reviews – The Midwife: A Biography of Laurine Ekstrom Kingston

Reviewed by Anne Wilde for the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 

The Midwife: A Biography of Laurine Ekstrom KingstonIf ever a midwife—Mormon or non-Mormon—deserved recognition in a biographical publication, it is Laurine Kingston. She ably and professionally assisted over three thousand women in delivering their babies, with never the loss of mother or child while in her care. Recognizing the need of many expectant mothers who wanted an alternative to hospital birth, Laurine became trained and experienced in midwifery over a period of about six decades.  The seeds for her career were planted at age sixteen when she observed Dr. Rulon C. Allred1 expertly assist in the delivery of her sister’s breech birth.  According to author Victoria Burgess, “She [Laurine] is not only a genius, but she is a model for many older women who aspire to age gracefully and remain self-actualized.”

Today a petite, 5’ 2”, 81-year-old, Laurine was born in southeastern Idaho on July 19, 1931, the oldest of seven children. She was raised in a fundamentalist Mormon family who were members of the Davis County Cooperative Society (more commonly referred to as the Kingston group).2 When Laurine was about age ten, her mother began to prepare her for polygamy, which they believed is “a prerequisite for the highest degree of glory.”  She attended public schools until 1948 when she graduated from East High at age sixteen, the first in the Kingston group to do so. While still in high school she frequently dated John Ortell, who in 1947 (in his early twenties) became the leader of the Kingston group upon the death of his brother, Charles Elden.3 While young Ortell was developing self-assurance in this new position, Clyde Gustafson ran the affairs of the co-op.  Ortell would eventually marry about twenty-five wives, some of whom were from his own family.  Previously, Elden had taught that “the Kingstons were descended from one of the several wives of Jesus Christ, that anyone with a drop of their family’s blood was special.”

By the age of eighteen Laurine was working as a nurse’s aide at St. Mark’s Hospital. She entered the four-year LPN program at what later became the Salt Lake Community College.  During this time she was assigned an apprenticeship at the LDS Hospital where she could observe and learn from the RNs.  After graduating in February 1951, Laurine was employed in the Women’s Surgery Department at LDS Hospital, and was later advanced to head nurse in orthopedic surgery.

In 1953 Laurine married Leon Kingston, oldest son of Elden Kingston, and two years her junior.  Since they could not afford to be in school at the same time, Laurine turned down a scholarship to become an RN so Leon could attend law school.

Their first child, a boy, was born in June 1955, followed by five other children (two more boys and three girls), the last son being born in September 1966 when her husband was in New York on a business trip. Laurine “believes women have their own priesthood authority, along with their husbands, to assist in births and give healing blessings.”  When the family moved from the avenues to a house on 3900 South, Laurine quit her job at LDS Hospital and went to work at the county hospital on 2100 South.  Leon graduated from law school in 1958.

As an LPN, it was illegal for Laurine to practice medicine on her own; nevertheless, she had begun assisting with home deliveries for plural wives who could not easily go to the hospital.  “The Co-op had encouraged its women to give government officials the impression that they were prostitutes in order to collect public assistance as single mothers.”  In recent years the relationship between Utah and midwives has improved, and today about forty midwives cooperate with the state in recording births so birth certificates can be obtained by the parents.

In 1960, upon encouragement from the leaders, Leon took a second wife—Rowena, age twenty, Laurine’s younger sister. It was a “co-op wedding,” performed by “the elders,” in Leon’s and Laurine’s home. Rowenna Ekstrom changed her name to Erickson, to throw off law enforcement, and she eventually had eight children with Leon.  After her sixth child was born, Rowenna moved into a large, newly-built house behind Laurine’s residence and lives there to this day.

Because of Rowenna’s antagonistic nature toward the Kingston leadership and her critical remakrs about polygamy,4 she was excommunicated from the co-op in April 1992. However, to this day, Leon and Laurine still consider her part of the family and “maintain the house by paying the property taxes, insurance, and utilities.”  However, as a result, they, too, were ostracized by the Kingston leadership.  Paul Kingston had become the group leader by this time, and he and “the board” decided that Leon and Laurine should divorce Rowenna. Since they refused to do that and wanted to remain in contact with her, they were “banned from attending Sunday services, [and] they were in effect, excommunicated—but were told they could still attend weddings and dinners.”  In 1994 Rowenna announced that “she would no longer live as a plural wife with Leon.” Interestingly, all Laurine’s children married with the co-op, while none of Rowenna’s children did.

Laurine believes that the spirit enters the body at conception and that “birth should be experienced more fully with the mother’s full consciousness rather than less so with the mother being barely present through the overuse of drugs.”  She became known as “the little red-headed polygamous midwife on Redwood Road.” After Rowenna became certified as a hypnotherapist, the two sisters collaborated together for many years in helping fundamentalist women.

Statistics have shown that midwife-assisted home births are generally safer and less expensive than hospital births. “A midwife charges about $1,000 per birth, including pre- and post-natal visits, while a hospital’s charges begin at about $8,000.”

Laurine began midwifery as an assistant to Rulon Allred and became certified through the Utah Midwife Association.  Many babies were delivered, and mothers convalesced in Laurine’s home.  The author spends several pages discussing the pros and cons of home births versus hospital births.  She also give a brief history of midwifery in Utah, mentioning the more famous Utah midwives: Patty Sessions, Romania Pratt, and Ellis Shipp.

When the Domiciliary Midwives of Utah was organized in Utah, Laurine joined them in their efforts to combat opposition by obstetricians.  Despite the medical and legislative opposition over the past twenty years, Utah has about six hundred home births per year, twice the national average.

Eighty percent of the babies Laurine helped deliver were born into large polygamous families.  Before Laurine would agree to help any expectant mother, she would insist on the latter having a thorough physical examination, answering several detailed questions (both written and verbal), and assuring a clean environment for the birth and the availability of a long list of supplies. She was known for deciding quickly to go to a hospital if any one of seventeen situations arose with the mother or baby.  Laurine “did not see herself as the center of attention but rather as an instrument of God’s purposes. … You feel at one with the Creator.”

Many of Laurine’s vivid home birth memories are related in chapter 5, showing the diversity of experiences in her repertoire.  Often her services were paid in trade or with labor, with $850 the most she ever received in cash.  She attended her last birth as a midwife in 2009.  In her latter years she took classes about death and dying—thus personally experiencing in her career both the beginning and ending of life.

Laurine’s “view of life leans in the direction of duty, frugality, and orderliness.” Her midwifery practice has included humble prayer, wise fasting, and obedience to religious teachings. “She looks forward to the day when fundamentalists will be granted the same rights in the United States as everyone else,” and is an “interesting combination of fundamentalism and feminism.” Laurine has always recognized the hand of God in accomplishing her mission in life.

Reviewed by Melissa Ferguson for Utah Historical Quarterly

LAURINE EKSTROM KINGSTON is a fascinating subject for a biography. The first wife of the son of Charles Elden Kingston, founder of the Davis County Cooperative Society and the Mormon fundamentalist Latter-day Church of Christ (LDCC), Kingston dedicated much of her life to midwifery within her church community and outside it. The Midwife is Victoria D Burgess’s attempt to share Kingston’s life and philosophy. In addition, The Midwife includes a brief history of one of the most notorious polygamist groups in the country, as well as Kingston’s role in the home birth movement in Utah.

Born in Idaho in 1931, Kingston and her parents moved to Bountiful in 1935 to join the Davis County Cooperative Society. Her Mormon mother and Lutheran father were drawn to the Co-op primarily for its economic utopianism. All members consecrated their property to a common pool and drew upon the Co-op’s funds when needed. Members denied themselves worldly goods in order to keep their hearts pure. While many Co-op members entered into polygamist relationships, Kingston’s father was never interested in taking a second wife.

With the approval of the Kingston leadership, Laurine finished high school and earned her Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) degree in 1951. She soon found work at LDS Hospital. She married her “love match,” Leon Kingston, the eldest son of the church’s founder Charles Elden. After Kingston became a mother she stayed home with her children. Eventually her husband took her sister Rowenna as a second wife. As her children grew older, Kingston felt herself “called” by God to serve as a midwife. A spiritual person by nature, Laurine saw her work as divinely inspired and was described as having a “sixth sense” about the needs of both mother and baby. Her medical training ensured that she had a contingency plan in place should complications arise over the course of a delivery.

While Burgess reveals the basics of gendered power and an alternative economic arrangement within the Co-op and the LDCC, her characterization of the Kingston group is rather benign when compared to Andrea Moore-Emmett’s God’s Brothel (2004). Kingston’s sister-wife Rowenna was one of the founding members of Tapestry Against Polygamy, an organization to help stop physical and sexual abuse within polygamist sects. Burgess briefly discusses Rowenna’s story and hints at moments where Kingston delivered babies from mothers who had been sexually abused. However, there is no mention of incestuous marriages, teen mothers, preventable deaths, or children born with birth defects (ranging from not having fingernails to fused limbs) as former polygamist women describe in God’s Brothel. For the reader expecting these claims to be verified by a midwife to fundamentalist polygamists, Burgess and Kingston offer only silence.

Perhaps this is due to Kingston’s personal nature. Burgess explains that Kingston’s door was always open to anyone in need. In a delivery, Kingston’s primary objective was to ensure that both baby and mother were cared for, to introduce the child’s spirit to the world, and to encourage instant bonding between mother and child. Kingston’s career grew outside of her community as more parents chose home births. Her position as both an experienced LPN and a midwife allowed her to create bridges between sometimes antagonistic medical professionals and home birth advocates.

A biography written by a psychologist, Kingston’s story does not come heavily footnoted or extensively connected to the background material one might expect of a professional historian. Drawing upon a series of interviews conducted with Kingston, at times it is difficult to discern Burgess’s voice from that of her subject. Also problematic is a lack of linear storytelling that is essential to biography. This tendency to jump back and forth through time proves difficult for the reader, since biographical writing requires linear progression for structural support. Despite these flaws, the story of Laurine Ekstrom Kingston’s life is an important addition to better understanding women’s roles in medicine, the home birth movement, and religious history in Utah and the United States.