As I suspected yesterday, I finished Empire of Pain last night and it seems the obvious pick to write about even with that slightly cheaty caveat and joins the list of really very good narrative non-fiction books I’ve written about here – but rather than dealing with a tech startup squandering millions of dollars on something that doesn’t work (Bad Blood) or a business model they can’t get a profit from (Billion Dollar Loser), or the investigation into Harvey Weinstein (Catch and Kill) this is the story of the Sackler dynasty – the family behind Perdue Pharma.
If you’ve heard of Purdue Pharma, it’s probably as part of coverage into the opioid epidemic in the United States, as the company is behind the painkiller OxyContin. But until the last few years, you probably didn’t know that the Sacklers were the owners of the company. If you’d heard of them at all it was probably because of the galleries or museums or university departments named after them all around the world. But then a series of court cases accused Perdue and the family behind it of being the root cause of the opioid epidemic in the US. Patrick Radden Keefe started writing about the family in an article for the New Yorker, which has expanded into this look at the three generations of the family, how they made their money originally and their role in the modern world of pharmaceutical advertising that you see in the US today.
I first heard the Sackler name in connection with the opioid crisis when I was in Washington in the autumn of 2018 when the court cases and bankruptcy hearings are getting underway, and there have been plenty of articles and books since then about the crisis itself and its effect on communities across the country. But what Radden Keefe is doing here is looking at the family themselves and setting out the longer term picture – the way the Sackler family built their fortune and helped set up the conditions for the sale and marketing of OxyContin whilst keeping their name separate from the business but well known for philanthropy.
None of the family spoke to Radden Keefe for the book – and in his end notes he sets out the efforts that he took to try and secure an interview and the conditions they wished to impose on him in order for one to be granted. But he does set out how the book was fact checked and who he did speak to – over two hundred people on and off the record – with the on the record sources meticulously chronicles in end notes that take up nearly 20 percent of the kindle edition. He’s also made use of the mass of court papers, archival collections and Arthur Sackler’s own columns in the Medical Tribune. But he goes on to say that although there were almost too many documents for him to handle, there are still even more out there as the bankruptcy hearing could result in a repository of documents about Purdue running into tens of millions of papers. And the story isn’t over yet.
This is a long book (500+ pages on Kindle including those end notes) but if you’ve been following the opioid epidemic and the effect that it has had on the US – or even if you haven’t and have maybe only heard of OxyContin as a prescription pain pill that various celebrities have had issues with, this is worth the hours of your time.
My copy of Empire of Pain came from the library, but it’s out now in Kindle, Kobo and hardback. It should be fairly easy to find – Foyles have it on Click and Collect at six stores which is usually a good indicator. And if you’re wondering why Patrick Radden-Keefe’s name seems familiar – he’s written various books before as well as being a New Yorker writer, but he was also the host of the Winds of Change podcast that I wrote about in my Pandemic Podcast recommendation post.