Nini Stoltenberg was the daughter of top Norwegian politicians and the sister of a prime minister, who now heads NATO, and a doctor who leads Norway’s health directorate. They’re still wondering, along with many others, how she could have become a heroin addict who died at an early age, so her father asked one of her old friends to write a book aimed at finding some answers.
Nini’s father, former government minister and ambassador Thorvald Stoltenberg, wanted to write the book himself, in an effort to make sense of his daughter’s life. He ended up deciding to ask Lars Lillo-Stenberg, a well-known musician in Norway who’d been friends with Nini since they were teenagers, to write the book instead. Lillo-Stenberg also sang at her funeral in August 2014.
“As her father, it was too difficult for me to see her from the outside in the same way that others could, that a friend can,” the elder Stoltenberg told newspaper Aftenposten’s weekly magazine, A-magasinet, on Friday. The book attracted broad media coverage in Norway this week, with A-magasinet devoting fully nine pages to it and putting it on the cover. Publishing firm Gyldendal released the book on Friday.
Thorvald Stoltenberg told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that he was “eternally grateful that Lars took this on. For me, it’s worth its weight in gold. I think about her every day. The sorrow has returned through the book, but I was prepared for that.”
Stoltenbergs open about family tragedy
The Stoltenberg family, with its close ties to the Norwegian Labour Party, has long been one of Norway’s most influential and powerful, in a down-to-earth manner. They’re known for their openness, and both Nini and her family went public with her heroin addiction years ago. There’ve been numerous reports about how both father and son, also when they held top government jobs, had to resort to searching for their wayward daughter and sister on the streets of Oslo during drug-induced disappearances.
Nini has been almost universally described as warm, smart, outgoing and fun. She was educated as a lawyer and worked in the media herself, also as a program leader for NRK in the 1990s. “When she walked into a room, she immediately took it over,” says her older sister Camilla, who now heads Norway’s health directorate, in Lillo-Stenberg’s book. “She knew everyone and everyone saw her. She probably liked that, but it was as if there were no limits.”
Nini publicly announced her heroin addiction in 2001, and along with her father and brother, spoke openly about the hard life of an addict and how it had affected the family. Both she and not least her father worked actively for “more humane” drug policies and treatment options.
Lillo-Stenberg writes openly in his book about the teen-age partying in the 1970s that arguably led to her addiction. It included not just listening to new records, playing the guitar and drinking beer but also smoking a lot of hash. “It was a bit unusual, in the milieu in which we grew up, that there was so much hash and access to alcohol, also quite early,” Lillo-Stenberg, who also came from a resourceful family in Oslo’s fashionable Frogner district, told A-magasinet. “But for us it was no big deal, it was shrugged off. Not everyone smoked hash. That was also okay.”
He remembers one occasion when he stopped by the Stoltenberg’s home but Nini wasn’t home. He ended up sitting in the kitchen with her parents, both Thorvald and Karin Stoltenberg, who also was a Labour Party politician who served as a state secretary and became leader of the state ministry in charge of child and family issues. Lillo-Stenberg said they all drank red wine and talked until 4am. He was 15 years years old.
“Nini’s home was so loving, open and free, just like my own home, for that matter,” Lillo-Stenberg recalled. He could understand why Nini was given a lot of freedom by her parents: “She was the stubborn child who went her own way, took chances but always rid up afterwards. She was perhaps the most charismatic in the family and of course they had confidence in her. If there was anyone who would do well, it was her.” That proved to be incorrect.
‘Totally stoned’ at the ministry
Lillo-Stenberg says he has no clear answers himself as to what went wrong, and why she became an addict. Thomas Clausen, a professor of medicine who leads Norway’s center for addiction research, told A-magasinet that for some people, it’s harder to resist the temptation to try drugs again after the first experience. People react differently to stimulants of any kind: “Some get tired after two drinks, others suddenly become happier and energized,” Clausen noted, adding that genetics play a role, yet there are also big differences among siblings.
Therese Bjørneboe, another friend from their teenage years, reveals in Lillo-Stenberg’s book that she and Nini had cleaning jobs at the foreign ministry (where Thorvald Stoltenberg held top diplomatic posts) and worked “almost every day after school. I don’t know if Thorvald knew this, but Nini and I often skated around with our mops totally stoned.”
He apparently did not: “Thorvald, Camilla and Jens were of course surprised by some of what others have told,” Lillo-Stenberg said. “Anything else would have surprised me.”
On a personal note, Lillo-Stenberg also interviewed someone who knew Nini from within the addicts’ milieu in Oslo: his own younger sister Jeanette. She also became hooked on heroin and is now undergoing methadone treatment. He sees similarities between the two women, who were both outgoing, curious and from resourceful homes. Asked why she thinks Nini became an addict, Jeanette cited personality traits combined with access to drugs and a certain degree of public acceptance.
Thorvald Stoltenberg is quoted in the book as saying that he and his wife Karin (who died in 2012) faced the problems surrounding Nini together, but Karin didn’t take part in the searches for their daughter. “She became too depressed … and she didn’t always agree with everything I did for Nini,” Thorvald said. “I think that if she were alive now, she would have said that I gave in to Nini much too often, was too kind, if you will.”
Jens Stoltenberg, who was an extremely popular prime minister, took on his post as secretary general of NATO shortly after Nini died in 2014. He spoke of her in the present tense in Lillo-Stenberg’s book: “I love her because she’s my sister and has lived such a dumb life. I feel very sorry for her because of the pain she has felt during large portions of her life. There have been many disappointments, lots of lies and anger, and we have felt unfairly treated by her. But behind it all was something fine and beautiful.”