I’m excited to be taking part in the Wellcome Book Prize Blog Tour today, featuring an extract from Sigrid Rausing’s Mayhem. This deliberately fragmentary, thought-provoking and intelligently observed memoir is best summarised in Rausing’s own words:
This is a story about witnessing addiction. In some ways it’s an ordinary story: two people, Hans and Eva, my brother and his wife, met in recovery, fell in love, got married, had children, then relapsed. He survived; she did not. Addiction stories are the same the world over – the individuality of addicts is curiously erased by the predictable progress of the disease and of recovery. In our case, what made the story different was partly the fact that it became so public. Witnessing the apparently voluntary physical and mental decline of people you love is inexpressibly painful. In that context, whether the story is public or not doesn’t matter: the sadness and anxiety are so overwhelming that headlines are irrelevant. But you don’t want the media to own the story of your life. That might be a good enough reason to write a book. But I had also always assumed that when dramatic events occur, there would be a narrative, followed by a conclusion, to be filed in the family archive. The story would be told, probably by lawyers; facts would be revealed, and future generations of the family would know what happened. But it turned out that no one was collating the facts. There was no timeline and no coherent family narrative. And yet Hans and Eva’s addiction was the worst thing that had ever happened to us. It dragged us to the underworld of mute slow- motion grief, the realm of sudden breakdowns and uncanny delusions. It brought us rounds of disturbing disputes; time- consuming and complex exchanges of emails; endless reports and conversations; engagements with psychiatrists, therapists and addiction experts of every kind. It made me think deeply about the nature of family and the limits of our responsibility for one another; who we were, and who we had become. Hans and Eva got married in 1992. It was the culmination of years of recovery. They had gone to 12- step meetings; they had sponsors, they may even have sponsored others, and they gave money to addiction charities. By 1999, they had three children. Then, eight years after they got married, they had a catastrophic relapse. It lasted for twelve years. I was thirty- eight when it began; fiifty when it ended. I want to understand how it all began, long before the relapse. But who knows how, or why; what prehistory of emotions, or predestination of genes, leads people into addiction. I know some things. In the early 1980s, Hans, aged eighteen or nineteen, travelled with friends by train through the Soviet Union, China and India. In Goa they met some young Italian women staying on the beach: that was his introduction to heroin. Eva was an expat American, born in Hong Kong, raised in England. She became a drug addict when she was even younger than Hans. There were many rehabs along the way. In the late 1980s they happened to go to the same place. At this point they hadn’t met. Eva was further on in her recovery and had already left when she was asked by the rehab to persuade Hans to stay on – he was close to walking out, back into drugs. She had a knack, it seemed, of helping fellow addicts, and she did talk him into staying. They became friends. Sometime later – they were more than friends now – Hans took Eva down to my parents’ house in the country to meet the family. I remember her well, at that first meeting. She was leaning against the back of the library sofa in a pink Chanel suit; blond, thin, and a little guarded. She looked simultaneously young and old, conventional and wild, groomed and unkempt. She had grown up in London, but she seemed more American than English to me. Her mother was from North Carolina; her father had come to America from Europe quite young. My mother knew them; they had attended the same Families Anonymous group in Chelsea.
My full Goodreads review of Mayhem can be found here.
Finally, there are two public events happening in London at the end of the week, culminating in the announcement of the winner of the Wellcome Book Prize on Monday 30th April:
- Wellcome Book Prize: Authors in Conversation, Saturday 28th April, 3-4.30pm, Wellcome Collection. Five of the six shortlisted authors will be discussing their perspectives on how medicine can touch our lives.
- Wellcome Book Prize: 5×15, Sunday 29th April, 3-4.30pm, Cecil Sharp House. The same five shortlisted authors will be given 15 minutes each to present their work.
I’ll be attending, and live-tweeting from, the Sunday event, and am very much looking forward to it!