims of depression.
Haunted by this gleaning into the tragedy of somebody else's life, I remembered my conversation with J. K. Rowling, a couple of years ago. Much of Harry's feeling of loss was derived from Rowling's grief over the death of her own mother, when Rowling was 25, and the despair she subsequently suffered as an impoverished single mother.
Rowling wouldn't say how the series will be resolved, but she did admit that death is a very big theme in the long awaited book five (tentatively titled Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and now scheduled for release in June 2003).
"I feel I am just over halfway through one enormous book," she said of the series and by way of explaining why she is so circumspect about not revealing the plot of forthcoming books, "but I will say that death is a central theme -- what it means, what it is, what it means to survivors, what it means to the bereaved."
Trying to understand your own loss and to imagine the profundity of somebody else's grief is one of the things that makes us human. It is a theme running through much of classic children's literature -- The Secret Garden being only one example among many. But it is also a theme that is now coursing underneath the headlines about the missing women.
In the years when female drug addicts and prostitutes were disappearing from Vancouver's seedy Downtown Eastside, nobody much, including the police, seemed to care. We now know that is not true. Sarah deVries, for example, had a family who loved her and worried about her. Sarah's mother and her aunt, the children's author Jean Little, took in her children; her sister Maggie fostered public concern by taking the story of her sister's disappearance to the media and is now writing a book; her friend Wayne Leng mounted a Web site dedicated to Sarah and the other missing women. Stevie Cameron, the investigative journalist, is also preparing an account. Nancy Lee, a young Vancouver writer, with no personal connection to any of the women, was so troubled by the disappearances that she wrote a poignant collection of short stories, Dead Girls, trying to imagine the lives of the women and their families.
Nothing will bring these women back or erase the horror of their deaths, but these books will offer them a legacy in our minds, if not our hearts. And Sarah's children, who, unlike Harry, have been spared the awful fate of having to live with the diabolical Dursleys, may take some comfort from that fact and the journals and poems their mother left behind about her life on the streets. In one poem she wrote: "Will they remember me when I'm gone, or would their lives just carry on?" Not likely now, with all these potent and loving reminders.