Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty

Written by:
Patrick Radden Keefe
Narrated by:
Patrick Radden Keefe

Unabridged Audiobook

Release Date
April 2021
18 hours 6 minutes
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.
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Not going to lie, this book started out rough. And by rough I mean, long, drawn out and somewhat boring. But, a little over halfway through it all makes sense why the beginning of the book goes into such detail. So, if you truly want to learn more about this family and our opioid crisis, stick it out because the book gets immensely better. For those who aren’t familiar with the Sackler family this is truly eye-opening. It might make you rethink certain “endorsements” of particular medication, prescribed to you by doctors. The opioid crisis is in fact, a crisis. And those who refused to take any sort of responsibility have, in my opinion, a complete lack of any moral compass. That is the Sackler family. Money should not be the only goal in life, especially when it destroys thousands upon thousands of people.

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Russ S.

Excellent. Well researched. Balanced. Honest. Creatively written. Engaging.

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Trinidad F.

This book was excellent. My emotions were all over the place - sadness for the families who lost loved ones and for the people still fighting addiction to pure disgust for the vile Sackler family.

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Jaanika Kalling

Enjoyed every minute of this book. It kept me hooked until the last words. Amazing research.

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Nadine O.

Brilliant book! Marvellously well researched, superbly narrated. Great listening experience.

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John H.

Fabulous read. Should be mandatory for physicians

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty
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