“I write, knowing that writing at all may be seen as a betrayal of family; a shaming, exploitative, act…Anyone reading this who thinks so, please know that I thought it before you,” writes Sigrid Rausing early on in Mayhem, her probing and disquieting narrative of her brother Hans’s heroin addiction and his wife Eva’s overdose death.
Sigrid Rausing is the owner and editor of the hugely influential literary journal Granta and one of Britain’s biggest philanthropists.
Raised in Sweden but now living in the UK, she, her sister and her brother were the heirs to a multi-billion dollar fortune based on the family firm, Tetra Pak, manufacturer of milk and juice boxes ubiquitous throughout the world.
Hans became addicted to heroin in his teens and spent much of his life in and out of expensive rehab facilities. He met a fellow addict, Eva Kemeny, the daughter of a PepsiCola executive, in one of them and they married in 1992.
Hans and Eva spent eight clean years together and had three children. They had a five-story mansion in London’s Chelsea district, a home in Barbados, socialised with Prince Charles, collected art and were large donors to recovery-based charities.
Then in 2000, when Eva was pregnant with their fourth child, the couple “had a catastrophic relapse,” says Rausing. “It lasted for twelve years. I was thirty-eight when it began; fifty when it ended.”
It ended with Eva’s death from an overdose at the age of 38 in the bedroom suite of the couples’ mansion. A drug-addled Hans wrapped the body in a tarpaulin, covered it with blankets and flat-screen TVs. He sealed the doors with duct tape to keep the stench of decay in and forbade the servants from entering.
Two months later Hans was pulled over by police for erratic driving. They found heroin, cocaine and a still warm crack pipe in the car and decided to search the mansion. It was then that they discovered Eva’s deteriorating remains.
“I will try not to be melodramatic,” Rausing writes. “But this story is so inherently dramatic that to tell it at all threatens to become an act of vulgarity; a descent to sententious and sensational tabloid mores.”
She wants to find answers but isn’t sure there really are any: “I want to understand how it all began, long before the relapse. But who knows how, or why; what prehistory of emotions, or predestination of genes, leads people into addiction.”
She gets most of the “tabloid” details out in the open early on and chooses to focus instead on the conflicting feelings of family members “witnessing addiction” in loved ones.
Rausing has a PhD in anthropology, so it is natural for her to want to explore and examine the underlying currents of addiction, looking for traces of it in her family history and being very open about her own episodes of depression and self-harm. She can be both analytically objective in her account and clearly emotionally torn by it.
She is keenly aware of the ways addiction tears families apart and how everyone — addicts and family members — are forced into roles no one wants to have to play. She had a long court battle to become the guardian of Hans and Eva’s four children in 2007, after which they came to live with her and her husband and son.
She feels it was something she had to do to keep the children from being seperated and sent to different foster homes, but it seems to have clearly been difficult on the family.
She talks about the “hawks” and “doves” in the family, proponents of a harder or softer line of tough love with Hans and Eva. She writes sensitively about how love for an addicted family member can so often be displayed as anger and self-recrimination. Her honesty is commendable but the heartbreak with which it was purchased is incalculable.
She explains the book’s title by saying that mayhem is an old English legal term for the crime of maiming. “The term implies guilt,” she writes, “which is appropriate in this context, since there is no addict story that doesn’t revolve around guilt, shame, and judgement. The guilt is indiscriminate, and so is the shame. We were all guilty, and we were none of us guilty. We were all shamed, and we absorbed that shame.”
Mayhem: A Memoir by Sigrid Rausing, Knopf Canada, 224pp.