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April 2021

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Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Five Stars

Best for:
Those interested in how corporations and the government have failed us. Those who enjoy a little bit of schadenfreude (though, in my opinion, not nearly enough).

In a nutshell:
The Sackler family, obsessed with their reputation and ‘good name,’ help 400,000 people to their deaths via the opioid epidemic.

Why I chose it:
I loved the author’s book ‘Say Nothing’ about The Troubles in Northern Ireland and searched for other work. Saw this was being released in April so ordered it right away.

Review:
What is a name, really? Is philanthropy truly a gift if it comes with so many strings, including the need to have one’s name splashed across all the things? How do we hold accountable the leaders of corporations that cause pain and suffering for millions?

Author Keefe explores all these themes in his excellent book that focuses on the Sackler family, the name behind the billion-dollar pain empire via one of the ventures they chose not to put their name on, Purdue Pharma. If you’re not familiar, Purdue Pharma patented OxiContin, the extraordinarily strong opioid pain reliever introduced in the 1990s.

The book opens with a deposition in the late 2010s, but immediately jumps back to the early 1900s so we can follow three generations of the Sackler family, starting with boys Arthur, Raymund, and Mortimer. Arthur took the lead as the first born to take a bunch of jobs, supporting his family. He and his brothers all went to medical school, and all married (some of them multiple times). Over time Arthur especially starts to build the empire with medical marketing, then the purchase of Purdue Frederick and Purdue Pharma.

Each successive generation seems to be obsessed with putting their names on EVERYTHING. It kind of reminds me of the Trump family – there’s just this deep, almost pathological, need to piss all over the place. I don’t understand obsessions with names and legacy. Maybe it’s because I’m not having kids? To my mind, one’s legacy should be doing good things because they should be done, not because one wants credit and a fancy plaque at the entrance to a museum gallery.

The Sacklers do not ever get what they deserve – though the very last chapter does have a slight sense of comeuppance. They are helped in many ways by the FDA — who should have shut down OxiContin’s claims from the start — but also by the Trump DOJ, who chose not the prosecute the individual family members in addition to the privately owned company. The family made billions off of the addiction of others, essentially creating not just the opioid epidemic but, when they changed the formulation, helping push those individuals on to heroin.

They are evil. And while they do get to sleep on their giant pillows of ill-gotten money, at least one thing is now true: they have completely ruined the name they hold so dear. Museums and universities they donated to have started to strip their name from it (the Louvre, most notably, as well as medical programs at NYU and Tufts), as they don’t want to be associated with such immoral, vile individuals. But it still won’t bring back the lives lost at their hands.

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