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Books We Love: Ailsa Chang picks 'Empire Of Pain' by Patrick Radden Keefe


NPR is celebrating Books We Love from 2021. It's way better than any best-of book list because it lets you sort by categories, like eye-opening read or seriously great writing. And "Empire Of Pain" by Patrick Radden Keefe fits both of these categories. It was one of my favorites from this whole past year.

The book is a sweeping story of the rise and fall of an American dynasty - a family obsessed with emblazoning with its name across museums, galleries and schools, all while largely obscuring any connection between its name and the drug that killed so many people. The Sackler family made a lot of money from Purdue Pharma's opioid sales, which has deeply complicated the family's philanthropic legacy. Here's Patrick Radden Keefe from when we spoke earlier this year.

PATRICK RADDEN KEEFE: Purdue set out to basically change the mind of the American medical establishment about the dangers of strong opioids. So when they had this drug, OxyContin, to sell, they went out there with an army of sales reps...

CHANG: Right.

RADDEN KEEFE: ...And they met with doctors. And they said, listen; we know that historically doctors have been a little cautious about prescribing these types of drugs. But actually, they've been too cautious. And these drugs are good not just for cancer pain, not just for end-of-life care, but for back pain, sports injuries. And the fascinating thing is they succeeded. They did help initiate a real sea change in the culture of prescribing, which you can date, if you look back at the history to the introduction of OxyContin. So for that reason, I believe that the Sacklers do bear significant moral responsibility for having initiated - you know, not intentionally - right? - but carelessly - a series of events that that got us to where we are today.

CHANG: I also ask Keefe why he thinks it's been so utterly important to the Sackler family to never admit wrongdoing.

RADDEN KEEFE: I think this is a family that's very deep in denial. But I also think there's another thing when I try to empathize with the Sacklers, which is that the magnitude of the destruction associated with the opioid crisis is such that if you open up the door just a crack to the notion that you might have helped initiate this kind of catastrophic public health crisis, I feel as though that might be just too overwhelming for any human conscience to bear.

CHANG: Patrick Radden Keefe speaking on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED earlier this year about his book "Empire Of Pain." It's one of the many books featured in this year's NPR's Books We Love. To explore for yourself, head over to

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL WITHERS SONG, "LOVELY DAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.