Much has now been written about Purdue, who pleaded guilty to federal charges in 2019 after years of settling private lawsuits out of court, but the Sacklers, whom Forbes now estimate to be worth about $10 billion, with much of that coming from $35 billion in OxyContin sales, have largely remained shadows in the wings. “Their name is still carved into the walls of American institutions – the Met; the Guggenheim; the Smithsonian,” he says. “Yet it has never appeared on the Purdue website.”
In 2017 [when Keefe first wrote about the Sacklers in the New Yorker] they were still pretty unimpeachable as members of London and New York high society. It felt odd to me that they’d been able to tailor their public presentation in such a way that news stories dating from 2001 hadn’t caught up with them.”
Empire of Pain is a riveting read – a dynastic thriller, social horror story and American parable rolled into one that immaculately maps out the catastrophic involvement of the Sacklers in American public health care, ever since Arthur Sackler pioneered aggressive new drug marketing techniques with the drug Valium in the 1960s.
Keefe didn’t speak to any Sackler members during the research – “in public they have always maintained a frosty indifference” – but they did, however, speak to him in the form of numerous letters sent to the New Yorker and to his US publisher Doubleday threatening legal action. They sent so many letters Keefe likens it to the Harry Potter scene in which letters fly down the chimney at Number Four, Privet Drive.
At one point Purdue even sent a private investigator after him. Yet Keefe refused to be undeterred. In fact he was emboldened. “I studied law at Yale. And the truth is, when you look closely at a lot of these legal threats, they are empty. They don’t have a case. The truth is a very strong defence.”
The Sackler story is an American scandal on an epic scale: of a Teflon-coated family dynasty that made billions out of a little white pill that has decimated entire communities in America’s rust belt. They have always refused to accept responsibility, with Richard Sackler in 2019 blaming the addicts rather than the drug for the crisis; at a congressional hearing in 2019 at which former board members David and Kathe Sackler made a rare public appearance, one congressman called them the most evil family in America.
Yet beyond the tragedy of countless lives destroyed are wider questions about the links between private money and public institutions. The Sackler family stopped giving money to UK institutions in 2019, but the Tate and many other British galleries and museums have all been beneficiaries. And while the Serpentine removed the Sackler name from one of its galleries earlier this year, others, points out Keefe, haven’t been so forthright: the V&A has the Sackler Centre for arts education and the Sackler Courtyard; the British Museum has a room for private hire named after Raymond and Beverly Sackler; while the National Gallery still has a room named after the Sacklers within its galleries.
Keefe, 44, who lives in New York with his wife and two sons, understands the tricky position arts institutions are in. That is, their reliance on an increasingly precarious combination of public money and private donations in this country and almost entirely reliant on philanthropy in the US.
“I accept that if institutions introduce litmus tests for morality when it comes to money, they would have no money. Of course, it’s an easier question to answer in science. It’s not hard to find people in medical research, for instance [the Sacklers also donate heavily to scientific organisations] arguing that a dollar is a dollar. They would say ‘I don’t care where the money comes from; I’m saving lives here.'” The arts can’t claim the same argument. “But if you have the Sackler name carved into your wall, you might as well have the word OxyContin carved there. It’s the same difference.”