A death in the family - ‘I really grappled with the question of whether to publish the book or not’
Tetra Pak heiress Sigrid Rausing's memoir exposing her sister-in-law's drugs-related passing has sparked a bitter family row. Gaby Wood reports caused by her new book
What do you do if you feel your life story has been colonised by the media? Do you ignore the fact or reclaim the story? And if you choose to reclaim it, what might the context for that be? How much can you really control?
Sigrid Rausing, whose sister-in-law Eva was found in her home two months after her death from a drug overdose in 2012, has responded by writing a memoir, entitled Mayhem. The book is riveting, clear-sighted and exceptionally articulate.
But early in the book, she warns: "I write, knowing that writing at all may be seen as a betrayal of family; a shaming, exploitative act. Anyone reading this who thinks so, please know that I thought it before you." When I speak to her over the phone, she adds: "I have a lot of anxiety about publishing the book." And anyone familiar with the broad facts of the story might imagine that to be an understatement.
By the time of her death, Eva Rausing had been married to Sigrid's brother Hans for 19 years. They met in rehab and had four children before they relapsed. Eva's body was found by police behind a locked door in a squalid room of the Rausings' otherwise luxurious home - and found then only because Hans had been arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs. The body had been hidden under layers of bedding and clothes and television screens.
"I took some measures to reduce the smell," Hans was quoted as saying in a statement read out in court. He pleaded guilty to the prevention of a lawful burial and received a suspended jail sentence, along with an order to undergo rehabilitation. "If ever there was an illustration of the utterly destructive effect of drug misuse on an individual and their family," the judge said at the time of sentencing, "it is to be found in the facts of this case".
Sigrid Rausing's book, published this week, has already drawn fire. Eva's father, Tom Kemeny, issued a statement last month in which he described the book as "self-indulgent and pretentious", and said it had "greatly harmed and upset the family". He also alleged that his daughter would be alive today if she had not been separated from her children during the turbulent years when she and her husband were in the throes of addiction. As Rausing points out, this is unlikely, as the year before they were taken from her, Eva had almost died of a heart infection, probably caused by dirty needles.
There are a number of questions an outsider could ask in response to that accusation. But Rausing issued a circumspect reply. "Tom Kemeny denies that a drug relapse makes people bad parents, which he must know is an astonishing denial of the reality of drug addiction," she stated. "However much parents love their children, if they are suffering from drug addiction, they are not able to take care of them, or, indeed, of their household."
When we speak, Rausing appears to be sympathetic to Kemeny, though she adds that she was upset by his actions. "He is a man whose daughter died," she says, in her quiet, careful way.
"He feels that my portrait of Eva in the book is not a sympathetic one. I disagree with that. Funnily enough, in writing the book, I felt closer and closer to her. I felt I understood much better what happened. And I felt very strongly the sadness of it. (Kemeny) had this need to see Eva as a kind of perfect wife and mother. I just wish that there was room for her to be a human being who wasn't necessarily perfect. None of us is perfect. I wish there was less judgment about who people become."
Rausing, Hans and their sister Lisbet are the billionaire heirs to a fortune derived from the invention, in Sweden, of Tetra Pak, the coated carton packaging in which milk and juices have been stored all over the world since the 60s. Hans was the youngest, and "all of our favourite". Sigrid is now a philanthropist, who has given hundreds of millions of pounds to human rights organisations. She is also an adventurous independent publisher, whose literary imprints - Granta and Portobello - have won numerous awards. She edits Granta magazine, which she also owns. An anthropologist by training, Rausing wrote a memoir three years ago about the period she spent researching her PhD on a post-Soviet collective farm in Estonia.
Rausing says all her family write "memoirs that are not published. I think my mother has written about three, my father has one, my sister has about three".
Did she consider writing Mayhem and not publishing it? "Of course," she replies. "And, in fact, this is a very redacted part of a longer text. I really grappled with the question of whether to publish the book or not."
But, she points out, "in our case, the story was terribly public already. I had a very strong feeling the media owned our story and made of it what they wanted.
"If you've been objectified, described, somewhat degraded by the newspapers, you can be gripped by a wish to... not set the record straight, but... there is the thought that what's happening here is more serious."
Writing and publishing the book, Rausing suggests, "was almost like pushing a fish hook through your finger rather than trying to pull it out, or ignore it. Yes, it's painful and, yes, you may cause pain, but in the end, I still think it's the best thing to do".
Already, people who have read the book and have addicts in their family have written to her. "There are so many people out there who are wounded and hurt and invisible, who have struggled with the addiction of a family member," she says. "And when people say to you, 'That's exactly how I felt', that's a wonderful feeling, because you feel like you've released something in people."
Hans Rausing has told Sigrid that he has not read the book and has no desire to. The five children - four of his and one of Sigrid's - have all read it. Rausing says she has "had conversations with them. And very interesting conversations with them. And they are broadly very positive about the book". In some ways, given the hereditary aspects of addiction, she hopes it might, as she puts it, "act as an inoculation".
What if one of the children had read it and not wanted it to be published? I ask. Rausing pauses. "I don't know what I would have done had they read it and not wanted it to be published," she says.
All memoirs contain the stories they have not told - unseen perspectives, speechless protagonists. In the Rausing case, there may be a question beyond the mere existence of another angle: to whom does this story belong?
Is it the story of Eva, who no longer has a voice in which to tell it? Does it belong to Hans, who is now in recovery and who remarried two years after his wife's death? Or is it the terrain of their children? "I think the story belongs to all of us - all of us who are part of it," Rausing says.
Would it have helped, I ask, if they'd had less money? "It's relevant but it's not the most important thing," Rausing replies. "A lack of wealth and an excess of wealth... I don't think my brother would have not been an addict had he not had money." She does know, though, that the mask of civilisation can be kept up for longer if there is money - and she said as much to Eva Rausing in a letter. "If you don't have that, you end up either on the street or in prison," Rausing says now.
She writes a good deal about guilt and regret. In the words of her book: "My guilt gnawed at me, like a hum of nausea." In conversation, she says she feels guilty "about everything".
I try to pin her down. "What are your main areas of guilt these days?" I ask.
Rausing laughs. "I don't think that question should be in the interview!" she says.
Mayhem by Sigrid Rausing is out now (Penguin, €20.99)