Some journalists are very comfortable documenting power. Their scrutiny is not the empty threat of an insider, nor are they driven by a tabloid nose for scandal. What inspires them is fascination: the desire to understand those who make, and can unmake, the world.
Reading Empire of Pain, it’s clear Patrick Radden Keefe is such a journalist.
The book’s subject, the Sackler family, is today one of America’s most-hated dynasties, outflanked only by the Koch brothers and the Trumps. Radden Keefe’s investigations of the Sacklers for The New Yorker have been central to their reputational collapse.
For decades the family lived quietly, known only for its philanthropy. The famed Temple of Dendur at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, stands in the Sackler Wing, named for the late patriarch Arthur. “Their generosity,” Radden Keefe writes of Arthur and his two brothers, “had
a conspicuously aspirational quality.”
The Sackler name is inscribed on buildings at esteemed institutions from Harvard to Yale, the Smithsonian, the Tate, Oxford University, the Guggenheim and beyond.
But it was the Louvre – where the Sacklers had an entire wing of Eastern antiquities named after them – that photographer Nan Goldin chose for her July 2019 protest. Standing in front of the museum’s glass pyramid, Goldin and her fellow protesters unfurled a banner: “Take down the Sackler name.”
Goldin’s activist group PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) used these public actions to urge the Louvre and other leading galleries to erase the Sackler name in recognition of the family’s pivotal role in America’s opioid crisis. The source of the Sacklers’ extreme wealth – estimated now, even after years of bitter litigation, at about $11 billion – is the powerful prescription painkiller OxyContin, which was created and aggressively marketed by the family’s company, Purdue Pharma.
For years, Purdue told patients, doctors and regulators that OxyContin was less addictive than other opioids. Radden Keefe’s book unravels how it’s possible for such a deadly lie to be propagated and for a drug made by a small family company to become “the taproot of the opioid epidemic”.
Few writers could take the story of one of the greatest epidemics of our time – one of the baldest examples of corporate greed in recent memory – and tell it through the prism of a single family. In Empire of Pain Radden Keefe goes further, digging into the current Sackler scions and their parents – the OxyContin generations – and tracing the rot back to its own taproot, the relentless ambition of Arthur Sackler and his two brothers, Mortimer and Raymond.
The reporting is impeccable, as is its synthesis into narrative. Radden Keefe distils what must have been tens of thousands of pages of court documents, interview transcripts and research, and makes it look effortless.
His scrupulousness, evidenced by exhaustive end notes, recalls the biographies of Robert Caro, another journalist with an easy way of describing power and those who wield it. There are many parallels to Caro’s book The Power Broker. In the Sacklers, though, Radden Keefe does not have a larger-than-life figure such as Robert Moses upon whom he can anchor his attention.
It isn’t as if Radden Keefe isn’t capable of character. His previous book – the near-perfect Say Nothing, which concerned the Troubles in Northern Ireland – was brought to life by his renderings of sisters and Irish Republican Army members Dolours and Marian Price. His 2015 New Yorker profile of lawyer Judy Clarke, who defended the “Boston bomber” Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was similarly charismatic.
But Empire of Pain is hamstrung by an unfortunate reality of nonfiction: sometimes the people who shape the world don’t give you much to work with.
Arthur Sackler comes closest to feeling like someone worth so many words – his myriad eccentricities and relentless drive are intriguing – but in truth none of the Sackler men jump off the page. Nan Goldin crackles with energy in her relatively brief appearance though, especially when talking about her own struggles with opioid addiction.
Clearly Radden Keefe decided early on not to write yet another account of the opioid crisis from the ground. He sought to examine how powerful people are allowed, and enabled, to create the conditions for carnage. He wanted to wrench the Sackler family out of their comfortable obscurity.
On both counts, he succeeds. But as a reader who lost a family member to the opioid crisis, the book’s distance from the human toll was felt. Perhaps this gives us an insight into how the Sackler family witnessed the epidemic from their tower – numbers on a page, increasingly dire statistics that were merely an impediment to profit.
What Radden Keefe captures beautifully is the single-mindedness of entitlement. Just last week, Purdue Pharma had a major win in its attempt to declare bankruptcy, a move that would halt the “blizzard of lawsuits” the company faces over its aggressive marketing of OxyContin. The deal would also grant the Sackler family immunity, insulating their substantial wealth from the threat of recompense to the victims of the opioid crisis.
Late in Empire of Pain, Radden Keefe wonders whether the obfuscating layers of lawyers and public relations between the family and the lives its drug destroyed function as a sort of psychic self-protection for the Sacklers – “if it was just too demoralising to take a sober measure of their own complicity, if it was simply too much for the human conscience to bear”.
The image of the Sacklers that emerges from his book is that of a family driven by a temperamental inability to accept any answer it doesn’t want. There is no world beyond their empire, no pain except their own. It’s a brilliant examination of the corrosive influence of power, ambition and ego.
Picador, 560pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 12, 2021 as "Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, Patrick Radden Keefe".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription