For those of us who weren’t around to experience the 1960s in person, that heady decade is forever painted in psychedelic-coloured swirls, peace signs, and hippie hair. But while the summer of love might have been a veritable Kundalini fest in San Francisco or even Montreal, the summer of 1967 in Winnipeg was far from a carefree exchange of bodily fluids.
Myrl Coulter’s memoir, The House with the Broken Two, tells the story of what happened to teenage girls who got pregnant in Canada in the 1960s. Coulter knew she was taking a risk when she had sex with her high school boyfriend. The eldest of five children, she had watched her own mother cook, clean, and care for the kids while her father avoided the chaos at home by going on the road or staying late at the office. But in the sixties in Winnipeg, getting your hands on condoms wasn’t as easy as heading out to the nearest Jean Coutu. Young women brave enough to ask their doctors about birth control pills were told that good girls didn’t have sex and were threatened with a call to their parents.
The House with the Broken Two portrays a vivid and unsettling picture of Canadian sexual politics and social policy as it related to the consequences of extramarital sex. Before World War II the public and private agencies made small attempts to keep single mothers and their babies together, but when the 1950s paradigm of the perfect nuclear family took hold in North America attitudes changed. “Girls like me were not young women who needed a helping hand,” Coulter writes. “Instead we were seen as somehow delinquent and definitely unfit as mothers.”
And so the author and girls like her found themselves at the mercy of a closed adoption system, a process intended to reward infertile model family units with their own bundle of joy while making it impossible for birthmothers to ever see or hear from their offspring again. This system suited Coulter’s parents needs; they were ashamed of their daughter’s behaviour and informed the eighteen-year-old that she was “never to speak of this again.”
The House with the Broken Two works best when it describes Coulter’s experience as a pregnant teenager in the sixties, offering a poignant and personal look into how social policy affected the lives of women. She manages to break through the silence and shame of her earlier life and describes a part of Canadian history that remains under-exposed.
What doesn’t work in this memoir are the pages and pages of description of Coulter’s life before she got pregnant. And while one could argue that the details create a societal context for what happened to her, knowing how her grandparents’ house was decorated or where she went on summer holidays seems superfluous. The same problem continues after her son is given up for adoption when once again Coulter piles on the pages about her marriages, her travels, and her professional successes. The repetition of the sentiment that birth mothers never forget is not enough to convince us that what we are reading has any real relevance to the story at hand.
B.A. Markus is a mother, writer and teacher who was once interrogated by a pharmacist in Ireland when she tried to buy condoms.