‘I know it may be seen as a betrayal of my family’
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 sisterin-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 it’s not irrelevant that news of it should be brought to you by me, a member of the media. As I write, a vaguely sick feeling sets in, of circularity or complicity. Where is the correct place to stand on all of this?
That question underlies, in much bigger type, Rausing’s tale, and her own concerns about telling it. 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 had met in rehab, and had 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, since 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 Sixties. 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
Five years after her sister-in-law’s drugs-related death, Sigrid grid Rausing has published her own version of events. She tells Gaby Wood why hy ‘No one is perfect. I wish there was less judgment about who we become’