A searingly powerful memoir about the impact of addiction on a family.
In the summer of 2012 a woman named Eva was found dead in the London townhouse she shared with her husband, Hans K. Rausing. The couple had struggled with drug addiction for years, often under the glare of tabloid headlines. Now, writing with singular clarity and restraint, Hans’ sister, the editor and publisher Sigrid Rausing, tries to make sense of what happened. In Mayhem, she asks the difficult questions those close to the world of addiction must face. “Who can help the addict, consumed by a shaming hunger, a need beyond control? There is no medicine: the drugs are the medicine. And who can help their families, so implicated in the self-destruction of the addict? Who can help when the very notion of ‘help’ becomes synonymous with an exercise of power; a familial police state; an end to freedom, in the addict’s mind?” An eloquent and timely attempt to understand the conundrum of addiction—and a memoir as devastating as it is riveting.
About the Author
Sigrid Rausing is the editor of Granta magazine and the publisher of Granta Books. She is the author of two previous books: History, Memory, and Identity in Post-Soviet Estonia, and Everything is Wonderful, which was short-listed for the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize. She has a PhD in Anthropology from University College London, and is an Honorary Fellow of the London School of Economics and St Antony’s College, Oxford. She lives in London with her husband, film and theatre producer Eric Abraham.
“Beautiful, fresh . . . Rausing, a well-known author and publisher in London, here turns our attention to dark machinations in her own family. Her story is told 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 that form on television, yet in this book it returns to its literary origins: Ibsen would have recognized the human conditions, if not the material ones, that underpin the Rausing family disaster—[the] miasma of modern addiction. Yet in Rausing’s hands, there is no vulgarity: the effort becomes the will of philosophy to interrogate shame, to meet torment with reason. Like the roving eye in Joyce’s ‘The Dead,’ we can do little else but scan the rooms for clues that might tell us why it happened. Rausing knows she must interrogate the pain from every angle, including the angles that discomfort her. Rausing has serenity, courage, and wisdom, and her book casts, on the reader, a spell. She has a gift for wielding paragraphs that will stay in the mind. [Written] with loving intelligence and care, Mayhem thinks its way through the madness, seeing it for what it is.” —Andrew O’Hagan, The New York Review of Books
“In this mesmerizing account of her brother’s descent into addiction and her sister-in-law’s untimely death, Sigrid Rausing explores sweeping questions about what it means to choose or refuse a moral life; what tragedy looks like when it is woven into privilege; and how we control or surrender to our perceived destinies. Written in elegiac, lyrical prose, Mayhem is deeply passionate in its impossible attempt to adduce a redeeming vitality from an agonizing chaos. This is a brave, elegant, inspired book.” —Andrew Solomon
“A profoundly articulate and harrowing memoir of a family grappling with addiction. With love and tenderness, respect and reserve, Sigrid Rausing explores the evolution of her brother and sister-in-law’s addiction and its effect on her entire family. Her deftly layered observations about how one can be both knowing and not knowing capture a parent’s innate sense of a child’s being in danger; one sibling’s desperate attempts to save another; and a deeply private family who find themselves suddenly exposed. Ultimately, what Rausing finds is a way to tell her own story, including among objects from the past that remind her of what once was, or might have been. I was impressed and moved.” —A. M. Homes
“A stylish and devastatingly lucid memoir. . .The narrative resonates because Rausing, a private person, shares intimate memories; as she understands it, addiction is not only a family disease, but also an ‘endlessly revolving merry-go-round’ that keeps addicts and family members trapped. . . . Piercing.” —Kirkus
“In this intimate and compassionate memoir, Rausing recounts the lives of her brother Hans and her sister-in-law Eva, who were addicted to drugs… Rausing explores [her family’s] tragedy with grace, humility, and razor-sharp insight. Throughout she attempts to better understand the fierce compulsions of addiction. Her writing is rich with humble wisdom.” —Publishers Weekly
“Rausing's core message is this: Addiction is a family affair. Her book embraces those surrounding the addict by courageously exposing her own self-doubt and heartache, her anguish over who’s accountable.” —Martha Ann Toll, NPR Books
“A loving, anguished, and very honest account. . . In this memoir about a brother and sister-in-law who were dangerously [addicted to] drugs, Rausing addresses the question of what we owe the addict as friends and family. What is noteworthy and moving is that Rausing writes without any righteousness.” —Kerri Miller, Minnesota Public Radio (NPR)
“My sister’s heroin addiction infused my family’s life with pain, confusion, terror, exasperation and guilt. I spent a week reading 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, underlining and starring passages on almost every page. Owing to the profound (and rare) consolation 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. Rausing has clearly written Mayhem to wrest the story of her brother’s addiction to heroin and cocaine, and his ultimately disastrous relationship with his first wife, 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. 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 less inclined to want to listen to the recollections of the family left behind to clean up the messes, to raise the children. Against a massive, varied literature of addiction that sidelines family members’ experience, Rausing edges gently, gingerly toward a theory of us, not just them.” —Nina Renata Aron, The Millions
“Remarkable: both a memoir of a sister and a family circling, helpless, around the still point of an addict in tragic decline, and a deeply necessary quest—through memory, science, literature, psychology, and art—to understand the cause. Sigrid Rausing’s disarming and masterful book is an important addition to the literature of addiction. Written with a restless, probing intelligence and a palpable humility, Mayhem is surely the most powerful book I’ve read on the impact the disease has on the family of an addict since David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy.” —Bill Clegg
“Mayhem is more than a story of tragic addiction and its effects on a family. It is a fierce, lyrical, and lucid memoir that asks agonizing questions about guilt, innocence, and judgment and reminds us how difficult it can be to untangle one from the other.” —Siri Hustvedt
“Riveting, clear-sighted, exceptionally articulate. Rausing is an anthropologist by training, but on the evidence of Mayhem, her careful observational attention has long been turned to events much closer to home, [as] a diligent documenter of family ties. What she does very well—“very well” is too reserved a phrase for something as heartbreaking as this—is to tell the story that is absolutely hers, a story of depression and co-dependency; it’s a story Families Anonymous was invented for, for family members of addicts. Rausing writes about guilt and regret. Her literary and psychoanalytic fluency give the book an impact that feels arrestingly honest. Rausing’s intelligence translates despair into precision. Rausing is a maker of sense.” —Gaby Wood, The Telegraph (UK) “Moving. . . An elegantly written memoir about drug addiction in a family. Mayhem is [also] about the strange guilt of being a witness to addiction, and presuming to tell of it. It is an honest attempt to piece together recollection from a time almost beyond recollection; a quest to impose logic on the chaos of addiction. Mayhem is successful as a case study of the ‘addiction to the addiction’, as Rausing calls it: the empathic burden inherited by those close to addicts, from which the author, writing this harrowing book, is rehabilitating herself.” –Jonathan McAloon, Financial Times
“Mayhem is astonishing. All the tides of trouble run through it: ferocity and gentleness, doubt and certainty, love and fear, knowledge and confusion and, above all, a deep and ineradicable longing for things to be good or good again. Unlike many books that dwell on pain, Sigrid Rausing's intelligence is never absent, so that heart and mind remain vividly and often shockingly alive in every corner and fragment. Its dignity, power and beauty burn off the page.” —Adam Nicolson
“Behind the salacious headlines, Mayhem, a literary memoir, is an attempt to reclaim the story—the quiet voice in the hubbub that says: ‘That person is my loved one.’ Rausing [offers] a sincere take on family failure and the lousy sameness of addiction, for rich and poor. Will many of us meet the book’s implicit challenge not to rubberneck, not to apportion blame? Mayhem left me touched by its bravery, sincerity and the frequent beauty of the writing. Perhaps the people who ultimately judge it will be those with addiction in their family. If it helps them, then it is a success.” —Melanie Reid, The Times (London) “A brave book, lit up by its author’s remarkable candour. Part memoir, part meditation, coolly observant, this is a spare and allusive narrative about the story that dragged Rausing’s family on to the front pages in 2012. Rausing has a doctorate in anthropology; [when] confronted with muddle and malfunction, she refuses to be deflected. She writes not in self-pity, but as if reporting on fieldwork. Readers hoping or lurid details will find instead scrupulous self-examination, a sifting of memories, literary models from Anne Bronte to Tove Jansson and appraisals of psychiatric theory. Emotional content comes imagistically. Loss, misunderstanding, and lethal kindness: glimpses and anecdotes are presented without gloss of comment. It is for the reader to interpret them and absorb their emotional charge.” —Lucy Hughes-Hallett, The New Statesman (UK)
“A short, intense, moving memoir . . . a poignant and at times harrowing account that testifies to the resilience of the human spirit.” —Sebastian Shakespeare, Tatler “A deeply felt memorial to a lost brother . . . a finely written memoir.” —John Sutherland, Literary Review
“Impressive…. a book with astonishing power. Rausing seeks an alternative to the headlines with thoughtfulness and introspection; she writes with intelligence and literary skill. As a narrative, it’s beautifully structured, weaving its way from the family’s childhood holidays in rural Sweden to their lives in London. Rausing sets the scene with painterly delicacy, and then steps back to analyse the implications of what she’s revealed. When it comes to opening up wider questions of culpability or the nature of addiction, she is consistently subtle.” —Lara Feigel, The Guardian (UK)
“Striking: powerful and spare.” —Rachel Cooke, The Observer (UK) “An unsparing account of astonishing wealth and a family destroyed by drugs . . . Worth reading because it has such a unique and haunting story to tell.” —Lynn Barber, The Sunday Times (UK)