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SCANDINAVIAN NOIR – Scottish Review of Books

Mayhem : A Memoir

Sigrid Rausing
HAMISH HAMILTON. £16.99, ISBN 978-024159269, PP208
by Dani Garavelli


November 18, 2017 | by Dani Garavelli

Towards the end of Mayhem, Sigrid Rausing’s book about her brother Hans’ heroin addiction, she muses on the origins of words for ‘guilt’. In her first language, Swedish, it is ‘skuld’ which also means ‘debt’; in English, it is derived from the Anglo-Saxon ‘gylt’, which, in turn, is related to ‘gold’, to the German ‘geld’ (money) and the Gothic ‘gild’ (tax). ‘It seems right, etymologically that the wealthy, the guilded ones, should also be the guilty ones,’ she writes.

The Rausing family, of Tetra Pak packaging fame, is one of the richest in the UK, with Hans heir to a £4.3 billion fortune. Rausing herself owns the Coignafearn estate in the Monadhliath Mountains in the Highlands. The money bought Hans a house in Chelsea and entry to the highest echelons of British society; but it did not insulate him from the terrible consequences of of his long-standing heroin habit, nor his sister from a sense of complicity in his downfall.

Rather, Rausing says, public interest in their lives meant they grew up in an environment of secrecy and suspicion: a ‘familial police state’. Hans’ spiralling problems, which culminated in his failure to report the death of his equally drug- dependent wife, Eva, developed in an unwitting panopticon, a power base of lawyers, security consultants, addiction consultants and family networks. ‘My guilt nagged at me; I was like a nervous dog staring at its own reflection in dark windows,’ she writes.

At its most basic level, Mayhem is a memoir, an attempt to wrest the scandal from the tabloid journalists, with their reductive ‘billionaire hid wife’s body in drugs den’ headlines, and to tell it from the perspective of an insider. ‘If you do not tell your stories others will tell them for you and they will vulgarise and degrade you,’ Rausing writes quoting Ishmael Reed quoting George Bernard Shaw. But it is also a diffuse meditation on the causes of addiction and the way it makes accomplices out of well-meaning relatives.

Introspective to the point of claustrophobic, it oozes self-reproach as Rausing, a noted philanthropist, berates herself for failing to recognise the extent of Hans’ problems, for her subsequent moralizing and for taking custody of the couple’s children. Yet, as is so often the case, self-reproach is countered with self- justification. If, as Rausing suggests, addicts like Hans and Eva create stories of blame and denial, so do we all. ‘Every story, including mine, is an enactment of what we wish to be true, an edited version of ourselves,’ she writes, channelling Joan Didion. Thus, she sets herself up as an unreliable narrator, reminding us that, while her account is not overtly self-serving, she is not without an agenda. This is particularly true in her coverage of the custody case. Though there is little doubt Hans and Eva fought a dirty fight, Rausing uses emotive language to keep readers on-side, even as she questions her own motivations. ‘Hans and Eva loved their children; I know that,’ she says. ‘But isn’t that also a cliche of parenting? What’s the point of love if drugs come first?’

The basic facts of the Rausing scandal will already be familiar to many readers thanks to the comprehensive and often lurid media coverage. Hans and Eva were heroin addicts who met in rehab. For the first few years of their marriage, they stayed clean, but somewhere around the year 2000, they started using again. By the beginning of 2012, they were living as recluses in two rooms of their £70 million mansion, where they spent their days getting high, while servants left plates of food at their door.

When Eva died of a heart attack in May of that year, a drugs-ravaged Hans hid her body under a tarpaulin and taped up the room to prevent the stench from leaking out. Some months later, he was stopped by police, who found a crack pipe in his car; the house was searched and her body discovered. Hans pleaded guilty to denying his wife a lawful and decent burial, but claimed he had been in an acute state of denial. He was sentenced to ten months imprisonment, suspended for two years, and sent to rehab. He recovered and is now married to Julia Delves Broughton, a director of Christie’s.

It is a macabre tale; but anyone picking up Mayhem in the hope of indulging their voyeuristic tendencies will be disappointed. Rausing, an anthropologist, editor of Granta magazine and publisher of Granta Books, is allergic to sensationalism. She circles around the most gruesome aspects of the story, conveying the devastation inflicted on the family through other images: a dead seal with its guts ripped out or two vast freezers – ‘like deep sarcophagi’ – containing the carcasses of feral cows.

Undoubtedly well-read, she wears her intellectualism like chain-mail. Sometimes the book threatens to buckle under the weight of her literary allusions. As well as the authors already mentioned, she quotes: George Orwell, Gustave Flaubert, August Strindberg, Jean Rhys, David Grossman, Simone de Beauvoir and many more. The passages she chooses are interesting and pertinent, but cumulatively it feels as if Rausing is laying out her knowledge on a smorgasbord to impress us. With so many voices competing for attention it become difficult to focus on her own. On other occasions, she leaves quite ordinary sentences hanging in mid-air as if, by doing so, she will invest them with layers of meaning. It’s an irritating tic which has the opposite effect to the one intended, drawing attention instead to their vapidity.

In first half of Mayhem, Rausing is preoccupied with memory; having referenced Proust she offers a series of soft focus scenes from an apparently idyllic childhood in Sweden. In the summers, the family – mother, father, Sigrid, Hans and their sister, Lisbet – would move to their summerhouse by the sea. There, Rausing rode and turned cartwheels and went crabbing off the rocks. In winter, in their home in Lund, she read, rode her bike or walked her dog in the university park
There is tenderness in her descriptions of her brother’s ‘straggly, brown hair, green eyes and sooty eyelashes’, and a sense of loss that begins long before the rot sets in with the family’s move to London in 1980. There is anguish too. Years after Eva’s death and Hans’ recovery, the family is back together to celebrate a birthday. ‘My mother smiles and hums tunelessly,’ Rausing writes. ‘My father hums and sings, tunelessly. My brother joins in too.

‘Then he smiles an unexpectedly sweet smile and waves a little to my friend Johanna’s young daughter, who is lying on a sofa watching a DVD… and suddenly I am crying, thinking of all the time Hans lost with his own children, and singing too, tasting the salty tears in my mouth.’

But mostly Rausing prefers thinking to feeling. She is dogged in her pursuit of information on addiction as if, by scrutinizing the problem, she can neuter the pain. In an attempt to restore order to her upended world, she turns to art, science, psychology, and anthropology, hoping for answers to a long list of questions: why did Hans start taking heroin (and not her or Lisbet)? Are addicts born or made? Are they victims or perpetrators? And what response is most effective: unlimited tolerance or tough love?

Reading that 50-70% of any addiction is genetic, she explores possible compounding social factors. She looks at Harry Harlow’s famous rhesus monkeys who, ripped from their mother’s care, cleaved to a cloth substitute, at Walter Mischel’s marshmallow experiment which tested children’s ability to defer gratification and at research that suggests addicts feel pain more acutely than other people. She gazes at George Cruikshank’s painting The Worship of Bacchus and reflects on the story of Edie Sedgewick, who died of a barbiturate overdose in bed. But she emerges with nothing that explains Hans’ fate.

Indeed, he appears to have been their mother’s favourite. Rausing remembers, with just a hint of resentment, the pair of them on a swing and her mother singing ‘I love you and you love me’ over and over. The best she can come up with is the Orwell quote she uses as an epigraph: ‘Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood’, but it is not clear how it applies to Hans, who is understood by no-one, not even her.

Despite his sister’s relentless interrogation of his addiction, Hans remains a mystery; a cipher. Rausing and Eva exchanged scores of emails over the years, so her voice is omni-present. Clearly unhinged, she veers from loving to pleading to paranoid to threatening, sometimes in the course of a few sentences. But Hans was not one for emails and had no involvement in the writing of the book. This has the disconcerting effect of rendering him an outsider in the story of his own life. In the throes of his addiction – and later, when he is well again – he appears impervious to the devastation he has wreaked on others and himself. As an emotional maelstrom swirls around him – as relatives weep and curse and beat themselves up – he remains an island of indifference; the false calm at the eye of the storm.

Despite its affectations, Mayhem is a compelling read; it captures the powerlessness of those fated to stand on the sidelines as their loved ones plummet into an abyss and the futility of trying to make sense of it all. But it is also frustratingly elliptical. In an afterword, Rausing says legal restrictions pertaining to Hans and Eva’s children are responsible for it being ‘partial and unfinished’, but it’s more than that. For all her soul-searching and scrutinizing of the past, there are conspicuous no-go areas. For example, at the time of Eva’s death some newspapers suggested Hans’ problems stemmed from his relationship with his father, to whom he was ‘a disappointment’. This may be nonsense, but why is Hans’ relationship with his father never addressed? Why does Rausing focus instead on her mother, about whom the worst she can say is that she never cooked?

Recalling a kidnap plot on one of her cousins, Rausing talks about the way wealth brings a heightened need for privacy. ‘You walk a little apart, always,’ she writes. On another occasion she refers to legal documents stuffed into cabinets to which she no longer has the keys. ‘I lock the cabinets, I lose the keys, I want to sleep and to forget.’ Though Rausing has the capacity to write frankly about her own emotions, one is left with a sense of something withheld, concealed or taped off; of a story that had not quite been told.

From this Issue


by Colin Waters


by Shaun Bythell

I To the Hills

by Alan Taylor


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