Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures, while full of scintillating confession, avoids the trappings of the typical pre-menopausal personal memoir. It's actually about something: the experiences of three U.N. aid workers serving in some of the most horrific crises of the 1990s. From Cambodia's elections to the ethnic cleansing exercises of Bosnia and Rwanda, to the civil wars of Haiti and Somalia, this trifecta could've easily cranked out several memoirs each.
Heidi Postlewait, Kenneth Cain and Andrew Thomson became friends in Cambodia while supervising the country's first election in 1993. Straight out of Harvard Law, Cain wants to change the world via human rights law. Postlewait is a freshly divorced social worker who hustles a gig as a U.N. secretary to escape lower-middle-class poverty as only a New Yorker can know it. In the process she enjoys a healthy amount of cross-cultural humping, triggered by the "wake up and smell the mortality" lifestyle in places like Mogadishu. Rounding out the triptych is the avuncular doctor, Thomson, the son of New Zealand missionaries.
Emergency Sex shifts between its three narrators, which provides a breathless pace and offers a welcome relief from the genre's routine abuse of the letter I. The authors are very different, both in outlook and in the work they do. Their missions find them scattered across the globe, so at times the friendship that's united them in print seems inchoate. However, all three share a sense of disillusionment with the United Nations' ability, and thus their own capacity, to solve global crises. It's particularly ironic, however, to read Cain's observation, "What good is American power if we won't use it?" now that our administration can't seem to get or use enough.
Emergency Sex has received much attention due to the United Nations' attempt to suppress it. Postlewait and Thomson, who still work there, are being threatened with termination for the book's allegedly racy tidbits. Apparently, the United Nations is shocked that its own might find solace in the odd roll in the mess hall. But when your shower finds you scrubbing body parts from your hair, it'd be more surprising not to resort to measures much more desperate.
-- John Dicker
Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures by Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postlewait and Andrew Thomson (Miramax Books: New York) $25.95/hardcover