Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Author Sylvia Fraser sits at her home on King Street West in Toronto.Patti Gower/The Globe and Mail

She was a seeker with a mystical bent who tried to find the poetry and magic in life, searching for it in Indian ashrams and the Amazon jungle, as well as in dreams and fantasies and hypnosis. A gifted and hardworking writer, she was equally adept at producing novels, magazine profiles, travel books, books ghostwritten for others, even children’s books. Brave and beautiful, Sylvia Fraser most frequently wrote to understand her own buried childhood experiences, and in the process became a rallying point for others who had suffered sexual abuse in early life.

Beginning in 1972 with Pandora, the story of a girl much like herself up to the age of 7 who is groped by the bread delivery man, she published a spate of novels before writing My Father’s House (1987), a painful memoir of her father’s sexual demands on her starting before she was school age. Her memories, long obscured by amnesia, began to emerge very gradually after her father’s death in 1973, at which point she had not spoken to him for 20 years. The author had to contend with the skepticism of some critics that the events she described really happened.

“Sylvia discussed the contents of the book with her mother. It was important for her that her mother agree,” recalled Anna Porter, a retired publisher and close friend. Ms. Fraser’s sister, Irene, also supported her version of events.

Vancouver doctor Gabor Mate, whose international bestsellers deal with the effects of trauma (When the Body Says No, The Myth of Normal) said in an interview: “Sylvia Fraser, over three decades ago, was a pioneer in revealing childhood trauma in the family home and in removing the stigma social prejudice placed on victims, and their consequent mental health challenges. She helped open the public conversation on trauma that now, finally, is beginning to gain its proper importance in the public sphere.”

Ms. Fraser suffered a heart attack on the weekend of Thanksgiving in her Toronto condo while doing her yoga exercises, seemed to recover briefly in hospital, but died two weeks later on Oct. 25 after phoning her friends to say goodbye. Only days before she was rushed to hospital she was still riding her bike at the age of 87.

Open this photo in gallery:

Sylvia Fraser, attending a protest at Queen's Park against building practices that cause migrating birds to be killed by flying into lit up window panes of high buildings, was a passionate animal rights activist.Courtesy of Jenny McQueen

She was born Sylvia Lois Meyers on March 8, 1935, in Hamilton, the second daughter of George and Gladys Meyers. Her father, who had been an officer in the First World War, worked for more than 40 years for the Steel Company of Canada; her mother, a homemaker active in her church, had immigrated as a child from an impoverished English village with her family then lost her own father to suicide.

Young Sylvia, with her blond curls, was her father’s favourite. The first in her family to go to university, she took a degree in philosophy at the University of Western Ontario, then in May, 1957, married her high-school sweetheart, Russell Fraser, a lawyer. The young couple lived in a glamorous white-and-silver apartment on Bloor Street in Toronto. Ms. Fraser went to work for The Star Weekly, a popular periodical distributed with the Toronto Star, also sold separately on newsstands. In 1968, it was bought by Southam and merged with Southam’s own Canadian magazine, leaving her jobless. Ms. Fraser moved on to freelance magazine work for which she won several awards and to fiction, published with much fanfare by McClelland and Stewart.

Four other novels followed Pandora – The Candy Factory, A Casual Affair, The Emperor’s Virgin and Berlin Solstice – often spiked with ill-fitting scenes of violence and twisted sex that seemed to spring from her unconscious.

The publication in 1980 of her historical novel The Emperor’s Virgin became the occasion for one of her publisher Jack McClelland’s insane publicity stunts, still remembered in Toronto literary circles today.

The book is set in the first century of the Common Era during the reign of the debauched and sadistic Roman emperor Domitian, who is determined to force himself on the vestal virgin Cornelia, who eventually dies a horrible death. Ms. Fraser and her publisher, dressed up as the protagonists in togas, attempted to ride a chariot down Yonge Street to the launch party in a March snowstorm. Shivering, they soon had to dismount and walk.

It was during these fiction writing years while troubled by shards of suppressed childhood memories that Ms. Fraser’s marriage came apart.

“I wrote myself out of my marriage to Russell,” she told her friend Aviva Layton.

“She was deeply fond of Russell and grateful to him for everything,” recalled Ms. Layton in a phone interview from her home in Los Angeles. “She had a protected life with him and she threw that away, divested herself of her privileges and comforts to refashion herself.” Mr. Fraser remarried after their divorce; he died suddenly at 55.

In 1983, a decade after her father’s death, while lunching with her women friends Ms. Fraser was suddenly overwhelmed by a clear memory of the abuse she had suffered and had never before mentioned. “I know my father raped me,” she later wrote of this breakthrough moment. “My brain is alive with new memories.”

After she completed Berlin Solstice, Ms. Fraser divested herself of her possessions and left Toronto for California where she spent the next two years writing the book that would free her from her demons and ultimately allow her to forgive her father. The impact of her memories was such that she needed a long period away from Toronto to absorb the pain.

“We lived around the corner from each other in Beverly Hills,” Ms. Layton recalled. “She rented a little tiny apartment and I’d see her constantly. Sylvia told me that as soon as she unraveled her family she had no further need to write fiction. The way she was telling me, she needed to make up fictional narratives to present her memories. All those fictional books were a way to divert talking about the really seminal moment in her life.” (There was, in fact, one more novel, The Ancestral Suitcase, about her English forebears.)

My Father’s House went into several hardcover printings, then paperback, and was translated into eight languages, winning the Canadian Authors Association’s prize for best non-fiction book of 1987. The New York Times review called it “a case history that doubles as literature … a fast-moving detective story.”

Yet her career did not always run smoothly and there were times when she lived near the poverty line. She supported herself by teaching creative writing at the Banff Centre for the Arts, taking writer-in-residence positions when she could, and writing profiles of prominent individuals for Toronto Life and other magazines. She also ghostwrote memoirs, such as Unsinkable, for Olympic rower Silken Laumann, and Open Heart, Open Mind (2015) for Olympic cyclist and skater Clara Hughes. In 2008 she won the $25,000 Matt Cohen prize “in celebration of the writing life” that usually goes to a writer who has managed to go the distance.

Her later non-fiction books The Rope in the Water, The Book of Strange and The Green Labyrinth describe the continuation of her inner journey toward greater understanding of her own unconventional life. “For Sylvia,” her friend Ms. Porter said, “everything happened for a reason.”

The spiritual quest she traced in these books took her to ashrams in India and to the Amazon jungle in Peru, where she drank the psychedelic drink ayahuasca eight times under the guidance of a shaman.

“Sylvia had more guts than anyone male or female that I’ve ever known,” Ms. Layton said. “She never did anything in a timid way. She went to Peru by herself. And however earnest or passionate she was, she never lost her wicked sense of humour. She had some spectacular love affairs. As a friend you could tell her anything and she was never shocked or judgmental.”

Ms. Fraser was a lifelong devotee of cats and in the last decade of her life she was a vegan and an activist on behalf of animal rights of all kinds. She joined animal rescue operations, demonstrated in front of the Ontario legislature against the killing of migratory birds by high rise buildings, and worked with Toronto Pigsave, an organization that provides water to dehydrated pigs on their way to the abattoir – an illegal act for which some of her fellow activists were arrested.

Ms. Fraser, who had no children, was predeceased by her only sibling, Irene, and leaves five nieces and nephews.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe