Now that it’s all over I find myself thinking about family history and family memories; the stories that hold a family together, and the acts that can split it apart.
I used to think that no act was irreversible; that decisions taken and mistakes made could, on the whole, be put right. Now I know that certain acts in life are irreversible and lead you to landscapes you never dreamt of.
There is a repeated line in August Strindberg’s play of 1902, A Dream Play: ‘Det är synd om människorna.’ The line is spoken by the god Indra’s daughter, who descends to earth in order to better understand humanity and its self- inflicted suffering. The expression is not easy to translate. Edwin Björkman, in his early- twentieth- century translation of the play, rendered it plainly, but perhaps slightly awkwardly, as ‘Men are to be pitied.’ Det är synd om människorna. And of all the self- inflicted wounds of humanity, addiction, it seems to me, is one of the most tragic. 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?
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; fifty 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.
Some time 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.
I heard the writer David Grossman once, talking about grieving for his son who had died, tragically, in one of Israel’s many conflicts. He said that putting words to emotions is what makes us human. I wanted to add, or perhaps he said, that if you fail to make sense of grief, it can turn you into something other than what you are, or what you were. Writing is a form of making sense.
I believe in writing. I am an editor and a publisher; text is my profession. Reading, and writing, can make us consider our emotions, who we love, and why, and how. I know I love my brother, not because he deserves it (who does?), but because since we were teenagers when I catch his eye I want to laugh; because his being is so authentic and his presence (his height, his bulk, his spirit) so comforting again after the long hiatus, the spell in the wilderness, the zombie status.
My brother told me a year or so ago that he was reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. For the second time I omitted to tell him about this book, my own memory project. The first time was some months earlier, when he asked me if I was writing. My last book, a memoir about living for a year on a Soviet collective farm, had just been short- listed for a small prize, and he was pleased, I think, and happy for me. It was my mother’s birthday; I stalled for time, vague, evasive. At some point during the dinner I started singing. Dinners with my parents mean songs; it is the Swedish way. The children catch one another’s eyes and laugh, as they do and have done, year in, year out.
Thus my brother and I used to catch each other’s eyes when we were small and again when we were teenagers. My mother smiles and hums, tunelessly. My father hums, and sings, tunelessly. My brother joins in too. Then suddenly he smiles an unexpectedly sweet smile and waves a little to my friend Johanna’s young daughter, who is lying on a sofa watching a DVD, watching us, and suddenly I am crying, thinking of all the time Hans lost with his own children, and singing too, tasting the salty tears in my mouth.
I know that salty flavour well.
It was poignant, that long blue May evening, those Swedish songs in the Sussex countryside. We sang on until my father choked and had to leave the table, leaning heavily on me as we slowly walked back to the library, and his chair.
My brother looked away, pained.
In Search of Lost Time. I will try not to be melodramatic. But this story is so inherently dramatic that to tell it at all threatens to become an act of vulgarity; a descent to sententious and sensational tabloid mores. There has been enough of that – there was even a Swedish opera, staged in 2016, trying, and failing, to catch the meaning of what happened. Death is a character in the libretto, doubling as a drug dealer. The text insinuates that my brother’s addiction was a form of revenge against my grandfather’s insatiable greed; his desire for wealth and dynasty.
‘To be a visionary was never good enough for him. You should have wealth, and a dynasty too,’ the character who is supposed to be Eva sings.
Hans responds: ‘And my revenge was living the life of a drug addict. A source of shame for my entire family.’
Eva: ‘You resisted! You refused!’
My sister Lisbet and I are portrayed as the dark Norns of Holland Park – those female beings of Norse mythology who spin the fates of ordinary mortals. We turn our dark heads like vultures; we take Eva’s children.
If you do not tell your stories others will tell them for you, and they will vulgarize and degrade you, said Ishmael Reed, quoting George Bernard Shaw.
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. Anyone reading this who thinks so, consider also how we were brought up: wealth, privacy, silence, discretion.
But someone died, early one morning or late one night.
Eva was, I think, on her way to recovery when she died. There were signs that she was coming back. And yet she died.
Too many addicts are dying; too many families are broken.
‘Mayhem’ is an old English legal term for the crime of maiming. The term implies guilt, which is appropriate in this context, since there is no addict story that doesn’t revolve around guilt, shame and judgement. The guilt is indiscriminate, and so is the shame. We were all guilty, and we were none of us guilty. We were all shamed, and we absorbed that shame.
We played our parts. ‘Addict’, ‘family members’. Like all families torn apart by addiction, we came to know the steps of that intricate dance.
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