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Book Review: Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures

Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures: A True Story from Hell on Earth
Heidi Postlewait, Kenneth Cain and Andrew Thomson
Miramax Books, 2004

It is a shame that many readers will dismiss this book as outlandish or flippant simply because of its, uh, provocative title. Much of the press the book has received has been related to the “expose” angle of the book, with its promise of seamy tales of corruption, incompetence, sexual license and even drug abuse by UN officials. This is also a shame, because the book is so much more than an expose. If you have already made up your mind that the UN is hopeless, this is NOT the book to pick up in the hopes of gloating over UN policy failures in Rwanda, Bosnia and Haiti. Instead, Emergency Sex is an incredibly moving book and an addictive read, documenting tragedy, love, heartbreak, adventure and the friendship of the three co-authors.

The authors take turns telling the narrative, but their gifted writing meshes together so seamlessly that one often forgets whose turn it is to develop the story further. The authors met in Cambodia in the early ’90s, as part of a team that was monitoring the election there. Heidi joined the UN after leaving her husband, a successful Manhattan modeling agent, in search of adventure. Ken, youngest of the trio, hires into the UN as an attorney after graduating from Harvard Law School – he is the book’s most intriguing character, vacillating between cynicism and naivete, at times brutally critical of the UN but at the same time remaining on board with the program. And finally there is Andrew, the New Zealand-born doctor who went to work at a Red Cross hospital in Phnom Penh after meeting a survivor of the Khmer Rouge holocaust while in med school. As it turns out, the Cambodian election is cake – the work is easy and uneventful, the election successful – and the trio, emboldened by the experience, move on to other peacekeeping assignments, where their fortunes change dramatically. Heidi and Ken go to Somalia and come under siege, Andrew goes to Haiti where he is a helpless and frustrated observer in the face of Haitian macoute warlords. When Heidi and Ken lose a colleague in Mogadishu, their disenchantment grows.

The authors, especially Ken, offer critiques of UN policy along the way. At times this is a matter of expressing subtle frustrations over bureaucratic pettiness, but at times much more substantive:

On April 6, 1994, one week after US forces withdrew from Somalia, a plane carrying the president of Rwanda was shot down over Kigali and massacres of Tutsis and moderate Hutus began within half an hour. UN peacekeepers withdrew while a radical Hutu militia, the interahamwe, engaged in an orgy of killing over ninety days at a rate three times that of the Holocaust … when it was over, 800,000 had been slaughtered. Having failed to intervene in genocide on the ground for the second time in two years, the UN again choose to prosecute it in court instead, creating the second war crimes tribunal since Nuremberg.

In Bosnia, where the UN enabled genocide by declaring Srebrenica a “safe zone” for Bosnian muslims and then refusing to defend the city once Milosevic called their bluff, soft-spoken and taciturn Andrew makes perhaps the most vitriolic indictment of UN policy in the whole book:

One day someone at UNHQ will commission an official report about this disaster, replete with mea culpas and lessons learned. But for me there’s only one lesson and it’s staring right at me every day as I eat lunch: If blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers show up in your town or village and offer to protect you, run. Or else get weapons. Your lives are worth so much less than theirs. I learned that the day we were evacuated from Haiti.

But the book is challenging and heartrending more than it is overtly political. The most challenging moments in the book come as Dr. Andrew exhumes a mass grave in Rwanda, serving as the head of a UN team that is examining the site for forensic evidence to be used at the upcoming genocide trial. At this site, several thousand Tutsi women and children had crammed into a church, having been promised safe haven there by the local Hutu governor. Once the church was full, the Hutu militants locked the door, killing the entire congregation over the course of several days and burying their remains in a mass grave outside.

The sight of the church trashed and splattered with blood finally shakes the once-indefatigable Andrew, a deeply religious man:

After many hours I decide God was here, maybe not far above where I’m sitting now, watching and listening. He heard all the desperate prayers, from the kids and the half-dead women, from the believers, the doubters and the nonbelievers. Because everyone was praying for something, if only a quick death, facing a machete through the head.

And God just pissed all those prayers back down to earch, leaving everyone to die. This can’t be the God I prayed to as a missionary kid, or at the communion rail as a medical student. This was a pitiless stranger and to pray to him up here in this bell tower would be absurd.

Meanwhile, Andrew must cope with a cynical local priest, who has been left in charge of what is left of the church grounds. The priest, seeing UN presence and UN money, is desperately trying to turn a profit from the examiners’ presence, first insisting that the UN crew pay rent (in cash, to the priest himself, of course) then conjuring up an elaborate idea to turn the church itself into an extravagant memorial. Then, finally, the doctor has seen enough:

From near the bottom of the grave, we pull out the body of a young male dressed in full priest’s regalia. If this is the man we’ve heard about, he was with the people in the church, comforting the soon to be dead and refusing offers to be evacuated by boat at night to safety across [Lake Kivu.] Instead he chose to stay until the end. We treat him tenderly as we strip the body, wash the brilliantly colored robes, and dry them in the sun. Two priests, same church. One pays with his life, the other wants to be paid for the exhumation. The wrong man is in that body bag.

But throughout it all, while they face mortal peril, unearth the most horrifying of atrocities and do a slow burn over UN blundering, they remain focused, hopeful, and loyal to each other. And the book has more than its share of uplifting, tender and even humorous moments. A group of Somalian teens ask Heidi whether she knows Bob Marley, the one cassette tape in the whole town. When she claims jokingly that she does, they ask whether she has, you know, made love to Bob Marley.

In the end, all three return to private life, all with mixed emotions about how they spent their youths. Andrew returns to Cambodia and builds a home on the Mekong River; Heidi takes an office job at the UN headquarters; and Cain is now a writer / scholar.

This is a brilliant book, one of the best you will read this year. That Kofi Annan apparently wanted the book suppressed is disappointing — and really, apart from the drug and sex revelations, there is little in this book apart from routine criticism of UN policy. Peacekeeping missions failed in the Balkans and in Somalia? We already knew that. The UN would not stand up to even the most amateurish militants in Rwanda, standing by while slaughter raged? We already knew that. Heck, even Kofi Annan has admitted these things.

Emergency Sex is a tremendously challenging, but hugely rewarding book, and one that people of all ideological persuasions will be able to appreciate, because it is funny, sincere, and brutally, devastatingly honest. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

9 comments to Book Review: Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures

  • Julian Morrison

    So what does the odd title refer to?

  • Outstanding review. Anyone curious about the nature of the title can find out via Instapundit.

  • Bart

    The UN should be abolished. Period. There would be more real peace without it.

  • Okay, so where does the title come from?

    When Heidi is in Mogadishu, she is with her companion Yusuf, when they come under siege by sniper fire. They hide under a car that is struck several times, and when the gunfire ceases, well, as Heidi tells it:

    After a minute, or five — time loses all meaning — Yusuf and I get up and run around to the safe side of the building. And then the strangest thing happens. I want to rip my clothes off, rip Yusuf’s clothes off, and just [make love to] him right there. I can feel this pounding inside me and I can’t wait. It has to be right now, not in ten minutes, not five. Now. An Emergency. Emergency Sex. [gory details follow]

    You could draw a strong analogy between this book and Ball Four, Jim Bouton’s classic tell-all about late ’60s baseball. MLB’s reaction to Ball Four was about the same as Kofi Annan’s reaction to Emergency Sex — this story can’t be told, too many people will be embarrassed, too many sacred cows butchered — but in the end, both books succeed because of the optimism and humor of the authors.

  • Eric Blair

    I read that book, (found an advance reader’s copy here in the US), and I have to say that I really came to detest the two Americans. The Doctor seems not too bad, if a little idealistic, but the other two, they exemplify why the UN needs to be got rid of. The woman in particular seems to go to all those places just to get laid.

  • Ah yes, Ms. Heidi. She’s the most difficult of the three to appreciate, certainly, and yes, she does manage to get laid on four different continents throughout the book. But come on — Ken and Heidi “exemplify why the UN needs to be got rid of?” These are hard-working, well intentioned, honest people. The Bulgarian peacekeepers (which consist almost entirely of freed criminals, apparently), the UN workers who kept the brothels in business in Nigeria, the Dutch peacekeeping force that surrendered to Milosevic’s troops at Srebrenica — Heidi and Ken are worse than those people?!

    The problem with the UN is that, when they get well-meaning people like Ken, Dr Andrew, and yes, even Heidi, they aren’t put to any productive use, and are pretty much exempted from any accountability for their actions.

    In other words, the UN doesn’t work because, as Mises showed us early in the 20th century, bureaucracy doesn’t work. The authors of the book aren’t part of the problem — in fact, they all wanted to be part of the solution.

  • Steph

    Isn’t it a little naiive to expect that all UN workers are not only altrusitic but also uninterested in forming relationships, be those sexual or friendship?
    Clearly this is a book about humanitarian intervention through the experience of the worker. Its gritty take on reality might not be at all times palatable, but isn’t that the point? the personal injection of a focus on relationships seems to me completely understandable as it personalises and humanises (and problematises) this often misunderstood world.

  • Sarah

    This is an AMAZING book! It should be a required read for all young people in the world today, especially Americans. It is true to life, the world, life in the midst of war zones and international politics and especially growing up in the world today and trying to find your place in it.

  • mel

    I thouht the book was especially interesting. You have to understand that in a war zone people just like us are not only lonely but desperate for some type of affection in such conflicted countries.