More than two decades ago, I sat in a courthouse in the English country town of Dursley. The murderer Fred West had just killed himself. It was a cold week in February, and we had all gathered—lawyers, reporters, grieving mothers and fathers—to hear evidence in a pretrial hearing centering around Rosemary West, Fred’s widow, a remarkably stupid woman who was later found to have participated in the murders of ten young women, including her own stepdaughter. Most of the victims were buried under the Wests’ house in Gloucester or in their garden. With the local accents, the frozen fields, and the elaborate tales of family cruelty, there was more than a whiff of Thomas Hardy about the proceedings. The cameras outside appeared to feast on the idea of a monster in our midst, not only a bad mother but a dark reflecting pool wherein we might inspect our Victorian family values.
At one point during the hearing, the late novelist Gordon Burn, who sat close by, turned a notebook toward me on which he’d written two words in large letters: “The Uncanny.” To Burn, the whole case represented an almost supernatural perversion of the family romance, and he later told me it had given him nightmares. That was quite something: here was a man who had written a book about the Yorkshire Ripper, the serial killer of prostitutes, and another book that dwelled on the Moors Murderers, a boyfriend-and-girlfriend team who molested, tortured, and killed at least five children in the early 1960s. Yet something about this typical English home, this West Midlands charnel house, had tapped a nerve in that otherwise nerveless writer of Thatcherite Gothic.
“Freud’s famous essay,” Sigrid Rausing writes in her beautiful memoir Mayhem,
was published in 1919. The first part of the text includes page after page of definitions of the term unheimlich, as though the uncanny itself had possessed the text. He then reminds us of the philosopher Friedrich Schelling’s definition of the uncanny: “Uncanny is what one calls everything that was meant to remain secret and hidden and has come into the open.”
Rausing goes on to define a connection, especially in her native Swedish, between “the home and the secret; the home and the horrible.” The author is a well-known editor and publisher in London, but here she turns our attention to dark machinations in her own family. Though she measures them perfectly, the weight of the past and the depths of her family crisis continue to overwhelm her, and her story is told, one feels, in medias res, while the psychological force of the events is still raw and the final toll on the survivors unknown.
Mayhem is a work of Nordic noir. We have become used to that form, on television, as a critique of capitalism and corrupt government, yet in this book it returns to its literary origins. Ibsen, with his notion of the “saving lie” that keeps most families from eruption, would have recognized the human conditions, if not the material ones, that underpin the Rausing family disaster. Strindberg, in his essay “Själamodäre” (“Psychic Murder”), offers Ibsen’s Rosmersholm as an examination of how some people seek to do away with those they are supposed to love. In that play, writes Strindberg, “Rebecca seems to be an unconscious cannibal, who has devoured Mrs. Rosmer’s soul.” Throughout the whole sad tale of Sigrid Rausing’s self-destructive brother and his wife, I felt that the author was Mrs. Rosmer in a miasma of modern addiction.
To really say what happened is to go beyond the headlines. “This story is so inherently dramatic,” begins Rausing, “that to tell it at all threatens to become an act of vulgarity; a descent to sententious and sensational tabloid mores.” Yet in her hands, there is no vulgarity: the effort becomes, quite simply, the will of philosophy to interrogate shame and to meet torment with the antiseptic of reason. The story really begins at the tingling cold extremities of southern Sweden, where a kind of Nordic melancholy reigns, where woods are mysterious, snow is unmarked, and the hearth is home. What Rausing remembers is the summer house, and the summers generally, the taste of the sea, the sound of ping-pong, and her love of horses, but there is always a depressing winter ahead of those summers. Her brother, Hans, was a bit unkempt, but that was the style of the time. She read Jane Austen and he read Charles Bukowski. In time to come, he would pass to her a house in that summer place that was given to him by their mother, perhaps rejecting a version of ease when winter was so much deeper and more alluring.
Sigrid and Hans (and their sister Lisbet) were born into money—their grandfather founded Tetra Pak, the drinks-packaging company—and one feels that Sigrid, as much in her own way as her brother would in his, searches for a holy emptiness or simplicity that might put all that privilege in its place and provide her with a freedom, a possible foothold in that “parallel universe, normal life.” As a girl she folds laundry with her mother; she has coffee with cinnamon after school; she paints her bicycle red. Perhaps, for each of us, childhood is a tabula rasa: we each write our own things there, even when outward conditions are identical. While Sigrid was preparing for a life of patient application and small wonders, her brother was in training for a life of chaos; like the roving eye in Joyce’s unforgettable story “The Dead,” we can do little else but scan the rooms for objects and clues that might tell us why it happened.
Hans grew up to marry Eva, and in time their marriage became a unit of destruction. They were addicted to drugs, to the exhilarating menace of crack in particular, and powdered cocaine. Add money to that, big houses and countless others folding the sheets, add unwanted luxury and too many unfreeing options, too many idle hours and parties at the American embassy, mix it with too many failed attempts to quit, just watch everything revolve around the black hole of need at the center of the abuse, and wait to see what happens. “Over the next few years,” Rausing writes, “the signs of addiction accumulated, though we were not as yet aware of the extent of Hans’s relapse”:
We worried about Eva in particular, and we worried about the children. In June 2004, I wrote to Eva to suggest that she go to rehab. She didn’t respond. Of course she knew that rehab doesn’t work so well if you have done it many times before. You know the vocabulary and the shortcuts, the pretty prayers, the glib sayings. If you have seen it all before, perhaps you see through it.
I think of those many letters that I wrote, those useless sentences. I don’t know what she made of them, and I don’t know what they made of me.
The sense of people “seeing through” programs—and one another—is crucial to Rausing’s account of how it all unfolded. “The defining condition of being a sibling is this,” she writes, “you see through each other.” But is that really the case? Isn’t it more that we think we see through each other, yet in reality we all suffer from being known too quickly by our siblings, and we respond by knowing them too quickly in return? Despite having a history with them that usually goes all the way back to childhood, we never take the time to discover who they are or what they are really made of. We speak to their reputation. We deflect their choices. We don’t really know them. Siblings may actually be each other’s great ghost selves in the typical family set-up: we are haunted by them more than befriended, unless we get lucky. Siblings are cut from the same cloth, but where one bolt went to make an apron the other made a hat. We recognize the pattern and take it for the whole existence, but might that not be a mistake?
What Rausing lacks in understanding of her brother and his wife—and who can really understand addicts, those svengalis of the incomprehensible?—she more than makes up for with loving intelligence and care. You might see it from the addicts’ point of view, that Sigrid’s sense of life is a little clinical, a dab meritocratic, but again and again in those letters to Hans and Eva she returns without prejudice to help them. In time, Eva would despise her, and it is part of Rausing’s stylishness that she allows for that possibility, that she made mistakes and took the wrong tone. She never blames her addicted brother for endangering his children or for sapping the soul of the family; she never shouts, at least not here, and her writing has a tendency to locate the conundrums within herself.
Addicts often get our pity while the victims of addicts’ addictions seldom do—as if they have nothing to worry about. But the beauty of Mayhem is that it thinks its way through the madness, seeing it for what it is, while aiming for a version of endurance that incorporates the need to endure one’s own personality also. There are no winners in the family addiction game; there are only survivors. And Rausing knows that in order to make sense of what happened she must interrogate the pain from every angle, including the angles that discomfort her.
Often, when it comes to protecting children, no good deed goes unpunished, and the book is alarming on that front. Addicted couples with no energy or capacity for child protection can be tireless in blaming the protectors and maniacal in their spinning of conspiracy. Had I been Rausing, I dare say I would have met such eager activity with hatred, but she does not. Her book is able to find reasons behind reasons, and it casts, on the reader, a spell of toleration and pity, only deepened by the lengths to which she was willing to go in an effort to manage this sickness, this “hovering malaise.”
In the summer of 2006, Eva almost died from endocarditis, a heart infection, probably caused by dirty needles. Her heart was damaged, and she needed an operation to replace one of the valves and a pacemaker to regulate the heartbeat. Hans, deep in his own addiction, hadn’t noticed how ill she was, and neither, I think, had she.
The family staged an intervention that failed, as they often do. Eva stormed out. Hans went through seven rehabs. Around the same time, up to May 2007, it looked as if the four children of Hans and Eva were in danger of being taken into foster care and separated. Sigrid and her husband, with the help of her sister, attempted to prevent that by fighting for custody of them, a fierce battle involving much paperwork and an explosion of mistrust on Hans and Eva’s side.
The unaddicted Rausings’ success in winning custody, one feels, was primarily but painfully a good outcome for the children: addicts don’t only make poor parents, they can destroy their children, and the aunt’s determination is a blessing. Of course, the addicts mistook her efforts for a power grab. “I despise you with an intensity that is not describable,” Eva later wrote to Sigrid, and the book becomes, at this point, a map of the author’s guilt. She takes some courage from Adam Phillips’s notion, in “Against Self-Criticism,” that “guilt isn’t necessarily a good clue to what one values; it is only a good clue to what (or whom) one fears.” Given the patently sensible thing she did for the children, Sigrid’s guilt—it “gnawed at me, like a hum of nausea”—can seem misplaced in the grander scheme, except that guilt is never misplaced and always has a scheme of its own.
The social milieu, or the money, might be part of the author’s sense of disorder; it doesn’t help that Hans is rich, it just helps him stay out of jail, and, though Sigrid doesn’t say so, entitlement to some extent makes a mockery of intentionality: there will always be a regular driver to pick you up or a clever lawyer to get you off. “There is no life without responsibility and agency,” Sigrid writes to the addicts at their worst. Yet that is exactly the life they know. She later sees through the many letters she wrote to them—“I read them now, coldly bored by my own rhetoric, my stale ideas, the dull straws of recovery-speak”—yet it is her own self-questioning that seems fresh.
There is sadly no surprise with the addicts. Junkies do what junkies do, and in one sense they are happy that way, while every family member is unhappy in her own way. To them Sigrid is a transgression-averse big sister who tidies rooms and sets everything straight. “My thrift is a form of moral control,” she writes. And in that sense, her rage for order is more engaging and more sympathetic, more humanly interesting, I suppose, than her brother and his wife’s perfectly diabolical drug abuse. Sigrid’s guilt is the price she pays for being less clichéd than Hans and Eva. She wouldn’t see it that way, she’s too kind, but she struggles to feel good about herself when doing her best, which is the rescuer’s burden.
When things began to spiral out of control, they did so in a transfixing, tabloid-baiting way that is bad news for everyone. Sigrid almost sensed it coming. She tried to pray but only produced disembodied supplications: “Please/let this be over/let it end well.” But of course, it could not end well. As she careered out of control, Eva began accusing Sigrid and the family of spending $30 million on the attempt to “‘take’ the children.” She also revealed to a Swedish investigative writer the “news” that Sigrid and Hans’s father had been responsible for the shooting of Swedish prime minister Olof Palme in 1986.
When ends come they often come many-handed. Hans and Eva had a locked room in their London townhouse, a bedroom that no housekeeper ever entered. It was their drug-taking room. On May 7, 2012, Eva died in that room of heart failure. She was found there by police two months later and identified by a fingerprint and the serial number of her pacemaker. Fitted on a relatively young woman when the use of dirty needles had damaged her heart, the pacemaker told its own objective story about her last days, with the sudden jumps in heartbeats-per-minute that surely corresponded to intakes of crack or cocaine, before her heart gave out. Hans discovered his wife dead on the bed and covered her with a tarpaulin and several televisions. At some point during the two months she lay there, he sprinkled her body and the area around her with deodorizing powder. Police initiated a search of the house only after they arrested Hans for erratic driving. They found drugs and a warm crack pipe in his car and a bag of letters to his wife.
“This story had all the ingredients of a crime thriller,” Rausing writes. “An international industrialist, drugs, a woman found dead, and, at the centre, the unsolved murder of the ideological anti-capitalist, the prime minister of Sweden.” Yet the nightmare at the center of her book is much more local, and she is much more insightful in her attempt to tell the story from the inside than your average thriller writer could be. It is the attempt by one vulnerable person to ward off the destructive impulses of people she loves. As the author reveals, she has had her own self-destructive impulses, but they were not fashioned to harm her children or the people she grew up with. They were hers alone and she thinks them through, and she sets the room to rights and folds the sheets.
There are questions that float over all this, and we could ask them of ourselves. How much of our lives do we owe to our family? To what extent are our problems shared? How far should one go in seeing siblings’ manias as constituent with our own? The uncanny is a form of negative familiarity that can bind some families in psychic ropes: they see premonition and pattern everywhere; they feel haunted by the past and by rigged circumstances and insufficient freedoms. Money is its own dramaturg: it causes things to happen, but often, where it is supposed to buy freedom, instead it brings expensive curses. When poor families produce an addict they more frequently put it down to bad luck and bad company. But for the wealthy, bad company is likely to mean one’s immediate relatives.
By hiding Eva’s body, Hans opened the door to an underworld of uncivilized chaos, to putrid thoughts that lie too deep for tears and that petrify all bourgeois standards of family duty. “When we don’t take proper leave with proper rituals,” Sigrid writes, “the dead can come back to haunt or harm us,” and “when we fail to perform those communal rituals, whatever they are, we break the laws of culture as well as the law of the land. We remove ourselves from the community; we are in self-imposed exile.” The remaining question is Sophoclean; it is the blood sport of ancient drama. Does the offender go to hell alone, or does he, as it must sometimes have seemed to the Rausings, drag the whole family to hell with him?
One of the changes in the literature of our time, perhaps, is that junkies are no longer by definition intriguing. Those of us who grew up on William Burroughs are only now perhaps eager to hear, by and by, the story of the wife he shot and the child he wrecked beyond redemption. How thrilling it used to be to imagine Samuel Taylor Coleridge high on laudanum and feeling his way down a darkened road. But we might also remember Hartley Coleridge, the “babe so beautiful” in his father’s poem ‘‘Frost at Midnight.” Hartley went on to have a life of alcoholism and lost horizons, and we might wonder to what extent the son’s impotence was a sad reflection of his father’s. Likewise, the Jack Kerouac who once seemed so alive and so essential, high on Benzedrine and flying through the afternoon in San Francisco, seems perhaps less “visionary” when we consider the addicted and desperate life of his only daughter, Jan, who died aged forty-four. The cold, me-too rush of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” the atmospheric anomie of Berlin-era David Bowie, the crash-and-burn mentality of Bret Easton Ellis’s first novel, Less Than Zero. It all seems so enjoyably pre-1990s now, before we got hooked on consequences as much as causes.*
In that sense, it is more than possible, while reading of Sigrid’s poor, broken sister-in-law’s taunts and tortures, to feel every bit as sorry for the person on the receiving end. Sigrid did the right thing, but she is left with the wrong feeling—and that, too, is a legacy of abuse. It sets a trap for the protector. The author has serenity, courage, and wisdom, the mainstays of the twelve-step program, and she has a gift for wielding each of them into paragraphs that will stay in the mind. Yet the mayhem of Hans and Eva has bred a mayhem in her that will take time to dissolve into something more like plain regret.
She is on the way. Close to the end of the book she calls in a vet to treat her sick dog Leo. It is Sigrid’s life, and the dog’s, but something has suborned their normalcy, and the dead Eva is present everywhere:
I sat with him on the steps outside the kitchen where I used to say goodbye to the children with his paw. I fed him small pieces of meat; he took them so gingerly, so slowly, deaf now, and almost blind.
The vet injected him; he shuddered, and died.
The wind touched his fur; it moved in the wind so that he seemed alive still, for so long.
We wrapped him in a sheet. I couldn’t bear to think of him buried in the cold dark earth, so he lay on the sheet by the grave we had dug, the hole we had dug, for a long time.
Donald Trump’s recent declaration that America’s opioid crisis was a “public health emergency” was almost presidential. Yet by not calling it a national emergency he starves the relief effort of federal funding, thus breaking an earlier promise. Instead, he now promises “really tough, really big, really great advertising” and seeks the death penalty for drug dealers. According to The New York Times, more than 59,000 people in America died from drug overdoses in 2016. ↩