This month, my family celebrated a milestone we long believed we wouldn’t reach: the 40th birthday of my older sister. We were gathered for our annual summer vacation at the Jersey Shore, a boisterous, humid week spent crowded together in a rental house, breaded with sand, mixing rosé spritzers and grilling steaks. I’ve learned not to expect to relax, exactly. Seven days under one roof with family—including the five small children now among us—can feel by turns like a profound gift and a penance. It’s less “reset” and more “deep dive”—into our issues, our values, our shared history. At least this year no one was in diapers.
For the birthday, we bought lobsters and a sheet cake, and hung dollar-store streamers over the dining-room table while the kids jumped on the couch to Rihanna, batting around yellow smiley-face balloons and snapping glow sticks to make them luminescent.
Starting when I was 13, my sister’s heroin addiction infused our lives with pain, confusion, terror, exasperation, and guilt. I spent high school sleeplessly mastering the art of codependency—a somewhat natural inclination for a middle child—absorbing my divorcing parents’ anxieties, keeping my sister’s secrets, and self-destructing in small, private ways that wouldn’t bother anyone, nursing all the while a growing set of bitter resentments. I felt as if the entire house—a giant repository of my mother’s tears—was resting on my shoulders, like one of those really big fish tanks. If I’d shifted too much beneath it, it would’ve shattered. So I didn’t. For over a decade, the family navigated the periods of hope and operatic despair that characterize life with an opiate addict. (It’s a pattern I would play out again—surprise—in romantic relationships with men.) But then, miraculously, my sister became one of the few to climb out.
I spent part of our week “down the shore” reading Mayhem: A Memoir, Sigrid Rausing’s quiet, meditative new book about her brother’s drug addiction and its impact on their family. Oblivious to traffic, I stood at the kitchen island in the mornings, underlining and starring passages on almost every page. Owing to the many similarities between our lives and the profound (and rare) consolation I find in reading about addiction from the perspective of family members, I was often short of breath with feelings of identification, recognition, validation. I nodded and sometimes cried. I wanted to invite the author over for tea.
Like me, Rausing is the middle of three children. Also like me, she was trained as a cultural anthropologist and her primary preoccupation was the passing fantasy of Soviet socialism. (I read her first book, History, Memory, and Identity in Post-Soviet Estonia, in a graduate seminar. In Mayhem she writes of her research site, “The state of Estonia mirrored my own internal state: there was little or no welfare and no viable security forces.”) We are both now editors. She also grew up, as I did, feeling her kinship to her siblings like a visceral charge coursing through her blood. “The three of us were made from the same basic ingredients,” she writes. It was “as though mixing my mother with my father could make only this one combination, more or less, of height, of green eyes, of brown hair.” As a result, like me, she spent a great deal of energy chasing the elusive answer to the riddle of her brother’s addiction. Those exercises in futility form the bulk of the book—riveting reading for me, though perhaps not for all readers.
Unlike me, Rausing, the owner and publisher of Granta, is heiress to a multi-billion-dollar beverage-packaging fortune, and spent her idyllic childhood summers not on the coast of New Jersey, but among a cluster of family homes in the Swedish countryside. Her descriptions of those summers capture nostalgia for a strapping, athletic youth spent swimming, crabbing, and doing gymnastics in Marimekko T-shirts and shorts. They also deftly evoke the subtle sadness of wealth and the pale, modest glamour of 1970s Scandinavia.
Meandering through the past and the present, Rausing tells the story of her brother Hans Kristian Rausing’s addiction to heroin and cocaine, and his ultimately disastrous relationship with his first wife, Eva Kemeny, an American socialite he met in a rehab center when they were both in their 20s. The couple married in 1992 and had four children before relapsing together in 2000 with a New Year’s Eve glass of champagne—a small, innocent gesture that can send addicts’ lives careening out of control. They were active philanthropists and steadfast contributors to addiction- and recovery-related causes. In 2007, amid concern that they were unfit parents and following an excruciating court hearing, Sigrid and her husband, film producer Eric Abraham, were granted custody of their four children. It was a major life change for all. Everything that had been “a bit ad hoc” with one child suddenly required precision. “Five children,” Rausing writes, “make a little school, a herd, a flock, a group.” Hans and Eva were devastated and angry at the loss of their children, but remained unable to achieve enough stability or sobriety to make a good-faith effort to get them back, at least according to this account.
In May 2012, Eva Rausing died of a heart attack with the foil and wire wool used to smoke crack in her hand and cocaine flooding her system. Hans was there at the moment of her death but, unable to cope with the reality of the situation—and, to be blunt, almost certainly on a crack run himself—he laid her body on their bed and covered it with clothing and other household objects, and sealed off the room with tarps and duct tape. When Hans was pulled over two months later, police tracked the smoking crack pipe to the couple’s five-story London mansion, where the 48-year-old Eva’s decomposed body was found. She was identified by the serial number on her pacemaker. Hans was charged with obstruction of a proper burial, but the twin privileges of whiteness and wealth and the (surely not unrelated) goodwill of the judge kept him from serving time.
Rausing has clearly written Mayhem to wrest this gruesome story back from the British tabloid media, who have already mercilessly picked it apart. But she does far more. In this slim, stoic memoir—epigrammatic and laced with literary and scholarly references—Rausing thoughtfully, painstakingly, works a deep groove into the stubborn surface of certain bedeviling questions: “How do you write about addiction?” “Who can help the addict?” Is addiction a genetic predisposition, a personality bent, a “form of possession,” a “culture of rebellion?” Why does the language of 12-step recovery so often feel inadequate to describe the anguish wrought by the illness, or to soothe?
From the wreckage of her brother’s illness, she forges a new self, one she doesn’t always like—particularly as she’s fretting over the children, afraid they’ll become addicts (another thing we have in common). Against a massive, varied literature of addiction that sidelines family members’ experience, even as it drives home the notion that addiction is a “family disease,” Rausing edges gently, gingerly toward a theory of us, not just them. “I suspect that the state of not being an addict is actually as scientifically interesting as the state of being an addict,” she writes. It’s one of the most radical lines in the book.
In a recent New York Times piece on Mayhem titled “A Wealthy Family’s Battle with Drugs Laid Bare, But to What End?” Dan Bilefsky explores the stakes of Rausing’s memoir, asking whether she’s “defiled the sacred rule of the 12-step universe,” where addiction is supposed to remain anonymous. It’s an inane question, given how public the Rausings’ trials, figurative and literal, have been. He also discusses the reaction of Eva’s family—her father, a former PepsiCo executive, tried to stop the publication of the book, and has recently called it a “cold, hollow and unsympathetic depiction of our beloved daughter, Eva.” He has said that he believes she would be alive if the Rausings had not taken her children from her.
Bilefsky seems bored, if occasionally moved, by Sigrid Rausing’s struggle. “She fantasizes about kidnapping and saving her brother,” he writes. “She never does.” To me, these are the words of someone not in the immediate reach of this monstrous disease. If so, lucky for him, but it will be the case for fewer and fewer people as the opiate epidemic creeps insidiously into more homes. The urge to save our loved ones, and the inability to do so: this reckoning will define more and more lives.
Bilefsky’s piece is brief and not wholly ungenerous, but it reminded me of the ways that addiction remains surrounded by a powerful mystique. We are more willing to take at face value and more likely to relish the first-hand accounts written by addicts and alcoholics themselves—they contain more drama, more highs, and addicts are notorious for what Rausing calls their “narrative knack”—and less inclined to want to listen to the nervous recollections of the fatigued family left behind to clean up the messes, to raise the children. The pain of the codependent is often minimized, marginalized, and importantly, feminized.
At my family’s birthday dinner, I lifted my glass to make a toast and we all began to cry. I told my sister I was grateful for her, proud of her for saving her own life, excited for her next chapter. We toasted my parents, too, for their unending caring and patience. “Well, you know what they say,” my father joked, wiping tears, “the first 40 years are the hardest.”
Not tough love, just love—this has been the ethos of our family, and it’s the thing to which my sister most often credits her recovery. As memoirist and recovery guru Tracey Helton Mitchell wrote of her mother in the New York Times last year, “When I was finally ready to stop drugs, she didn’t have to ‘accept’ me back. She had never quit being a guiding force in my life.”
After dinner, we went downstairs into the cellar made of breakaway walls that are the requirement of post-Hurricane Sandy architecture, where the kids sat my sister beneath an open beach umbrella, crowned her queen, and performed a play. Then, accompanied by my little sister on acoustic guitar, my five-year-old nephew sang “Hallelujah,” which he’d prepared specially for the evening, his voice heading cracklingly falsetto-ward as he reached each verse’s tender crescendo. I tried not to sniffle too loudly into the iPhone video I was recording.
At the end, the children encircled my sister in the dark bunker of a basement as she made a wish and blew out her candles, and we hooted and cheered. I thought of Robert, the handsome, wild-eyed fiancé she lost to an overdose many years ago, and all the birthday candles he hadn’t blown out. That tragedy spun our lives into chaos and darkness but, like the Rausings, it was both our loss and not our loss. After all, we were spared. We got to keep our girl. In that fact alone, there is tremendous guilt and a twisted grief that is still unspooling. Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.
Each year that my family preserves in amber moments like these is one year farther out from the worst. And yet, addiction is always menacing, always right there. In many ways, Rausing’s haunting memoir is doing the only thing we can in the face of such a threat: gather our memories like specimens in a lab and work with them in various combinations, trying to stave off the disease, trying to figure something out.
The passage of time shifts us in relation to events. But, as Rausing writes, “time does almost nothing on its own. You need to think it all out.” In 2014, following the publication of her second book, Rausing told the Guardian, “Addiction is a very mysterious existential condition and up close it is very hard to understand.” Striving to build an archive that might help us better grasp that mystery, or simply to live more serenely beside it, is not a thing we ought to fault her for. For some of us, it’s the only kind of vigil we can keep.