Radden Keefe is particularly damning of the current generation of Sacklers – his portrait of fashionista Joss Sackler who Instagrams her life and fashion brand while dismissing the source of her husband’s wealth as an irrelevancy is deliciously arch. But while the book is a damning portrait of the Sacklers, Empire of Pain also raises questions about the other bad actors that helped stoke America’s opioid crisis. As the US comes to terms with the devastating pandemic, an investigation into the US pharmaceutical regulators and the thousands of doctors who prescribed drugs like OxyContin should be next.
The Sacklers seem to have had good reason to try to do everything in their power to stop this book being published. Keefe shows how the Connecticut-based Purdue conspired to sell billions of dollars worth a year of a drug they knew was highly addictive and was killing many who took it. He describes how they influenced regulators; funded naive or unscrupulous researchers and academics to declare OxyContin safe; used aggressive, sometimes fraudulent sales tactics; and co-opted doctors by wining and dining them, running up $9 million a year in restaurant bills.
Empire of Pain reads like a real-life thriller, a page-turner, a deeply shocking dissection of avarice and calculated callousness. Informed by recently released court documents, internal emails and memos, plus 200 interviews with those close to the family, Radden Keefe’s epic investigation lifts the veil of secrecy over the billionaire Sackler clan. We knew some of this story; it turns out we didn’t know the half of it.
Keefe set out to be a chronicler of the Sackler family, so it’s unfair to complain that he spends too little time interrogating the nexus of money and government. Nevertheless, that nexus is clearly the source of so much dysfunction in American healthcare – to the extent that to read Empire of Pain is to wonder if even the Sacklers are just a distraction from the real problems. Purdue may not be around any more, but the system that abetted it survives unchallenged.
Keefe, a New Yorker writer whose previous book Say Nothing told the story of a hushed-up IRA killing in 1970s Belfast, brings to Empire of Pain the same coolly prosecutorial prose style, backed by voluminous research. The families refused to be interviewed and boycotted his final fact-checking efforts, replying through lawyers that his questions were “replete with erroneous assertions built on false premises”... But by talking to more than 200 people who knew generations of Sacklers, he brings to life the obsessive personalities and ferocious energy of some members, exemplified by Arthur’s “life force, his won’t-take-no-for-an-answer tenacity, his vision”. Arthur, who trained as a psychiatrist but went on to own an advertising agency and a medical publisher, innovated and cajoled his way through the worlds of medicine and art.
In Empire of Pain, Patrick Radden Keefe methodically and meticulously chronicles this tale of woe and crisis, indifference and corruption. His Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty lays bare the price exacted by the family’s drive for wealth and social mountaineering...
Keefe is a veteran writer at the New Yorker. His 2019 bestseller, Say Nothing, chillingly examined the convergence of youth, zealotry and destruction in Northern Ireland. He even solved the mystery behind a disappearance.
Like Say Nothing, Empire of Pain is drenched in misery, this time the byproduct of OxyContin, the go-to drug for Purdue. Since 1999, opioid-related deaths have risen more than fivefold. By the numbers, opioids have killed more than 450,000 in the US in two decades.
Keefe combines this wealth of new material with his own extensive reporting — he spoke to more than 200 people (though the Sacklers themselves declined to be interviewed) — to paint a devastating portrait of a family consumed by greed and unwilling to take the slightest responsibility or show the least sympathy for what it wrought... If there’s one difference between El Chapo and the Sacklers, it’s that El Chapo is paying for his crimes with a life sentence in a supermax prison in Colorado while the Sacklers get to hold onto their freedom and most of their money. But with the help of this damning book, there’s one thing they’ll never recover despite their penchant for putting their name on museums: their reputation.