Sigrid Rausing's Mayhem is lit up by its author’s remarkable candour

This is an awkward memoir, tentative and fragmented, but it is also a brave one

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“I write, knowing that writing at all may be seen as… a shaming, exploitative act. Anyone reading this who thinks so, please know that I thought it before you.” Thus Sigrid Rausing introduces this book – part memoir, part meditation – about the wretched story that dragged her family on to the front pages in 2012.

Rausing’s younger brother, Hans Kristian, and his wife, Eva, were heroin addicts from an early age. They met in rehab. They married. For eight years, they were clean. In 2000, when Eva was pregnant with their fourth child, they relapsed. In May 2012, Eva died of a heart attack brought on by cocaine. Hans, addled by morphine, hid her body under a tarpaulin, a pile of clothes and a flat-screen television and continued to live alongside it in their Chelsea house. He sealed the bedroom doors with duct tape in an attempt to contain the stench of decomposition and forbade the servants to enter. Two months later, driving erratically over Wandsworth Bridge in south London, he was stopped by police. Drugs were found in his car. The police searched his house and found Eva’s remains.

As Sigrid Rausing writes, the story is “so inherently dramatic that to tell it at all threatens to become an act of vulgarity”. She recoils both from the squalor of the tale and from her responses to it. “I sound so moralistic, so prim,” she writes. And yet she refuses to be deflected. She has a doctorate in anthropology (and is the editor of Granta magazine and publisher of Granta Books). Confronted with muddle and malfunction, she feels impelled to analyse and contain them.

Rausing is not interested in answering the doorstepper’s stock question: “How do you feel?” Instead, she asks “how do you think” about such a set of events. She wrote this book in order to “make sense of grief” (her italics). Readers hoping for lurid details will be disappointed. Instead, they will find scrupulous self-examination, a sifting of memories, literary models from Anne Brontë to Tove Jansson and appraisals of psychiatric theory.

The narrative is spare and allusive. “After the children came to live with us in May 2007…” writes Rausing, cramming into a subordinate clause a move that occasioned hours of court hearings, hundreds of lawyers’ meetings and filing cabinets full of documents. Hans and Eva accused Rausing of having “stolen” their children. The publication of this book has prompted Eva’s father to repeat the accusation. Sigrid defends herself. The children would have been taken into care and possibly separated if she hadn’t offered them a home. Of course Hans and Eva loved them, she writes, but: “What’s the point of love if drugs come first?” She doesn’t doubt that she did the right thing, but she is not self-righteous. Guilt plagues her “like a hum of nausea”. She remembers carrying her nephew on her shoulders. He pinched her. “Ouch,” she said. “That hurts.” The child said, “I do want to hurt you a little bit.” Rausing leaves it there.

She doesn’t try to give us Hans’s point of view. This is her memoir, of her experience. She writes about her childhood, and especially about time spent at her Swedish family’s summer house on an island off Stockholm. She recalls how she and her siblings ran wild there. Switching to the present tense, she listens as “the children” (one of her own, four of her brother’s) run as wildly over the flat roof. She is in a time warp. “Everything is the same; nothing is the same.” But then her mind goes back to happier times, when she and Hans were children, laughing every time they caught each other’s eyes.

Her brother’s problems have become her problem. As she tells us early on, she has been seeing a psychoanalyst for years. When she and Hans were in their twenties, he came to live in her flat. She was studying for her PhD. She was distracted and impatient and somehow didn’t see what was happening to him. He stopped washing. He stayed in his room “like a neglected child”. She threw him out. She makes no excuses for herself. “How spectacularly wrong I got it,” she writes. Afterwards depression overwhelmed her. She cut herself; her cat miaowed, expressing concern, or maybe excited by the smell of blood. She was admitted to the clinic her brother had just left.

She tells us all this not in self-pity, but as if reporting on fieldwork. She thinks and thinks. She describes how, in response to her brother’s addiction, she and her relatives were constructing a “familial police state”. Family members could be divided into “hawks” – proponents of tough love – and “doves”. But rather than descend into a discussion of those conflicts, she puts her anthropologist’s hat back on. “Disagreements are so interesting,” she writes, launching into a mini-essay on cultural relativism.

The “How do you feel?” cannot be entirely evaded. Most of the emotional content of this book comes not in the form of confessions but imagistically. A dead seal is found in the water near the jetty off which Rausing swims. There is something red on its underside, something that she initially sees as a rose but is actually its torn-out guts. She writes about a toy that she lost and that she found again under “two vast freezers”, which, like “deep sarcophagi”, contained the carcass of a feral cow that her father had shot. One summer, she and a cousin caught two crabs and kept them as pets. At summer’s end, they released them back into the sea. “We assumed they preferred freedom over captivity, but perhaps they didn’t.” She remembers her mother telling her that her grandfather, dying of lung cancer, was moved to a nursing home known for being “merciful”. She asked what that meant. “Well,” said her mother, “they gave him a powder. And that was that.”

Loss, misunderstanding, lethal kindness: these glimpses and fragmentary anecdotes are presented without gloss or comment. It is for the reader to interpret them and absorb their emotional charge.

There is another aspect to this story: the Rausing family is immensely rich, having made its billions from the food-packaging company Tetra Pak. For the popular press, the moral of Hans’s story was the banality that money can’t buy happiness. Rausing’s approach to the subject is more nuanced. Yes, wealth brings problems. She and her family have lived always under the threat of kidnapping. Paparazzi besiege them in their houses. Yet there are many things that money can buy. Rausing wrote to Eva once, “The descent into rock bottom is so long if you live the kind of lives we do.” With nannies and staff and with “enough posh and sordid doctors in London to prescribe you whatever you want”, an addict could remain in denial for years.

In 2008, Eva went to a party at the American embassy in London. A routine security check found crack in her handbag. She and Hans were arrested. As Rausing writes, they could have gone to prison, but no one suspects a multimillionaire of dealing. Pertinently, Rausing reflects upon the etymological connection between “guilt” and “gilt”.

She is as coolly observant of herself as she is of others. She watches herself write: “I notice I am hesitant to begin the story.” She looks back on her attempts to remonstrate with Eva. “I think of those many letters I wrote, those useless sentences.” She is not reproaching Eva for rejecting her advice. She finds it tedious, too: “grasping at the dull straws of recovery-speak”. The family hires an “addiction expert” – another service available only to the rich. He shows her what he calls the “family member handshake”. Laughing, he wags a finger at her. She is mortified. Looking back at her attempted interventions, she sees how “the finger wags and wags”.

“Drugs are fun,” someone said to her once – that’s why no one wants to give them up. She used to imagine Hans and Eva as floating inside a bubble full of flowers and music and sunshine. Outside the bubble, in the dreary world of court hearings and social workers and anxiety, were their children and the rest of the family. She is honest enough to admit that she envied them as well as resenting their irresponsibility.

Perhaps Sigrid Rausing had always been jealous of Hans. He was her mother’s favourite. She remembers mother and boy together on a double swing, singing, “I love you and you love me.”

She does not apportion blame, but she admits to finding addicts – who doesn’t? – exasperating. Once, she was the rebellious one in the family. She knows the allure of “romantic” self-destruction. She thinks of Russian roulette and Goethe’s young Werther, “the suffering in jazz, the rebellion in music”. However, she has taken the path of good sense and discipline. If anyone thinks, therefore, that she is priggish and joyless, she will say again, “Please know that I thought it before you.” This is an awkward book, tentative and fragmented, but it is also a brave one, lit up by its author’s remarkable candour. 

Mayhem: A Memoir
Sigrid Rausing
Hamish Hamilton, 208pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next move