I did commit to reading more nonfiction this year, and so in the waning months of 2021 I thought, why not read something cheerful, like a 560 page deep dive into the Sackler family and their obscene greed that brought the world mass marketed pharmaceuticals and Oxycontin and the subsequent hundreds of thousands of overdose deaths?
I didn’t realize when ordering it from the library that it was from the same author, Patrick Radden Keefe, as my previous 2021 nonfiction win, Say Nothing. But happy discovery, as like Say Nothing the writing is ‘novelistic’ in that people (cough characters) are afforded full depth and complicated motivations and that there is a plot that one can latch onto. So no dry, dull non-fiction for this reader. (Sure, sure, I get it, 2021’s experiment has proven that non-fiction is… pretty great. Don’t rub it in, NHFH.)
What this one offers is on the surface a biography of the Sackler family, beginning with the three brothers that found Purdue pharmaceuticals, but chiefly Arthur, who is something of an impossible figure to believe in the range of interests, the maniacal pursuit of them and the ‘success’ he brought in merging the fields of advertising, medicine and drug development. We then follow the subsequent generations of Sacklers and their truly relentless and amoral pursuit of profit over the clear and consistent and unequivocal proof the dangers of their opioid products. The level of corruption within the government and government agencies, of doctors and pharmacies, the collusion and feigned ignorance, it’s all… a lot, and yet, somehow not at all surprising.
The book explores with some complexity the complicity of later generations and what level of involvement within the Sackler business should ‘taint’ a Sackler family member. Or whether benefiting – directly or indirectly – from Sackler profits besmirches the character or actions of an individual family member, some of whom (though not many) were tangential to the direct business dealings.
I especially appreciated the section detailing the work of activist artist, Nan Goldin, and the demonstration of the power of art to unsettle and unseat power. A meta commentary, I’m sure, on the potential of the book to provoke change, of books to make a difference.