Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe

A spoon overflowing with pills, one of them red, sits above the title where "Empire of Pain" appears in bold red lettering.

By Rebecca W.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2019 roughly 48,000 deaths were attributed to synthetic opioid overdose, and more than 10 million people reported abusing prescription opioids. While many of us have heard, for years, reports of the devastating consequences of opioid abuse, one side of this story only recently hitting the media revolves around the Sackler family. In his book Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, Patrick Radden Keefe takes a pointed look at the Sackler family and their role in the current opioid epidemic. While this book is not the first of its kind, Keefe reports on the family at a time when numerous lawsuits against the family’s company, Purdue Pharma, have brought to light compelling and abundant evidence of the direct impact the family had on the current epidemic and the lack of responsibility the family has taken.

What I found most interesting about this book was Keefe’s decision to devote nearly a third of the book to Arthur Sackler. While the family patriarch could be considered the father of pharmaceutical marketing, he is very much removed, if related at all, to the modern Sackler family and Purdue Pharma. Arthur Sackler, the eldest of three brothers born to immigrant parents in early 20th-century Brooklyn, made a name for himself through his pharmaceutical ad agency’s marketing of the tranquilizing drug Valium (also know as Diazepam). Valium’s creator, Roche, and Sackler made Valium one of the most-prescribed drugs to date, earning a fortune well into the hundreds of thousands in the process. Today, there is a well-established history of abuse and over-prescription of the drug.

While this portion of the book is certainly an interesting read, it does not directly pertain to the current Sackler family machinations, with Arthur’s heir selling shares of the original company to other family members well before the development of the company’s flagship drug, Oxycontin. While an argument can be made that Arthur more or less created the playbook that future Sacklers would use to enhance their empire, I feel there was another reason Keefe devoted such length to Arthur’s story. When reading the story of Arthur’s life, I saw blatant ethical missteps fueled by greed. However, when I began reading about the modern-day Sacklers, I found myself looking back on Arthur’s story, suddenly seeming like a tip-toe over the line of ethical practice. When looking at corruption that deals with billions of dollars, millions of people, and high-level corporate practices, keeping your perspective can be challenging. For me, the knowledge of Arthur’s story, and how my thoughts changed around it throughout the book, helped me maintain my perspective when trying to follow a story with details at a higher level then my understanding.

If you are someone who has followed the story of the Sackler family, recently finished watching ‘Dopesick’, or just learned of the Sacklers, I would highly recommended reading (or, like me, listening) to this book.

Learn more about the Opioid Epidemic in the US and MD here.

Becky is an Adult Instructor and Research Specialist at the HCLS East Columbia Branch who enjoys art and everything science.

Dr. Erika Lee: The Making of Asian America

On the left, the cover of Dr. Lee's book: The color shades from deep blue to bright red with lettering in gold. A paper lantern floats in the top right corner. On the right: A photo of Dr. Lee wearing a denim jacket and large blue necklace, her hair is shoulder length and she wears glasses. A sunny green yard is out of focus behind her.

Monumental. . . . Lee handles her scholarly materials with grace, never overwhelming the reader with too many facts or incidents. She tells an American story familiar to anyone who has read Walt Whitman, seeking to capture America in all its diversity and difference, while at the same time pleading for America to realize its democratic potential. . . . Powerful Asian American stories . . . are inspiring, and Lee herself does them justice in a book that is long overdue.” ― LA Times

On Wednesday, May 26 at 7 pm, Dr. Erika Lee discusses her acclaimed book The Making of Asian-AmericaIn the past fifty years, Asian Americans have helped change the face of America and are now the fastest-growing group in the United States. As award-winning historian Erika Lee also reminds us, Asian Americans also have deep roots in the country. The Making of Asian America tells the little-known history of Asian Americans and their role in American life, from their first arrival to the present-day.

An epic history of global journeys and new beginnings, this book shows how generations of Asian immigrants and their American-born descendants have made and remade Asian American life in the United States: sailors who came on the first trans-Pacific ships in the 1500s; indentured “coolies” who worked alongside African slaves in the Caribbean; and Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, and South Asian immigrants who were recruited to work in the United States only to face massive racial discrimination, Asian exclusion laws, and, for Japanese Americans, incarceration during World War II. During the past fifty years, a new Asian America has emerged out of community activism and the arrival of new immigrants and refugees. No longer a “despised minority,” Asian Americans are now held up as America’s “model minorities” in ways that reveal the complicated role that race still plays in the United States.

Copies of The Making of Asian America are available to borrow (also as an eAudiobook) from HCLS or to purchase from Books with a Past. 

A stunning achievement, The Making of Asian America establishes the centrality of Asians to American history, and poses alternatives to US national and immigration histories. Asians, this remarkable text reveals, transformed the face of America, and they locate the US firmly within a hemispheric and global order.” ― Gary Y. Okihiro, Professor of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University

ABOUT DR. ERIKA LEE One of the nation’s leading immigration and Asian American historians, Erika Lee teaches American history at the University of Minnesota, where she is a Regents Professor, a Distinguished McKnight University Professor, the Rudolph J. Vecoli Chair in Immigration History, and the Director of the Immigration History Research Center. The granddaughter of Chinese immigrants, Lee grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, attended Tufts University, and received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. She was recently elected into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, testified before Congress during its historic hearings on discrimination and violence against Asian Americans, was awarded an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship, and named Vice President of the Organization of American Historians.