The two girls walked round the small, human-made lake, behind the white vinyl and yellow stucco apartment complex on the fringes of South Salt Lake. They found a patch of grass and sat down to talk while ducks and geese bickered on the dark waters.
There were six years between the half sisters, but that wasn’t the only distinction. Straight-backed 14-year-old Monique Coulam was introverted, serious and rarely smiled, while 8-year-old Brooke Self was a free-spirited chatterer, needy for attention and love.
They were visiting their mother, Christina Coulam, who shared an apartment at the complex with her new boyfriend. Coulam had battled depression and addiction for years. After she and Brooke Self’s father, mechanic and drug dealer Curtis Self, split up, she had fallen apart, culminating in a recent series of suicide attempts. What had also fueled her descent was her guilt over the two children now discussing their future.
She had given them both up to others to raise, as she pursued men, alcohol and drugs.
That afternoon in 1994, the girls were united in one thing: not wanting to become their parents. They had grown up on a side street off a blight and crime-ridden State Street. Their home life had been a chaos of anxiety, violence and poverty under the dark shadows of their parents’ addictions. So they made a pact.
“I promise we are not going to be like our mom and Curtis,” Monique told her sister. “We will never turn out like them.”
“It’s messed up,” Brooke agreed.
That pact would remain an invisible thread through their lives, long forgotten until tragedy brought it painfully to the surface decades later. Monique Coulam became a stoic, driven professional, successful in the world of real estate, even if her childhood haunted her throughout her adult life. But her younger sister struggled as she grew older, finding love in places that weren’t healthy, and in drugs and alcohol a self-destructive escape from her pain.
This is their story.
The neighborhood where Monique Coulam and Brooke Self once lived has hardly changed from when they were kids. Trees still provide a heavy canopy over the bungalows that line Harvard Avenue. Tandy’s Leather store is still on the corner, where Monique Coulam would buy a few dollars-worth of craft supplies. The ugly frontage of her family’s former home is still subsiding, still sinking into the ground.
But if the world of their childhood hasn’t changed much, the city that surrounds it has. Now the downtown Salt Lake City skyline is a jungle of cranes and shiny new apartment buildings. With Utah the fastest-growing state in the nation, the city is working on rehabilitating areas of blight to absorb some of that growth.
In early 2022 it will be State Street’s turn as construction postponed from 2021 will begin on the “Life on State” vision between 600 South and 800 South, widening sidewalks, putting in midblock crosswalks and rows of trees offering the potential of shade for al fresco dining. If funding is found, city officials said in summer 2021, the 800 to 900 South State block will then be finished and, further down the road, 1300 South State and the Ballpark area. The world Monique Coulam and Brooke Self grew up in, where they faced trauma day after day without adult support, is incrementally being paved over.
Lagging ever further behind the explosive growth in housing prices in Salt Lake City, the homeless and the destitute, many burdened with histories of trauma and substance abuse, struggle on the fringes of the city, in tents and makeshift encampments.
Coulam and Self’s stories straddle this divide. Coulam is now one of the city’s top niche real estate agents, specializing in much-in-demand vintage properties. She achieved her own American dream aided by caring relatives. Self’s life, however, took a darker path. She slipped into the city’s underworld, where casualties of trauma often end up on the street.
What kept the sisters anchored together wasn’t only that both were abandoned by their parents, nor the tragedies that engulfed their families, but also Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACES, such as witnessing and experiencing violence and abuse.
The more ACES or trauma that occurs without adult support, the more health and academic progress suffers, along with substance abuse issues some face in later life, say Brigham Young University sociology professors Hayley Pierce and Melissa Jones. In March 2021, they co-authored a paper on how ACES and childhood trauma can predict girls’ adolescent delinquency.
“These girls were both from a young age wired for survival,” Pierce said, after a reporter outlined the two women’s stories. “They raised themselves.”
Jones said that their stories were similar to ones she’d heard from incarcerated women. “We have a lot of people who are walking around every day carrying enormous amounts of trauma they were never helped with,” she said.
The sisters’ story is one both of intergenerational trauma but also of how children who experience similar childhoods can nevertheless have very different lives. Early intervention, as in Monique Coulam’s case, is key, said Jones. “The important thing is we need to wrap our arms around these children and help them address trauma so they don’t take it into their relationships and parenting practice.”
The family business
Christina Coulam was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1957. When she was 7, she and her family moved to Salt Lake City, their Catholic parents converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Things did not go well for Coulam in Salt Lake City. She was molested by a 21-year-old friend of one of her siblings when she was 10, she wrote in a 53-page autobiography penned in jail.
She graduated high school in 1975 and threw herself into a world of casual sex and drugs, relying on alcohol to blot out her inhibitions and chronic shyness. When she was 20, she deliberately got pregnant by a man she met at a party. “(E)ver since my sister had a baby at 17 I had always wanted a child of my own to love me,” she wrote in her autobiography. They got married, and Monique Coulam was born in October 1979. The marriage lasted barely a year.
Coulam loved her daughter but lacked maternal patience. “I was always so preoccupied with depression because I never felt complete without a man.”
While working as a certified nursing assistant, she met Curtis Self, who worked as a car mechanic and sold pot on the side. Self’s history with drugs, he told Coulam, began at 10, when adults gave him pot, LSD and cocaine. They rented a duplex in Sugar House and amid escalating drug use, in June 1986, Brooke Self was born.
The young children routinely witnessed not only parent drug use but violence. One fall night, Christina Coulam, in a green negligee, chased Self as he drove away with the two girls, Monique and Brooke. They watched in horror from the camper’s back seat as their mother stabbed at the vehicle with a butcher knife.
Christina Coulam got a job at the health department and through that secured a federal loan to buy a small bungalow on Harvard Avenue, by State Street, a block and a half from the family gas station where Self worked. But even as she entered the world of homeownership, Coulam doubled down on drugs, both as a user and a seller. Marijuana sales became the family’s economic mainstay.
“I quit my job so I could stay home with the kids,” she wrote in her autobiography.” I had taken over the family business which was selling pot to replace my income.”
Rather than child-raising, however, Christina Coulam and Curtis Self slipped deeper into cocaine use, forcing Monique Coulam to fill the parental void. She was like a miniature adult, taking care of her sister and feeding them both.
In 1990, Christina Coulam and Curtis Self split up. He took 4-year-old Brooke with him to a duplex in Murray. “She was always Daddy’s girl,” Christina Coulam wrote in her jail autobiography. Coulam’s behavior deteriorated as she brought home strange men or disappeared for days.
When she stopped coming home altogether, rather than being afraid, 12-year-old Monique Coulam was relieved. No one broke into the house anymore to steal her parents’ dope or money. No one had her search Curtis Self’s red convertible for cannabis seeds.
She went to and from Lincoln Elementary school every day — one block to the east — ate from cans in the pantry or went to a friend’s house for dinner. She’d watch TV, switch off the lights and go to bed.
Monique Coulam doesn’t remember exactly how long she lived by herself on Harvard. One April 1992 afternoon, her paternal aunt Carolyn Panos received a call from Monique’s grandmother. Christina Coulam had asked that the Panos give her oldest daughter a home. “When?” Carolyn Panos asked. “Tonight,” the grandmother replied.
Christina Coulam felt guilty giving up Monique. “She was only 12 and it absolutely broke my heart to do that to her, but I did not want to drag her down with me and (she) was now living in a good home.”
The Panoses lived on Wilton Way in a split-level, three-bedroom house high above east Salt Lake’s Foothill Boulevard. Monique had her own room and bed, a decided improvement over sharing her mother’s bed, which smelled of alcohol and cigarettes. A fifth place was set at the dinner table and after healthy meals, the family watched movies together.
Instead of being buried in the cacophonous, crime-plagued heart of the city’s most rundown area, she was now up high, looking down on the valley. “Wow,” she thought. “There’s so much more I can experience. If they can have this, why can’t I?”
Below Monique Coulam’s wide-eyed gaze, in the southern end of the valley, Brooke Self lived with her father in one unit of a Murray duplex. While her father worked long hours at the gas station, keeping his drug use hidden, Brooke Self spent summers and after school alone, cleaning the house or making dinner for the two of them.
It seemed to her cousin, Alta Goodsell, with whom she was close as a child, that Brooke Self was almost playing house. While her father gave her whatever she wanted, Monique Coulam would later learn, by the time she was 13, he was also sharing alcohol and using drugs with her.
Brooke Self was fearless. Come Octobers, she’d be first in line for the haunted house and bungie-jumped and rode the roller coasters at Lagoon with gleeful abandon. She craved friends and wasn’t above buying people things to retain their loyalty.
Monique also felt the pull of her family’s addictions. By the time she was a teenager, she was still painfully, cripplingly shy with no self-confidence and could not talk to people when she was in a group. Alcohol she found made socializing easier.
In her sophomore year, Monique Coulam met senior Jeremy Higginson, a swimmer on their school team. He lived a few streets away from the Panoses, his dad a stockbroker, his mom a teacher. They quickly became inseparable.
Coulam graduated early from high school and went to the University of Utah. She wanted to study medicine but lacked the self-confidence to take it on. Instead, she chose the fine arts and graduated nine months early. Her uncle John Panos, who had his own used-car sales lot, encouraged her to pursue her entrepreneurial dreams. After Monique Coulam and Jeremy Higginson got married, they set about building their own mortgage business.
Someone to care for me
By the late 1990s, Curtis Self’s compartmentalized life of single parenthood, work and drug use had fallen apart. He was repeatedly charged with drug offenses and in early April 2001, Christina Coulam complained to the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office that he had abandoned their child.
When a police officer visited the Self duplex in Murray, he found two juveniles, one of them Brooke Self, living amid piles of garbage, used needles and drug paraphernalia. A county health official closed the house as uninhabitable.
Brooke Self told the officer that her father’s current girlfriend didn’t like her so he had moved to a hotel. The investigating officer charged Curtis Self with child endangerment and released Brooke Self to her biological mother. For a few weeks, Christina Coulam wrote in her autobiography, she had an opportunity to be a mother to one of her daughters, only to lose Brooke to juvenile detention.
In December 2001, Curtis Self turned to armed robbery. Two days after robbing a bank on Wasatch Boulevard of more than $6,000 with an accomplice, they tried to hit it again, only to find a police officer still investigating their first crime. The officer shot the accomplice in the chest and Self in the head.
Self survived, a federal judge declaring him incompetent to stand trial. A year later, living with his mother, he had a 15-word vocabulary.
Newly married Monique Higginson, then only 20, got custody of her 15-year-old sister. Brooke Self moved into the Higginson’s first home, which they had recently purchased. Brook Self kept running away from high school and doing drugs. Monique Higginson could find no way to rein in her younger sister, and she went back into foster care.
Despite the family dramas, the Higginsons were increasingly successful with mortgage lending. As the loan officer, Jeremy Higginson was more willing to experiment, take risks, while his wife as the broker-owner was more detail-focused and more of a business mindset.
They also flipped worn-out houses, rehabbing them into beautiful homes. In a real estate market boom fueled by government regulations that encouraged anyone, regardless of resources, to buy properties with 100% financing, like so many others the Higginsons leveraged credit cards to pay for house conversions, edging further out on a limb.
If her eldest daughter was an overachiever, Christina Coulam saw Brooke Self as an underachiever. By Brooke Self’s late teens, Coulam wrote in her jail autobiography, she was “struggling with a heroin addiction and pain pills. I feel it is very unfortunate for Brooke that she is so much like me in many ways. She struggles with her feelings, has low self-esteem, has a very hard time holding down a job, is co-dependent and is hoping to find a man to take care of her financially.”
Separated by love
In the late 1990s, Christina Coulam fell in love with a man she met at a treatment center and got married. For the first few years, she wrote in her autobiography, they helped keep each other stay clean. He welded ornamental iron and she worked at J.C. Penney’s entering data. But by 2002 things started to go downhill as he introduced her to methamphetamine. They were both arrested a handful of times over the next two years for drug possession, culminating with an arrest in February 2004 for running a meth lab out of their West Valley home.
In 2005, Christina Coulam was jailed on charges from the lab bust. A week after she was released on Oct. 23, 2006, she and 20-year-old Brooke Self partied at a small Sugar House bungalow Self’s father owned. High on a cocktail of drugs, they fell asleep on the same bed.
Monique Higginson’s phone rang at 5 a.m. the next day:
“Mom’s dead,” Brooke told her. “She died next to me.” Monique didn’t cry. This had been coming since she was a child. The only surprise was it had taken so long.
Brooke Self idolized her mother and when she died, part of her died, too. Monique Higginson just could not understand how she could love their parents so much, when they had both failed her so badly.
As much as Brooke Self knew her sister loved her, as she grew older she felt the weight of her judgment and disapproval and withdrew from her. Friends and family found Brooke Self’s instability toxic and increasingly stayed away from her.
Everyone goes away
Shortly after Christina Coulam’s death, the Higginsons bought a house above Foothill Boulevard on Donner Way, the street where Jeremy Higginson had grown up and where Monique Higginson’s paternal grandmother lived. She had finally secured her slice of the American dream in the Panoses’ neighborhood, where she had first learned what an all-American childhood actually was.
Ten months after they took possession, it fell apart.
In 2008, the booming stock market and real estate market collapsed. Millions lost homes to foreclosure and the real estate industry imploded. The Higginsons sold off seven properties, including their Donner Way home.
Jeremy Higginson’s upper-middle class upbringing reassured him he’d never be homeless. His wife didn’t have that luxury. She knew how easily the wolf could be at the door and took a low-paying job that would keep them afloat. For 18 months she worked as a valuation analyst, earning $36,000 a year valuing homes for banks, deciding whether to foreclose or send properties for short sale. The job gave her a powerful skill set when it came to accurately valuing houses.
By 2013, the Higginsons were rebuilding their lives. But Monique Higginson couldn’t find closure to her past, despite years of therapy. She wanted to forgive her mother, not hate her.
The next year she volunteered at a 30-bed residential detox center for women and children run by Volunteers of America. She went for a walk in the center’s garden of remembrance. On one of the stones recalling the lives of those who had fatally struggled with substance abuse was her mother’s name. It felt surreal and made her realize she still wasn’t prepared to face her demons.
Brooke Self had also tried to move forward with her life, getting married in 2014. The newly married couple lived in the same Sugar House home that Self had spent much of her adult life in — the place where her mother had died. Nothing could protect her, though, from a devastating loss in October 2015.
After Monique Higginson learned that Curtis Self had died from a grand mal seizure, she went to her sister’s home to break the news. She found her hunched over her steering wheel, passed out, a bottle of tequila by her feet. Once Higginson had revived her, Brooke Self refused to believe her father was dead. Higginson took her to the funeral home to see for herself. Brooke Self collapsed onto her father’s corpse in heart-rending sobs.
Eight months after her father’s death, Brooke Self’s pain was still raw. “My heart is so lost and broken without you please come back to me please, I’m waiting for you,” she wrote on his obituary page online. Monique Higginson got her sister on methadone, tried to get her to eat better and take vitamins. But Brooke Self’s only interest was alcohol — despite a doctor telling her she’d die in six months if she didn’t stop.
A year on from her father’s death, weighing just 85 pounds, Brooke Self called her sister, asking to go to the hospital. The doctor said it was the worst case of liver poisoning he had seen. Her body was shutting down. The young, vivacious, devil-may-care sister Monique Higginson had once known reduced to a bloated, green-tinged ghost.
Brooke Self knew she was dying and it terrified her, but by then she couldn’t even speak.
Monique Higginson called relatives to come say goodbye. Alta Goodsell only recognized her cousin by the B and crown tattooed on her hand. The next day she was dead. She had just turned 30.
Grief-stricken and guilt-wracked, Monique Higginson could barely function. With the Panoses’ help, she had found a way out of the trauma-burdened life her family was shackled to. Her sister never got that chance. Higginson felt she had failed her. She had built a family and a business, but she couldn’t save her sister. And when she recalled, after decades of the memory lying fallow, their childhood pact, she buckled even more.
“I can’t save anybody,” she thought. “That is my reality. Everybody in my life has gone away.”
By spring 2021, newly divorced Monique Higginson was in the top 5% of Utah’s real estate agents and owning a real estate business that grossed $1 million in 2020. Her niche was vintage homes in Sugar House, 9th and 9th and Central City as home-seekers desperately bid for a piece of Salt Lake City’s small-town charms. But she still had a debt to her past, to the sister she had made a pact with and failed to keep, and, yes, to find closure with her mother.
One early evening rush hour in May 2021, Higginson parked outside the elegant, red-walled Homeless Youth Center. Upstairs, she joined four other women and two men ranging from their mid-20s to 50s for a training from Volunteers of America staff on mentoring at-risk youth.
Mentoring required a nine-month commitment to a teen whom the staff would “match” to each of the mentors. Teens had volunteered for the program and would meet with a mentor one or two hours a week.
Afterward, Higginson went downstairs, and as she walked out to the lobby, she passed a large, glassed-off floor space. Inside, teens and youth lay on cots watching their iPhones. Somewhere they had parents and homes they had had no choice but to leave for the dangers of the street.
She wrenched her eyes away and hurried out through the lobby into the late spring dusk. “That totally could have been me,” she thought.
Across the street, she saw two murals. One urged her to “Be kind, be brave,” the other in black capitalized letters proclaimed, “We make the future.”
Beneath the exhortations, blue and red tents huddled for shelter, a man wrestling an 8-foot-tall chain-link fence panel closer to his tent. In a few years, most of the kids behind her would age out of the system. How many of them would be living in tents on Salt Lake City’s streets, facing a bleak future?
She had to do this, she thought. This had to be a priority. She had to connect with one of those kids.
“I have it pretty good,” she thought. “I owe a helping hand to somebody.”
Correction: An earlier version identified Monique Coulam and Brooke Self as stepsisters. They were half sisters.