NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE NOMINEE • A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF THE YEAR • NEW YORK TIMES BEST SELLER • A grand, devastating portrait of three generations of the Sackler family, famed for their philanthropy, whose fortune was built by Valium and whose reputation was destroyed by OxyContin. From the prize-winning and bestselling author of Say Nothing
The history of the Sackler dynasty is rife with drama—baroque personal lives; bitter disputes over estates; fistfights in boardrooms; glittering art collections; Machiavellian courtroom maneuvers; and the calculated use of money to burnish reputations and crush the less powerful. The Sackler name has adorned the walls of many storied institutions—Harvard, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oxford, the Louvre. They are one of the richest families in the world, known for their lavish donations to the arts and the sciences. The source of the family fortune was vague, however, until it emerged that the Sacklers were responsible for making and marketing a blockbuster painkiller that was the catalyst for the opioid crisis.
Empire of Pain begins with the story of three doctor brothers, Raymond, Mortimer and the incalculably energetic Arthur, who weathered the poverty of the Great Depression and appalling anti-Semitism. Working at a barbaric mental institution, Arthur saw a better way and conducted groundbreaking research into drug treatments. He also had a genius for marketing, especially for pharmaceuticals, and bought a small ad firm.
Arthur devised the marketing for Valium, and built the first great Sackler fortune. He purchased a drug manufacturer, Purdue Frederick, which would be run by Raymond and Mortimer. The brothers began collecting art, and wives, and grand residences in exotic locales. Their children and grandchildren grew up in luxury.
Forty years later, Raymond’s son Richard ran the family-owned Purdue. The template Arthur Sackler created to sell Valium—co-opting doctors, influencing the FDA, downplaying the drug’s addictiveness—was employed to launch a far more potent product: OxyContin. The drug went on to generate some thirty-five billion dollars in revenue, and to launch a public health crisis in which hundreds of thousands would die.
This is the saga of three generations of a single family and the mark they would leave on the world, a tale that moves from the bustling streets of early twentieth-century Brooklyn to the seaside palaces of Greenwich, Connecticut, and Cap d’Antibes to the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. Empire of Pain chronicles the multiple investigations of the Sacklers and their company, and the scorched-earth legal tactics that the family has used to evade accountability.
Empire of Pain is a masterpiece of narrative reporting and writing, exhaustively documented and ferociously compelling. It is a portrait of the excesses of America’s second Gilded Age, a study of impunity among the super elite and a relentless investigation of the naked greed and indifference to human suffering that built one of the world’s great fortunes.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
America’s ongoing opioid epidemic can be traced back not just to one drug but to one unscrupulous family. In this riveting account, investigative journalist Patrick Radden Keefe (Say Nothing) describes how the Sackler family—owners of Purdue Pharma—aggressively marketed the painkiller OxyContin, using their massive power and influence to get the highly addictive drug overprescribed. With the sweeping drama of a novel, Keefe tells the Sackler brothers’ story from the beginning. He charms us with tales of their humble roots and early positive medical contributions, which makes their moral downfall all the more shocking. Using hard numbers and statistics, Keefe illustrates the staggering scope of OxyContin’s devastation, and he also weaves in tragic real-life stories taken from court evidence, like a New Jersey mother whose fatal overdose was discovered by her four-year-old son. The author’s narration of his book is appropriately serious, though a welcome hint of snark peeks through as he digs into the Sacklers’ excesses. The OxyContin epidemic has always been heartbreaking. The rampant greed exposed in Empire of Pain makes it enraging.
Amazing book, terrible story!
Brilliantly written nonfiction
Impeccably researched and a fascinating story
It was a great pleasure hearing the story read by Mr. Keefe. This is a tale about a fascinating but flawed family driven to succeed but with no moral compass and a great talent for self-deception. The Saklers are responsible for far more death and suffering than Bernie Madoff or Jeffrey Epstein, buts it's likely you've never heard of them. If you had any doubt that the rich get a different brand of justice than the rest of us, you won't after reading this book.