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 of life, seeking it in Indian ashrams and the Amazon jungle, as well as in dreams, fantasies and hypnosis. A gifted and hardworking writer, she was also adept at producing novels, magazine profiles, travel books, books written by ghosts for others, even children’s books. Brave and beautiful, Sylvia Fraser wrote most often to understand her own buried childhood experiences, and in doing so became a rallying point for others who had been sexually abused early in life.

From 1972 with pandorathe story of a little girl like her until the age of 7 who is fondled by the bread delivery boy, she published a string of novels before writing My father’s house (1987), a painful memoir of her father’s sexual demands on her before she was of school age. Her memories, long clouded by amnesia, began to emerge very gradually after her father died in 1973, by which time she had not spoken to him for 20 years. The author faced skepticism from some critics about the reality of the events she described.

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

Vancouver physician Gabor Mate, whose international bestsellers deal with the effects of trauma (When the body says no, the myth of normality) said in an interview: “Sylvia Fraser, more than three decades ago, was a pioneer in exposing childhood trauma in the family home and removing the stigma of social prejudice against victims and resulting mental health issues. She has helped open the public conversation about trauma, which is finally starting to come into its own in the public sphere.

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

Sylvia Fraser, who attended a protest at Queen’s Park against building practices that kill migrating birds by flying through the lighted windows of high-rise 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. His father, who had been an officer in the First World War, worked for over 40 years for the Steel Company of Canada; his mother, a housewife 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 earned 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 purchased by Southam and merged with Southam’s own Canadian magazine, leaving her jobless. Ms Fraser moved on to independent magazine work for which she won several awards and to fiction, published to much fanfare by McClelland and Stewart.

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

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

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

It was during these years of writing fiction, marred by fragments of repressed childhood memories, that Mrs. Fraser’s marriage fell apart.

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

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

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

After finishing Berlin Solstice, Ms. Fraser stripped 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 finally allow her to forgive her father. The impact of her memories was such that she needed a long time away from Toronto to absorb the pain.

“We lived around the corner from each other in Beverly Hills,” Ms. Layton recalled. “She rented a tiny little apartment and I saw her constantly. Sylvia told me that once she sorted out her family, she didn’t need to write fiction anymore. As she told me, she needed to invent fictional stories to present her memories. All of these fictional books were a way to distract from the truly defining moment in his life. (There was, in fact, another novel, The ancestral suitcaseabout his English ancestors.)

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

Yet her career has not always been smooth sailing and there have been times when she has lived close to the poverty line. She supported herself by teaching creative writing at the Banff Center for the Arts, taking writer-in-residence positions when she could, and writing profiles of prominent people for Toronto Life and other magazines. She also wrote ghost memoirs, such as Unsinkablefor 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 life as a writer” which usually goes to a writer who has managed to go the distance.

His latest non-fiction books The rope in the water, The strange book and The green maze describe the continuation of his inner journey towards a better understanding of his own unconventional life. “For Sylvia,” said her friend Mrs. Porter, “everything happened for a reason.”

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

“Sylvia had more courage than anyone, male or female, I have ever known,” Ms Layton said. “She never did anything shy. She went alone to Peru. And no matter how serious or passionate she was, she never lost her sense of humor. She had spectacular love affairs. As a friend, you could tell her anything and she was never shocked or judged.

Ms Fraser has always been passionate about cats and for the last decade of her life was a vegan and an activist on behalf of animal rights of all kinds. She has joined animal rescues, 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 en route to the slaughterhouse – an illegal act for which some of his fellow activists have been arrested.

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