Rare Consolation: Reading a Memoir of Addiction

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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.

Fake Failures: Why Are Successful Young Women Writers Playing Miserable Online?

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I hadn’t even finished reading Miranda Popkey’s piece, “All the Time I’ve Wasted Watching the Better Versions of Me,” when I copied and pasted the link into a text to my best friend. I wrote “stop what you’re doing and read this.” Ninety seconds later my bff wrote back “oh shit but i’m working on my book proposal. can i handle this?” I wasn’t sure.

Popkey’s essay is about envy —specifically of other writers, but more generally of other women. It’s about how difficult it is to metabolize their success, their beauty, their Instagram feeds, and the pain of reckoning not only with the fact that other writers are publishing better things (though she says that’s also true), but that “whatever I publish, I remain the person whose dresser is covered in dust and detritus and whose jeans are coming apart at the crotch, the person who writes in bed and bites her fingernails and hasn’t showered in days.”

It’s an honest, disconcerting dispatch from the hot bundle of synapses in our brains where it seems we exist only to hate each other, and of course, by constant comparison, ourselves. It’s sad, but it’s one of those unflinching, self-deprecating, and really funny pieces that make you smirk and issue micro-exhalations of over-identification every third line or so.

It’s also brave, although I’d put that quality in quotations. It feels almost like the quote-unquote-bravery of the ingenue who’s willing to gain weight or go without makeup for a role. Yes, in so doing, she allows herself to be represented in an unflattering light, and submits herself in that unflattering light to public scrutiny. Then again, that enactment of ugliness is one she herself engineered, or was complicit in engineering. Most importantly, it’s one she’ll profit from. She’s not actually ugly —she’s a movie star pretending to be not a movie star. In this piece, Miranda Popkey is a writer who’s kind of pretending not to be a writer.

Naturally, I say that from my own petty, envious, spiteful, self-doubting, nail-biting perch. My own detritus and dust. And I say it with what I feel to be a more compelling claim to envy than Popkey’s. After all, I’m in California, where (unless you’re Joan Didion) writerly endeavors go to die—or, more accurately, to become media startups, then “pivot,” then die. I’m surely older than Popkey, and I don’t have bylines in any of the places she does: The New Yorker, The New Inquiry, the New Republic. I also don’t have a husband—Popkey has written recently about her decision to don a bridal veil and, quite brilliantly, through a couple old novels newly reprinted by The New York Review Books, about the complicated stakes of being financially supported by her new spouse.

But I do have a couple of kids. Via Quartz, I learned last week that motherhood is actually an “efficiency hack” (which —whatthefuckever), so maybe that shouldn’t be a big deal. But it feels like a big deal. The commute and the full time job and the freelance jobs and the burdens of domesticity —well, they feel like a handicap. And that makes it hard to read articles like Popkey’s, and endless tweets by similar millennial women writers and creatives who seem mired in minor miseries.

I don’t want to compete with Popkey, because in most ways my life is, in the parlance of the day, “blessed,” but also because I really love her writing. And I feel for her. I of course ended up Internet stalking her and found that she has, like me and like so many of us, long been dogged by the more anguished side of ambition: resentment, discontent. She’s been pursued by the question she asks in “All the Time I’ve Wasted:” “Why not me?”

Last year in New York magazine she wrote about a solo road trip, on which she hoped to learn a new kind of freedom and to shake off the persistent condition of “wanting to be wanted —accepted.” Instead, she was forced to confront a radiantly happy old friend who’d traded in life in East Coast publishing for a burly husband and a ranch in Wyoming. (The cowboy husband even rubs the friend’s feet beneath a taxidermied elk head.) She realizes she doesn’t know exactly what she wants. She writes, “New York had encouraged a desire, already hard-wired, to be generally desired —by jobs and men and girls whose Instagram feeds made me sick with envy—while at the same time concealing what it was I desired.”

On the one hand, her words are refreshingly real. The anonymity of modern life can be crushing. The city, she writes, “feels glutted with other versions of yourself, trying to do precisely the same thing.” I wrote something nearly identical in my journal 10 years ago on a tipsy winter night, after looking around the L-train at the other sad, Semitic brunettes also dwarfed by their parkas and bulky scarves, with their heads in books, their headphones possibly even piping the same songs as mine into their frigid, lonely ears. The city felt at times like it was teeming with other versions of me —better, smarter, prettier versions. We’re the stars of our own movies.

For women especially, this competition for recognition isn’t only intellectual, it’s intellectual-aesthetic, revolving at least as much around youth and fashion as brainpower. These days, the careers of even the most brilliant among us are abetted, amply, by selfies. It is, after all, one thing to write the essay for n+1, and another to show up, svelte and fuckable, to the n+1 party. In certain circles, the pressure is on to do both, and if you’re not feeling on your game (or don’t have the resources—financial, psychological, genetic —to access the game in the first place), it really fucking sucks. I get it.

On the other hand, I’m tired of reading the anxious apologetic essays—and tweets—of a generation of super smart women who seem to spend half of their time writing with confidence and appearing in literally the best magazines and journals in the country, and the other half pretending to be failures, broken, stained by the last shameful drops of Seamless takeout, hanging on by a fucking thread. Forget Sad Girl Twitter, this is, like, Hot Mess Somehow Published in the Paris Review Twitter.

Why are so many pretty, skinny, young, mostly white women who are published, even prolific, writers, advertising themselves as sloth-like layabouts, wracked with crippling anxiety, perennially dirty, late, awkward? It feels like my feed is full of the kinds of girlfriends I sometimes made in college or grad school, who perversely want you to believe that oh my god, they didn’t study, either! They’re always the ones who produce a stack of neatly written flash cards from their backpacks, turn in the paper early, and invariably ace the exam. What they’re drawn to is the staging of a lack of preparedness, the heady camaraderie of stress.

Going public with emotions once thought to be either unladylike, unprofessional, or essentially feminine (and therefore weak, frivolous, or crazy) is still a courageous and political act. And much of what’s great about social media is the fact that we can do just that all day with varying degrees of seriousness, varying numbers of fucks given. But often, Hot Mess Twitter doesn’t actually feel ultra-honest. It feels like just another slightly disingenuous performance of femininity.

I say this not to call into question the veracity of any actual individual’s claim to anxiety or depression or self-loathing, nor to dismiss the very real anxieties of the writing life and of many women’s lives. But rather to suggest that the flippant micro-chronicling of every bad mood, awkward exchange, and looming, soon-to-be-abdicated responsibility works to obscure all of the privilege, yes, but also all of the striving that got you to the big boys’ table in the first place, and to undermine your actual (often extremely good) work.

Then again, maybe none of this is supposed to be the real deal. After all, sad-girl social media doesn’t seek to be taken particularly seriously. It’s knowingly indulgent and laced with irony: a post-everything pose that knows it’s a pose. The bondage of self elevated to personal brand. But if these accomplished women are seeing themselves as unkempt failures, why? Do they feel a need to downplay their own ambition? Are they jealous of other people who appear to be “adulting” better? Or perhaps perversely proud of a certain skin-of-their-teeth success? Are they seeking genuine empathy and support?

In 2013, Slate published a piece by Michele Weldon called “Why Do We Admire Women Who Are ‘Hot Messes?’” In it, Weldon earnestly wrote, “I want to tell the ever-growing crop of hot messes a well-kept secret: When you behave responsibly, you bathe in the fullness of a life held in place with a deliberate and intricate construction of mutually respectful connections. And that makes you happy.” I remember reading that and thinking, God, SHUT UP. You’re not my fucking mom, Michele! Don’t tell me to “behave responsibly!” It seemed like the perfect encapsulation of the feminist generational divide: a judgy Second Waver passing on a “secret,” telling “young women” how to “bathe in fullness.” I guffawed, feeling myself to be squarely in the irreverent young women category. Now, three more years into absorbing the caustic narcissism of young women on the Internet, I think I may actually be somewhere in the middle. To use the kind of hyperbole common to Hot Mess Twitter, I’m exhausted.

The thing I most appreciated about Popkey’s envy piece is its ending. I expected it to close with an entreaty to stop wasting time feeling jealous of other women and start supporting each other! It doesn’t. Popkey doesn’t summon any false sisterhood. She ends instead with a dollop of realism, saying she expects she’ll spend a lot more time feeling envy in the future.

I’ll end similarly, then, with low expectations. Writing is hard. Late capitalism is absurd. Memes are funny. We all hate ourselves. To the hot mess writer girls of the Internet: I’ll keep reading your articles with genuine interest, lol-ing at your tweets when they’re funny, and rolling my eyes when they’re annoying. I guess if I really don’t like it, I could always press Unfollow.

Image credit: WikiCommons.