Photo credit: Tom Rausing
I went to a funeral the other day, deep in the English countryside. We traveled down on the empty local train, the London contingent sitting together, more or less. The church was packed, the coffin — plain pine, decorated with now somewhat wilted flowers — stood to the side. My friend, the father of the boy who had died (he seemed to me still a boy, though in truth of course he was not) stood up to speak. His voice broke only twice; he stood like a general in a war, unflinching. The references to addiction were so subtle you might have missed them, but the Serenity Prayer was in the service, and a track by Talking Heads, reminding us of how young the boy had been, and how young we once were.
Earlier this year another friend called me, sounding so weary. We had often talked about her ex-husband, the father of her children, who had become a cocaine addict. Now in his 50s, he had gone to the hospital with heart symptoms. My friend was calling to let me know that he had been found dead in his hospital room.
Last year we had an intern at Granta
, the literary magazine I edit, one of the best interns we’ve ever had. I spoke to him the day he left, and was struck again by his luminosity and self-possession. A few days after that, I heard one of our editorial assistants screaming. She had just heard: this boy had been found dead in his bedroom. It turned out that he had been in the habit of occasionally taking Ketamine, on his own. I don’t believe he was an addict, but perhaps he was.
Three people in my vicinity have died recently, two of them in their 20s. Three families are devastated. I won’t say I know how they feel — none of us knows how anyone feels.
But I do know something about addiction. When my sister-in-law Eva was found dead from an overdose in London, and my brother Hans, also a drug addict, was arrested after driving erratically across a London bridge, I too was devastated and shocked.
That is how my book Mayhem
began: I was writing fragments to bind my sadness, to create a story. Then — after a while — I wanted to know what had actually happened, and why. What forces compelled Hans and Eva to act as they did?
Addicts tell their own stories, but their families have stories to tell, too, stories that are hopefully not about blame, but which try to find a language for a particular kind of tragedy.
My book is about the conundrum of addiction. It’s about depression and guilt. It’s about repression. But it is also about love, and the sibling state. I wanted to understand what part I had played in the psychodrama of my brother’s addiction. In the book, I tried to find a language for expressing the nature of what had happened, adding and redacting passages up to the very last minute, patrolling the new border I had erected between the private and the public.
The first time I read a piece from this book, before it was even published, at the lovely Listowel literary festival in Ireland, a woman in the audience said she had three quick questions. Two were indeed quick. The third was, “Can you talk about the ethics of writing about family members?” I said that of course on the one hand the art of memoir would die out if no one wrote about his or her family, under any circumstances, but that I think some authors are a little cavalier in the name of art. I don’t think it’s enough to say, in effect, “I’m a writer — it’s what I do.”
So why then did I do it? Because too many people are dying, self-destructing before our eyes. Virtually all of them leave family behind. Typically, deep rifts emerge within those families. A mother (or a father) will believe in the model of unlimited love, unlimited support. A father (or a mother) will believe in tough love — limits and consequences. Typically, they will argue it out, day in, day out. There is not much space for the rest of the family, or for life. One sibling might be codependent, another enabling and minimizing. A third might leave the entire family behind, sensing that his very survival depends upon escaping from the obsession with addiction which has gripped the whole family.
Few of those people ever find a public voice to talk about what happened. To do so is to risk the precarious stability of the addicted family member, and to risk the shame of airing in public matters that should properly remain private.
But the experience of addiction, and the urgent social problem of addiction, belong to all of those who have been touched by it. Addicts tell their own stories, but their families have stories to tell, too, stories that are hopefully not about blame, but which try to find a language for a particular kind of tragedy.
I think trying to tell our story was worth doing.
If we are going to address addiction, we must know what it is. I don’t have any answers, but I have asked some questions, and described an experience which dominated a great portion of my adult life. If my book can help other people who have been touched by addiction, it will have been a worthwhile effort. Because I know one thing: those mothers and fathers and siblings really are in trouble.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the editor of Granta
magazine and the publisher of Granta Books. She is the author of two previous books, History, Memory, and Identity in Post-Soviet Estonia
and Everything is Wonderful
, which was short-listed for the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize. She has a PhD in Anthropology from University College London, and is an Honorary Fellow of the London School of Economics and St Antony’s College, Oxford. She lives in London with her husband, film and theater producer Eric Abraham. Mayhem
is her most recent book.