Mayhem by Sigrid Rausing review – behind the ghoulish tabloid headlines

‘I see my complicity, my guilt,’ the author writes in this powerful memoir of her drug-addict brother, Eva Rausing’s death and their lives of privilege

When the story broke in July 2012, it had all the ingredients of a thriller. A man had hidden his wife’s body under a tarpaulin in their bedroom for three months and sealed the room with duct tape. On arrival, the police encountered a drug den, littered with heroin and its paraphernalia, which stank of decaying flesh. What was more, we didn’t need to feel sorry for them because they were so rich. Hans Kristian Rausing was the heir to the multibillion Tetra Pak fortune; the drug den was a bedroom in a well-staffed £70m Chelsea mansion. It was a story too ghoulish to feel your way inside, yet now Hans’s sister, the Granta publisher Sigrid Rausing, has written a book that sets out to do so. “Can a book about this story ever be framed by anything other than tabloid headlines?” she asks.

In seeking an alternative to the headlines, Rausing offers thoughtfulness and introspection. She also provides a lot of self-flagellation. She was there in Hans’s 20s when he first became a drug addict, yet she failed to notice what was happening. She was there in 2000 when Hans and Eva first relapsed, after a happy seven-year marriage that produced four children. She intervened by writing emails pleading with them to return to rehab, and now she blames herself for the priggish tone of these messages and for their inevitable ineffectualness. Encouraged by social workers who told her that otherwise the children would be taken into care, she took legal measures to gain custody of their four children, and she blames herself for bringing them up too strictly. “I see my complicity, my guilt. I see my tiredness, my hopelessness; my false moral superiority, my finger wagging, wagging. I regret everything.”

Given Rausing’s own privilege, this seems a sensible tactic. But what gives this book its astonishing power is not the guilt, but the 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, returning always to the hideous image of Hans and Eva’s bedroom as the dark centre of the story. Rausing sets the scene with painterly delicacy and then steps back to analyse the implications of what she’s revealed, alternating between her knowledge at the time and her subsequent understanding.

This is an effective approach, particularly because it leaves the reader moving between accepting and questioning the narrator’s point of view. When it comes to scrutinising her own motivation, Rausing doesn’t always seem a reliable witness. Eva claimed that Rausing and her husband Eric had seized the children because they wanted more children themselves; Rausing maintains that she was doing it solely out of the urge to protect. Presumably the answer is somewhere in between. In the self-flagellating passages, Rausing implies that there is more she could have done, but elsewhere she’s clear that she did all she could. She appears in these contradictions still not to have decided the extent of her responsibility or guilt. However, she seems at least partially aware of this, and what makes the approach effective is that when it comes to opening up wider questions of culpability or the nature of addiction, she is consistently more subtle than we would expect in a memoir of this kind.

At the heart of the book is the question of addiction, and its place in the medical and the social framework. “Of all the self-inflicted wounds of humanity, addiction, it seems to me, is one of the most tragic,” Rausing writes. It’s tragic because the addict’s individuality is erased by the predictability of the progress of the disease and because addicts place themselves beyond help. There is no medicine except the drugs that destroy them, and help from those who love them manifests itself as an exercise of power.

To what extent do we see the addict as responsible for the condition and the pain inflicted? Rausing does an impressive job of weaving between possible interpretations. “We haven’t agreed, as a society, how far drug addicts are guilty of their many and varied trespasses against the law, their families and social norms. You can’t be found both insane and guilty – you are one or the other.”

She seems right that the addict sits somewhere between culpability and insanity. There is a point where we can blame him for failing to restrain himself and a point beyond this. Hans, hiding Eva’s body because he couldn’t face the reality of her death and was sufficiently drugged to be capable of deluding himself, was clearly beyond this point. But were he and Eva culpable when they first sipped their fateful glasses of champagne at a party on the eve of the millennium? Were they to blame when, despite knowing where drugs had led them in the past, they allowed this first contact with alcohol to lead so swiftly into a cocktail of drugs and lies?

Sigrid Rausing
‘I regret everything’ … Sigrid Rausing. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Behind this is the question of what causes addiction in the first place. According to DSM-5, the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals in the US, 40-60% of the risk of alcoholism is genetic, though drug addiction is less quantifiable. Is it a genetic mutation, a psychological condition, or a culture of rebellion? As children of the 1960s, the Rausings grew up in a culture of freedom and Hans’s initial forays into drugs were a part of this. “Some families are overprotective,” Rausing observes, but others, “like ours, take a secret pride in the wild”. Perhaps Hans was rebelling; perhaps Eva wanted to be free of the order she’d created in her London life. But the same can’t be said of the desperate figures Rausing encountered when watching a TV programme about drug addiction in Mombasa.

She describes an entire generation wiped out by the heroin that is plentifully available because the country lies on the smuggling route east from Afghanistan and Pakistan. A woman called Roshana sits crying in a squalid room, showing the camera photographs of the four sons who have been “taken away by drugs”. Her remaining son is so addled by heroin that he can’t remember his mother’s name. “Did Roshana fail them in some fundamental way?... Or were they in the wrong place at the wrong time, falling into something so sweet, so delicious; so soft and loving that they didn’t even see their mother’s pain?”

Roshana, surrounded by drugs and fake doctors prepared to inject their patients, could not, it seems, have done more. But what of the privileged Rausings, with access to addiction specialists and every form of rehab? The biggest unanswerable question here concerns the limits of responsibility – when does taking responsibility for someone else’s mental state become an unacceptable form of coercive control? Perhaps, Rausing wonders at one point, Hans and Eva were content in their bubble of drugs, whatever destruction it was causing to those around them. Perhaps this was their right, and we must accept this if we believe in freedom? It’s not surprising that Rausing turned to Jane Austen and CS Lewis in the weeks after learning about Eva’s death. She was seeking a moral universe tidier than her own.

• Lara Feigel’s The Bitter Taste of Victory is published by Bloomsbury. Mayhem is published by Penguin. To order a copy for £14.44 (RRP £18.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Lara Feigel

The GuardianTramp

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