October, 2017, was a pretty good month for my family. I got nominated for a big award and became a staff writer at The New Yorker. My oldest son had recently started college, and I felt even more than the normal amount of parental pride and wonder at watching him find his feet. He had spent the first couple of years of life, before I adopted him, in a Russian hospital, and the effects of developmental and emotional deprivation he had suffered still haunted him. But he was stubborn and ambitious, and I believed in him, and he knew I did, and I knew how much that mattered.
For the Sackler family, October, 2017, was stressful. Until then, the family had been known for its philanthropy in art, academia, and medicine. But my colleague Patrick Radden Keefe was about to publish a piece in this magazine, called “Empire of Pain,” detailing the history of the Sacklers’ fortune. Three brothers, Arthur, Mortimer, and Raymond Sackler, all of them both doctors and businessmen, had amassed a fortune in pharmaceuticals. In the early nineteen-fifties, they’d bought a small company that Mortimer and Raymond, who purchased Arthur’s stake after he died, turned into the giant Purdue Pharma. Purdue’s most profitable product was OxyContin, the drug at the root of the American epidemic of opioid addiction. The two brothers, along with Raymond’s son Richard, continued to run the company, the profits from which flowed to both Mortimer and Raymond’s descendants.
Anticipating the publication of the piece in The New Yorker, some of these descendants formed a WhatsApp chat group to discuss how to mitigate the reputational damage from Keefe’s reporting and other media coverage of the Sacklers’ profiting from the opioid epidemic. These chats, in redacted form, have now been released as part of bankruptcy proceedings. The newsletter The.Ink obtained and reported on them this past month; Anand Giridharadas, the publisher of The.Ink, shared the original court filings with me. (Giridharadas has written extensively on the way America’s super-rich use philanthropy to safeguard their reputations and their wealth.)
In the chat, the Sacklers considered different solutions to their reputational crisis. Should they place op-eds? Should they respond to the growing number of reporters who were writing about their role in the opioid epidemic? Should they start a foundation that addresses the effects of opioid addiction? They complained about what they saw as biased media coverage. “These articles… rely on incorrect data and assumptions of the ‘opioid crisis’ in the US and take it as given that the rise of prescriptions for opioids in the US was the primary blame for the rise of drug abuse,” Mortimer, son of Mortimer, wrote in February of 2018, while he and other Sacklers remained on the Purdue board. “I strongly dispute that statement.” They lashed out at Purdue Pharma. “I would also like to say that I am extremely angry that the company and the board of directors have shown such gross incompetence to allow their shareholders to be thrown under the bus in this manner,” Michael, another of Mortimer’s children, who did not sit on the company’s board, wrote in November, 2017. They raged at Nan Goldin, the photographer who spearheaded a movement to hold arts organizations accountable for taking Sackler money. (Goldin is in recovery from addiction to OxyContin.) Sometimes family members got mad at each other. Other times, they arranged family dinners and discussed whether children were invited.
In the winter of 2018-2019, the Sacklers wished one another Merry Christmas and Happy New Year over WhatsApp. My son, a sophomore, was home from college. Somewhere not far from my house, in Harlem, he and a friend tried to climb a brick wall. My son fell and hurt his ankle. His friend carried him home, laughing, on his shoulders, and then transported him another block to the Harlem Hospital emergency room, where my son got a cast and a prescription for opioids—a week’s worth, just as I’d been prescribed six months earlier, when I’d broken my jaw. A couple of years before that, following a surgery, I’d gotten a prescription for ten days worth of opioids. I’d never used the pills I was prescribed—ibuprofen was enough to take care of the pain—so the amber bottles full of Oxy and Percocet accumulated in my medicine cabinet.
In February, my son returned to college. My daughter, then seventeen, went with me when I was covering a “die-in” that Goldin and her group, Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN), staged at the Guggenheim (my daughter ended up joining the protest and then the group). On WhatsApp, the Sacklers were growing livid. Sophie, daughter of Mortimer, had called Goldin’s actions “pulling a stunt.” Sophie’s brother Mortimer added, “She isn’t a rational person.” Their sister Marissa reassured them: “I speak regularly with dia on all of this and they fully support us and think Nan Goldin is crazy.” (Dia Art Foundation established a Sackler Institute, in 2016, but, this year, information about the institute disappeared from its Web site, after several bigger recipients of Sackler philanthropy cut ties with the family.)
But there was good news for the Sackler family in the spring of 2019, too. A series of articles in the Washington Post and elsewhere argued that limits on prescribing opioids, imposed in response to the epidemic of addiction, were hurting people who genuinely needed the pills for pain management. The Sacklers sent one another links to these pieces on WhatsApp. My son came home for spring break, returned to college, and became uncommunicative. He surfaced in mid-May, when he told me that he’d barely attended any classes that semester. The college was putting him on what was being called medical leave—though, as far as I knew, there was no actual medical issue involved.
On May 23, 2019, the day my son was coming home from college, I was flying to Warsaw for an awards ceremony. He texted me that he’d gotten home all right but complained that he was “in a lot of physical pain” because he’d been practicing backflips. On WhatsApp, the Sacklers were vetting an op-ed that the Purdue board chairman, Steve Miller, was about to publish in the Wall Street Journal. The piece bemoaned a “campaign of public vilification” and complained that Purdue was facing nearly two thousand separate lawsuits all over the country. It argued that the real solution to the opioid crisis lay in dropping the litigation and letting the company establish anti-addiction charitable programs. “Steve Miller’s piece is excellent,” Ilene, daughter of Mortimer and a former member of the Purdue board, wrote. “I got them to eliminate any mention of the family,” her brother Mortimer wrote. Their sister Samantha, who had not been a member of the board, was less enthusiastic. “It does nothing to change the narrative,” she wrote.
The next morning, I was in the lobby of my Warsaw hotel, being interviewed by a journalist, when my daughter called. It was four or five in the morning in New York. She said that her brother was not breathing. She had already called 911.
Our family’s electronic trail from those days is spotty. I messaged my girlfriend on WhatsApp: “Can you go to my house now?” My daughter e-mailed her long-distance boyfriend: “I found my brother unresponsive and barely breathing. Called 911. He’s fine now. I’m shaking, I was scared he was going to die.” A short while later she e-mailed him again: “So he oded on oxy. I knew he tried it. Fuck I didn’t tell anyone. Fuck fuck fuck.” I messaged my girlfriend, asking her to go into my medicine cabinet and dispose of all the opioids that had accumulated there. She messaged back with photographs of empty bottles. My son had taken all the pills when he went back to college in the winter. When he returned for spring break, he found more Oxy there: I’d had surgery again. When he went to the source again, in May, all he found was oxycodone that had been prescribed for our poodle, when he had a bout of severe back pain; as usual, the number of pills prescribed had been excessive, and most were left over after the dog had recovered.
The day that my son was released from the hospital, the Wall Street Journal published Miller’s op-ed. In November, its author, on behalf of Purdue Pharma, pleaded guilty in federal court to charges of misleading the federal government and paying kickbacks to doctors and a medical-software company. In the intervening months, my son got clean, relapsed, got clean again, relapsed again, flunked out of college, and destroyed his relationships with many of the people who love him, including me. I am still luckier than many of the regular participants of anti-Sackler protests, whom other activists call “the moms”: they come because their children are dead.
The Sackler family chat ends two weeks after my son’s overdose. The family has continued rejecting any responsibility for the opioid crisis. Last week, Kathe Sackler, one of Mortimer’s children, who had served on the Purdue board, testified before the House Oversight Committee. “I have tried to figure out, was there anything that I could have done differently? Knowing what I knew then—not what I know now?” she said. “There’s nothing that I can find that I would have done differently based on what I believed and understood then.”
What I wouldn’t give to feel that kind of certainty. I don’t know if my son is currently using drugs, but he has told me that not an hour of his life passes when he doesn’t think about opioids. It was the one thing he found that made him feel comfortable in the world, he said. Not a day of mine passes without wondering what I might have done differently. What if I’d known more about developmental trauma when I adopted him? What if I’d pressured him less? What if I’d been home more? What if I hadn’t made him move around, change schools, learn a new language and culture as a teen-ager? What if I’d discouraged him from going to a competitive college? What if I hadn’t kept those bottles of medicine?
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