Barry Blackwell’s Introduction to Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty


       The Sacklers, Purdue Pharma, Oxycontin and the opioid crisis that killed half a million Americans over the past two decades is perhaps the most remarkable saga in the archives of psychopharmacology. 

       This is a tale that found the storyteller it deserves in Patrick Radden Keefe.  It comes on the heels of Keefe’s 2019 highly acclaimed, Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder & Mystery in Northern Ireland, that earned this staff writer at the New Yorker Magazine twin accolades as winner of the Book Critics “Circle Award” and “Orwell Prize for Political Writing.” It was named a best seller by the New York Times, The Washington Post, Time Magazine and Entertainment Weekly; Keefe also owns a Guggenheim Fellowship. 

       Not surprisingly, Empire of Pain is both a scholarly tome and a riveting read. The front and back pages provide a Birth Chart of the Sackler Dynasty beginning with Isaac Sackler and Sophie Greenberg and the generations that follow.  

       The text of 519 pages is divided into three “books” and 29 chapters: Book 1, “Patriarch,” has 10 chapters; Book 2, “Dynasty,” also has 10 chapters; and Book 3, “Legacy,” has nine chapters. The text continues with an Afterword, Acknowledgements, a Note on Sources, 440 End Notes and an Index. 

       But the end of the book is not the end of the story. It spills beyond the covers into our nation’s Courts of Law where the Sackler’s vast wealth purchases ingenious lawyers insulating and protecting them from a final reckoning that hangs in the balance, confronted by a dynasty obdurate to accept responsibility or relinquish its ill-gotten wealth.  

       Over the decades the dynasty had donated a significant amount of drug profits in philanthropic giving to national and international art collections, which, unlike charity, garnered quid pro quo notoriety and naming rights. 

       On September 2, 2021, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a release from the Associated Press by Geoff Mulvlhill that reads, in part: 

       “A Federal Bankruptcy judge on Wednesday gave conditional approval to a sweeping $10 billion plan submitted by OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma to settle a mountain of law suits [sic] over its role in the opioid crisis.  

       “The drug company will be re-organized into a new company with a board appointed by public officials and will funnel its profits into government-led efforts to prevent and treat opioid addiction.  Also, the settlement sets up a compensation fund that will pay some victims of drug addiction an expected $3,500 to $48,000 each.  U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain said Wednesday after speaking from the bench for more than six hours that he would approve the plan as long as two technical changes were made. If so, he will formally enter the decision Thursday.

       “He said before his ruling that while he does not have ‘fondness for the Sacklers or sympathy for them,’ collecting money from them through litigation would be complicated.” 

       The settlement comes nearly two years after the Stamford Connecticut-based company filed for bankruptcy under the weight of 3,000 lawsuits from states, local governments, Native American Tribes, hospitals, unions and other entities. They accuse Purdue Pharma of fueling the crisis by aggressively pushing sales of the best-selling pain killer. 

       The Sacklers were not given immunity from criminal charges, though there had been no indications they faced any. 

       State and local governments came to support the plan overwhelmingly, though many did so grudgingly as did groups representing those harmed by prescription opioids. 

       Nine States, Washington DC, Seattle, and the U.S. Bankruptcy Trustee, which seeks to protect the nation’s system, opposed the settlement, largely because of the protections granted to the Sackler family. Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, quickly announced he would appeal the plan, calling it inadequate. 



Keefe PR. Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty. Doubleday; 2021. 

Keefe PR. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder & Mystery in Northern Ireland. Doubleday, 2019.


October 28, 2021