Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Red Market: On the Trail of the World's Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers

Scott Carney’s 2011 book, The Red Market: On the Trail of the World's Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers, is not a book for the squeamish or for the faint of heart. If you can get past the slightly uncomfortable premise though, it’s an engaging and thought-provoking read about the implications of living in a world where the component parts of people’s bodies are attached to an economic value, and how people are exploited into literally selling parts of themselves for a chance to escape poverty.

Carney, an investigative journalist by trade and a contributing editor at Wired, begins his book by outlining the types of economic markets people are already familiar with: the white market which contains all the sale of legal goods and services; the black market which deals in the sale of the illegal materials; and the grey market which deals with legal commodities distributed through illegal means. Carney proposes a fourth market, the red market, which deals in the sale and distribution of human tissue.  What follows is a book focusing each chapter highlighting products that we all possess but have likely never thought of selling such as: bones, kidneys, blood and hair. The book also investigates the practice of paid surrogacy, illegal adoptions and paid clinical drug testing.

In his introduction he states how his personal interest in the subject matter began.  An interesting story about how as a teacher in India, a student he was responsible for committed suicide. As her chaperone he was responsible for transporting the body from rural India back to her parents in the United States.  This experience opens his eyes to the price tag that accompanies every human life, and how people become, in many cases, treated like objects after they die. These themes are present throughout the book.  The setting of India is important, as most of the stories are centered in various parts of India and its thriving red market.  However the book does recognise that the red market operates on a huge international scale and explores the global red market.

Even though this is his first published book, Carney’s journalistic expertise is on full display. Each chapter is well written and well researched. He has an excellent knack for finding and writing engaging human interest stories, in all of his interviews you get a good sense of the people he is talking to and how desperate their situations are. You also can see the immense amount of respect he has for the people he speaks to and interacts with. He never judges people who have entered the red market, instead he asks that the reader understand how they are victims of terrible situations. He does not however refrain from judging the middlemen and the people who benefit from the red market and exploit and coerce people with no other choice, into exploitative and potentially risky situations.

Given the subject matter it should come as no surprise that these stories are more often than not, absolutely heartbreaking. One chapter immediately comes to mind about a young boy who was kidnapped in India and adopted by an American couple who was told the child was an orphan. Carney interviews the boy’s parents in India, who have spent their lives trying to find out what happened to their son. Thinking they have tracked down the boy’s adoptive family in America they ask Carney to reach out to them and ask them to let them be in contact with their child.  Carney agrees and the family refuses to believe that they could have participated in something akin to child trafficking and refuse to reach out to the family in India.

Many of Carney’s stories reflect this, people believe that they are being altruistic but in reality they are not thinking about where their donated eggs, surrogate mothers and adopted children come from. Many people refuse to think about who may be exploited in the supply chain.

 One of the reasons for this, he suggests, is caused by the language that we use to speak about the red market. We ‘donate’ blood and organs; we ‘give the gift of life,’ when we become organ donors. This language he argues leads to people being exploited, since people do not think of kidneys, blood and eggs as commodities, or as something desperate people may sell in order to feed their families. We see them as precious gifts.  As someone who regularly donates blood I see this language being used in advertising by Canadian Blood Services regularly. Absent from their pamphlets is the reality that my blood may be sold to other hospitals for profit.

In the beginning of the book Carney admits there are no easy answers to solving the problem of the existence of the red market, he wonders if a system where the rich do not benefit from the bodies of the poor can exist in a world where people want to live longer, combat infertility and adopt foreign children. One of his proposed solutions is to have fully transparent donations. Carney argues that when every adoption is fully open and every organ is fully traceable, this will force people to see that the donations come from real people and leave less room for middlemen to exploit the system.

“The Red Market: On the Trail of the World's Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers, “is an amazing read. At parts it can be disturbing, a tad graphic, though the pictures featured in the book are thankfully gore free. As someone who is squeamish and an avid avoider of any and all horror movies I did not find it too distressing and as someone who is a frequent blood donor as well as a registered organ and bone-marrow donor I found it absolutely fascinating.

After reading the book and thinking about the questions it raises, I too agree that there are no easy answers. We as potential customers of the red market have to ask ourselves if we are hurting anyone by helping ourselves.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Death of Santini: the Story of a Father and His Son

Readers over a certain age may remember Pat Conroy as the author of "The Great Santini," the novel and later, a movie for which he wrote the screenplay. The movie starred Robert Duvall as an aggressive, bullying father; the son was played by Michael O'Keefe. Conroy is probably best known for The Prince of Tides, a hugely popular novel from the mid-80s, adapted into a movie starring Barbra Streisand and Nick Nolte, directed by Streisand. Conroy has written many other novels and screenplays, and in general has been a highly successful writer.

A recurring theme in Conroy's work - present, apparently, in everything he writes - is a highly troubled family, featuring at least one person who is suicidal, and a cruel, bullying, abusive father. Although readers should never assume that a writer's work is autobiographical, this motif recurs with such regularity in Conroy's work that it's difficult to avoid the question. And in this case, the assumption would prove correct, and then some.

Conroy's father was indeed the model for the fathers portrayed in The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides, The Lords of Discipline, and all his other novels - with one huge difference: the fictional abuse was softened, diluted. Hollywood wouldn't have made a movie showing the real "Santini" - Conroy's father - nor would millions have loved The Prince of Tides. The story would have been too brutal, too heartbreaking for popular fiction.

Donald Conroy was a violent, sadistic man who beat his wife and his male children, brutally and often. Anyone who wasn't the victim of outright violence grew up with the terror of witnessing it and the fear of its wild unpredictability. Conroy the father told his children they were worthless losers, at every opportunity. And Conroy the writer was compelled to write his family into fiction, again and again. As Conroy says in this book's prologue:
I've been writing the story of my own life for over forty years. My own stormy autobiography has been my theme, my dilemma, my obsession, and the fly-by-night dread I bring to the art of fiction.
The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son is, in part, a literary exorcism, the writer's attempt to purge his father from his life at last. The book also explores the experience of transforming family members into fictional versions of themselves, and their reactions to appearing as characters in print and on screen. They are by turns outraged, mortified, and thrilled, and they sometimes seem to imagine that they are the characters, larger than their own lives. The reactions of Donald Conroy to his son's constant fictional versions of him and his horrific behaviour are the most fascinating and compelling part of the book.

Conroy's writing can be ornate, overheated, and melodramatic, and will not be to everyone's tastes. He is prone to sweeping statements that can sometimes seem a bit self-important. Given to understatement he is not. But his writing is vivid and powerful, often moving or disturbing in all the right ways.
My childhood taught me everything I needed to know about the dangers of love. Love came in many disguises, masquerades, rigged card tricks, and sleights of hand that could either overwhelm or tame you. It was a country bristling with fishhooks hung at eye level, man-traps, and poisoned baits. It could hurl toward you at a breakneck speed or let you dangle over a web spun by a brown recluse spider. When love announced itself, I learned to duck to avoid the telegraphed backhand or the blown kiss from my mother's fragrant hand. Havoc took up residence in me at a young age. Violence became a whorl in my DNA. I was the oldest of seven children; five of us would try to kill ourselves before the age of forty. My brother Tom would succeed in a most spectacular fashion. Love came to us veiled in disturbance - we had to learn it the hard way, cutting away the spoilage like bruises on a pear.
Reading about the violence that Conroy, his mother, and his siblings endured, I wondered that any of them made it through with their selves and their sanity intact. Indeed, some did not. I also wondered, again and again, what made Donald Conroy such a violent and hate-filled man.

This book would especially interest people who read and enjoyed The Prince of Tides and other works by Conroy. But anyone with an interest in how life and fiction interact may find The Death of Santini a fascinating, if not always pleasant, read. (This review was originally published on wmtc.)

Beauty Queen: Inside the Reign of Avon's Andrea Jung

During the seventies my late mother was a door-to-door Avon representative, more commonly known as an Avon lady. My brother and I have truly precious memories of receiving the monthly Avon deliveries from company headquarters, then helping our mother package the orders for her customers. She even instructed us on how to elegantly staple the receipts to the delivery bags. My brother and I can still recall all the fragrances, both women's and men's, from over forty years ago. My favourite was Blue Lotus but my mom loathed it. I still have a wide assortment of Beatles newspaper articles packed away in old Avon boxes. Thus my attention was drawn to Beauty Queen: Inside the Reign of Avon's Andrea Jung by Deborrah Himsel. Jung was born in Toronto and became the first woman CEO of Avon Products, Inc. The author Himsel was no outsider, for she worked with Jung as the vice president of Global Organization Effectiveness.
Beauty Queen was divided into two parts: the first was an account of Jung's rise and fall within the company. This was by far the more interesting section. I was less impressed with part two, about the traits of effective leaders, and what to look out for and what to avoid in the hiring process. Even though Himsel used Jung as her example in the second part entitled "Broader Leadership Lessons", I felt I could find this information in any leadership book. The main reason I picked up Beauty Queen was the corporate story and learning how Jung turned Avon around in achieving consistent double-digit gains year after year. Jung was the first woman CEO of Avon and she projected an aura that left everyone awestruck by her beauty and charisma. Himsel referred to Jung's charisma repeatedly, and it was easy to see why. After a history of male CEO's, Jung's trademark pearl necklace, flawless makeup, Chanel suits, model poise, elegant grace and friendly demeanor made everyone fall in love with her. She had the company in the palm of her hand the moment she walked into her first executive meeting:

"Her presence was palpable not only when she spoke but even when she just sat and listened. It was impossible to dismiss her. It was impossible not to be impressed by her."

Her staff fell over themselves in their quest to please her. Having such a willing and able staff made it very easy to produce the results that she wanted.

While Jung possessed many qualities of an excellent leader, Himsel was not shy to discuss what may have led to her downfall:

"One of Andrea's major derailers was being a pleaser; she avoided conflict and tried to appease others in order to maintain harmony, a tendency that can be traced back to the messages she received growing up. Andrea spoke often about how there were no disagreements in her house, especially at the dinner table, because disagreements weren't tolerated."


"As a leader, Andrea could make people feel special, and it helped create extraordinary loyalty and performance. Yet her tendency to avoid being the bad guy would be a recurring problem in her career."

Thus in order to maintain her reputation, Jung may have turned a blind eye to poor performance. She has even been accused of ignoring scandalous corporate practices overseas, such as alleged bribery and corruption charges in mainland China.

Himsel made Beauty Queen a can't-put-down read during the first part, "The Avon Story". A few spelling mistakes during this section grabbed my eye, such as "JC Penny" [sic] not once but twice. I also cringed when I came upon "ying and yang" on page 57. Following each chapter Himsel reviewed the "Leadership Lessons Learned" and summed up the entire section with the seven factors that contributed to Avon's and Jung's fall from the top.