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An egg-seller's defense gets strange

The Washington Post rang the front-page alarm bells earlier this month with a story on San Antonio's Jennalee Ryan, who runs the self-proclaimed "First Human Embryo Bank" where folks get eggs for baby-making purposes.

The Post said Ryan's Abraham Center of Life was raising concerns about "designer babies" because customers could pick and choose the characteristics they wanted from donors. "It's like you're ordering a computer from Dell: You give them the specs and they put it in the mail," said one bioethicist.

Ryan disputes all that, saying she doesn't take orders for specific characteristics; she instead simply lists the elite traits of each donor and lets people pick from among them. In some cases, they can see baby -- and even adult -- pictures of the donors.

Joan Didion had an un-magical night.
Joan Didion had an un-magical night.
To check out Tay-z's AlmostMySpace page, Click
To check out Tay-z's AlmostMySpace page, Click Here.

"We don't have made-to-order embryos," she tells Hair Balls.

Maybe not, but that's not to say that Ryan and her Abraham Center for Life aren't...ummmm... interesting.

She wouldn't answer most of our many, many questions (e.g., Do you really want more lawyer genes spreading through the population?) beyond repeatedly pointing us to a lengthy e-mail she sent describing her business and herself. It was a background briefing "in lieu of the recent publicity regarding the center" (20/20, Nightline and CNN have also called her recently, she says).

Among the highlights are this rebuttal: "There are those who have associated us with Nazism and me with Hitler!!! Well, my friends...if I was anyone other than myself, that might be questioned. But guess what? I have children, both adopted AND biological that are African American. So much for this whole Hitler-Aryan thing."

And her bio: "I have had three unsuccessful marriages, all of them very short term...My mother was addicted to drugs and alcohol...My childhood was a nightmare." She became a real estate broker who declared bankruptcy and a TV producer of Inside the Criminal Mind with Charles Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi.

As if that isn't enough credentials for running an embryo business, there's the company's Web page, which prominently features this quote, verbatim: "Abraham, husband of Sarah, desperate to have a child and unsure if his wife would conceive due to her age, begat a child of Sarah's maid, Hagar. And that child was named Ishmael. Then, at the age of 90, Sarah bore Abraham a son. And that son was named Isaac."

We're glad to see that boinking the maid is such a time-honored pastime, but its relevance to embryo-buying seems tenuous at best.

Then again, as Ryan told us, she isn't making any grandiose claims for herself: "I'm just a girl," she says. "I'm not a scientist."

PO'd about Q&A

The reading series put together by Houston's nonprofit group Inprint is a local jewel, bringing in renowned authors for readings and interviews that cost five or ten bucks to attend.

This month they featured -- at a premium price of $20 -- famed author Joan Didion and her bestseller The Year of Magical Thinking. Things didn't turn out too magical, apparently.

Inprint head Rich Levy said he got hit with a barrage of angry e-mails and calls complaining about the event. The messages echoed what one attendee told us, that the interview stunk. The moderator "often sent Didion to confusedly trail off, refuse to finish answering a question and awkwardly muster up responses to subjects so absurdly inappropriate for the occasion that the interview died off after a quick 20 minutes or so."

Others complained about "yes-or-no questions" that elicited little response and a brusque and abrupt finish to the Q&A.

How bad was it? Levy sent out an e-mail to every ticket-buyer he could, apologizing for the "substandard presentation" that featured "a powerful reading...followed by an all-too-brief and disappointing interview." Levy says he's never had to do that in the 26 years of the series.

Geez, who was the hack who blew it so badly? Someone who'd never done an interview before?

Hardly. It was Mimi Swartz, an award-winning writer for Texas Monthly who's one of the state's best reporters.

"I'm a little stunned," she says. "I did the best I could, and I'm sorry that it wasn't enough for certain people."

Part of the problem might have been the intensely personal nature of Didion's book, which involves the death of her husband and daughter. People dealing with their own grief probably wanted Swartz to focus more on Magical Thinking, but she says she "tried to ask questions that spanned the length of [Didion's] career." (Partly, she says, because the Houston Chronicle that day had featured a lengthy Didion interview exclusively about the book.)

Swartz says she was told the interview should be no longer than 20 minutes and may have taken that guideline too strictly. "Could I have ended it more graciously? Certainly," she says. "I was told 20 minutes, and at the end of 20 minutes I stopped it."

For what it's worth, Didion didn't seem fazed. "Some people have asked me if she was upset about it, and she was not," Swartz says. "At the end of it we got offstage and she threw her arms around me and gave me a big kiss."

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