Patrick Radden Keefe is a reporter at The New Yorker magazine. His new book Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty tells the story of a family that grew wealthy in part thanks to a drug, OxyContin, that has been described as a contributing factor in the opioid crisis. Radden Keefe’s previous book, Say Nothing, won a National Book Critics Circle Award in the United States for its investigative account of an unsolved killing linked to the civil conflict in Northern Ireland.
What attracted you to this story?
In some ways it grows logically from work I’ve done in the past. I had done a lot of reporting about the illegal drug business and I’d written two big pieces about the Sinaloa drug cartel. I also did a big story for The New Yorker about the legalization of marijuana in Washington State, looking at what it means for a drug to be licit versus illicit. One thing I had noticed is that they’re quite sophisticated businesses, these cartels. They had started sending more heroin to the US. In trying to figure out why that was, I realized that there was this huge existing market of people who had developed addictions to opioids through prescription pills. And once you start down that avenue of inquiry, it doesn’t take very long to get to Purdue Pharma.
The family story is in some ways the most interesting aspect of the book. Did you know when you began that it was going to be such a family epic?
I did a piece in 2017 [in The New Yorker] and I was really intrigued by the family, but they remained ciphers to me. They never give interviews and it’s a privately held company so it’s very difficult to obtain any of its documents. I worried that if I wrote a book about the family, it would feel to the reader as if you were looking at them through a telescope – there just wouldn’t be enough granular detail to feel as though you really came to understand these people as characters. And then because of the litigation, a huge amount of internal correspondence came out.
The other thing is when you write one of these pieces in The New Yorker, it’s like Batman flashing the bat signal. After you publish a piece, all kinds of people come out of the woodwork. To give you a very obvious example, I got an e-mail from Richard Sackler’s college roommate. I wouldn’t have known his name, much less how to track him down. And so those two things persuaded me that there was a way to tell the story that would feel a little more intimate. Once I got into it, the family dynamic was just very intriguing – the relationships between the brothers and relationships between the different generations.
You begin the book with what appears to be an incredibly inspiring story of success against the odds, and then things get very complicated. What was that like trying to capture?
I found Arthur Sackler in particular to be just this protean, astonishing figure. I agree, there’s a Horatio Alger quality to the early part of the story. There’s that line that Steve Jobs used to use about how some people put a dent in the universe. And one of the lawyers involved in this case quoted it to me, and I didn’t use it in the book in the end but it’s something I’ve thought about often.
This family is complicated by remarriages and the rise of new generations, which must have made the research interesting. It seems nobody wanted to speak to you. How did you negotiate that aspect of the storytelling?
The family dynamics were important. And I think they end up actually having a really significant impact on the business story and on the public health story. Because in some ways, this is a story about the power of personality – Arthur’s personality. His brothers were kind of in his shadow. And then the irony is that after Arthur’s death, the brothers take this set of tools that he devised and in some ways eclipse him. And then [there is] Richard Sackler, the kind of headlong, impulsive conviction that he has about everything, that inability to look at his own behaviour and wonder if maybe he’s not doing the right thing. It’s kind of a family trait.
None of them would talk to me. And it’s not just that none of them talk to me, they were actively threatening me with dozens of legal threats over the years. They had me trailed by a private investigator. They were doing everything they could to stop the book.
Tell me more about the efforts to block this. The private investigator, that sounds difficult to deal with. How did that go?
I live in the suburbs outside New York City and we had this very unsettling experience where a neighbour walked up to us one day as we’re leaving the house and said, “I don’t want to freak you out. But there’s this guy who’s been sitting in an SUV up the street all day, watching your house.” And the same guy came back on another occasion and spent the day. This is not typical. We happen to live in a place where nobody parks and sits in the car all day on a little, residential street. From a reporting point of view it dovetails with what I had already learned about the tactics they used on [photographer] Nan Goldin, who was being followed. I expected that the family would deny it. Because, you know, it’s never the people themselves who initiate this kind of thing. There’s a lot of layers of deniability. I sent this very long list of queries to the family. They ended up coming back with just a page and a half [in response]. But in that page and a half, there were certain things they denied. I thought it was pretty notable that this was not one of them.
What were the Sacklers trying to do through their philanthropy?
It’s a big theme in the book, and it’s one of the things I found most intriguing. There’s an episode about Isaac Sackler, the original patriarch, who loses his shirt in the depression. He sits the brothers down, and he says, “Listen, I don’t have any money to give you, I’ve lost everything, you’re going to have to finance your own education. But the one thing I’ve given you is actually the most important thing, and that’s a good name. If you lose a fortune, you can always earn another. But if you lose your good name, you can never get it back.” That was a story that was told and retold in the family. It has this almost Rosebud quality.
One of the stories I was trying to tell is a story about how a huge fortune can corrupt and corrode so many different types of institutions. You end up with what are, to me, unwholesome relationships between the donors and these institutions. You see this at Columbia in the 1950s. And you see it at the Metropolitan Museum of Art today, where people are kind of holding their noses, saying, ooh, this is a little unseemly. But, as of today, there’s still a Sackler wing at the Met.
After your first article came out, many institutions distanced themselves from the Sacklers. Has that continued?
In late 2017, early 2018, a bunch of institutions started saying, we won’t take any future money from the Sacklers, however, we’re going to leave the name on the wall because those are binding contracts. And then Tufts University was the first to take the name down. And the Louvre did the same. New York University just took down the name a few months ago. Other places have done a sort of rebranding – the Sackler Serpentine in London, recently just kind of rechristened itself the Serpentine.
Did philanthropy interest you before this, or was it a result of following the opioid story?
It really came from my interest in the Sacklers. When I wrote that piece in 2017 there was a moment happening, a reconsideration of the legacy of certain fortunes. We were talking, for instance, about Cecil Rhodes. Calhoun College at Yale University was renamed because Calhoun was a great proponent of slavery. So there was this conversation starting to happen about fortunes that were, in many cases, centuries old. And what was so jarring to me was that it wasn’t happening with the Sacklers. It is now.
The interview has been condensed and edited.
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