VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Young woman who flirted with danger left a 3,000-page journal
Saturday, July 31, 2004
INTERVIEW I Lara Gilbert never became one of Vancouverís missing women, possibly because she only flirted with drugs and prostitution. But the riddle of why the bright, promising girl gravitated to the cityís danger zone makes compelling reading nine years after her death.
"Main and Hastings never looked so inviting," Lara wrote in her journal in August 1992, when she was 19. "I wanted Skid Row to be my home at that moment."
Lara Gilbert as a high school grad in 1990 (left) and in 1993, 2 years before she died.
The next day, the teen, who was earning good grades studying sciences at the University of B.C., told her journal why she occasionally went out on the stroll, talked to hookers and got into johnsí cars. "I needed to try to understand what makes men view womenís bodies as objects, and sex as a substitute for happiness," she wrote. "I got to experience what itís like to be an object, a meaningless piece of flesh."
And she reflected on how shocked everyone who knew her would be. "I can see it now: premed student by day, hooker by night."
The truth is, Lara Gilbert was struggling with depression. The times when she injected herself with heroin, she was trying to achieve an oblivion antidepressants didnít give her. In 1995, when she was 22, she no longer felt able to carry on and killed herself with pharmaceuticals stockpiled through years of therapy.
Carole Itter, a Vancouver artist, is Laraís mother. A year after Lara died, she forced herself to start reading the extraordinary written record her daughter left behind. Lara had kept a journal since she was eight years old, and the stack of spiral-bound notebooks held a cleareyed 3,000-page account of emotions that were anything but clear.
Itter feels overcome by the fact that "I should have all this, after her death." The journals are "a gift to me," she said.
She has self-published a book, called I Might Be Nothing, under Laraís name (Trafford Publishing, 259 pages, $26.50, available from Trafford.com). It represents the many painful years she spent extracting a strong, coherent narrative of manageable size from Laraís voluminous life-record.
I met Itter in the modest 100-year-old house she and her partner, Al Neil, rent in Vancouverís downtown Strathcona neighbourhood. She had pulled back part of her grey hair. She wore a loose black T-shirt over pants and mismatched earrings, each of them pretty. Her glasses, hanging from a string, rested on her chest.
She declined to be photographed for this article, saying that I Might Be Nothing is Laraís story. If that means not going on television to publicize it, she wonít.
She was interested to hear that I Might Be Nothing has much in common with Missing Sarah, Maggie de Vriesí popularly and critically acclaimed account of her sisterís fatal attraction to drugs and prostitution, despite having come from a loving, middle-class Vancouver home.
When told that it probably wouldnít have been hard to interest a conventional publishing house in Laraís story, since such real-life tales are of huge interest, she said: "I didnít know that. It didnít connect for me, really."
Itter said Lara was an only child who grew up among artists. While some kids complain about their parents dragging them to church, Lara endured an endless round of gallery openings and literary readings.
As a little girl, she was full of energy and almost frighteningly bright. "I remember her [being] almost on the verge of reading at two and-a-half years old and then teaching herself to read when she was four."
She spent hours reading in her room. She had a big collection of stuffed animals and, thinking of them as related to one another, made out an intricate genealogical chart. She invented an imaginary world, called Kawiakee, with a deity called Goshiba. She sometimes wrote in her journal in code.
She went to Strathcona elementary school and, later, to Britannia secondary. She became a popular neighbourhood babysitter. An excellent student, she was accepted into the International Baccalaureate program, but stress or feelings of inadequacy caused her to quit. In November 1989, she wrote in her journal that one day, four adults at school asked her why she had dropped out of IB.
When she was an undergraduate at UBC, Lara moved out of the little art-bedecked Strathcona house. Itter said she had by then become a quiet young woman. The other students living in residence may not have known how to approach her.
Itter realized her daughter had periodic bouts of depression. "It was an awful time for me," said the 64-year-old sculptor. "I wondered, because of her shyness and solitary nature, if, when she came to Main and Hastings, suddenly people were friendly and talked to her. I know people speak to each other at Main and Hastings. She didnít get that kind of camaraderie at UBC."
The journal entries Lara made in university alternate between exultation and despair. In fall 1993, she wrote: "Good ó I mean fantastic ó news about that summer research job I mentioned a while ago Ö. I had my interview at St. Paulís Hospital last Friday. I expected nothing to come of it Ö. But the interview went terrifically." Yet just days earlier, she had written: "I just shot up a bit of heroin. I bought $30 worth at Main and Hastings tonightÖ"
Itter remembers being speechless when a psychiatric nurse told her her daughter had track marks. All she could do was mouth the words "Lara? Lara Gilbert?"
Earlier, she had done everything she could to impart her own values to her daughter. She had a sense that, with a teenager, it was too late.
I Might Be Nothing is a powerful account of a young girlís infinite promise, dashed. Carole Itterís sensitive editing, coupled with her clear, concise introduction and afterword, make it stand out in sharp relief.
"Itís not a case of Ďlife carries oní ó thatís too much of a clichť," said Itter, who often felt woebegone while working with the notebooks. "Life has changed enormously through her loss."
Updated: January 01, 2007