EXCLUSIVE: Sackler family secrets are coming out. A new book, called “Empire of Pain” by Patrick Radden Keefe, contains emails that show the heirs complaining about how hard their lives were as they tried to downplay and shift blame for the opioid crisis.
A new book on the Sackler family—the secretive billionaires who kept America in steady supply of OxyContin—contains private emails that show the heirs complaining about how hard their lives were as they tried to downplay and shift blame for the deadly opioid crisis that left nearly half a million Americans dead.
The messages, along with other revelations in Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe, shed light on how the Sacklers saw themselves not as beneficiaries of a company that invented, aggressively marketed, and profited from a dangerous drug, but as victims of a smear campaign. They also lay bare the internal tensions behind the family’s public profile.
In a 2017 email, Mortimer Sackler, son and namesake of one of the three brothers who co-founded Purdue Pharma, requested a $10 million loan—and “a possible additional $10 million...MAX”—from the family trust to fund his lavish lifestyle, with instructions to keep the cash infusion secret from his relatives.
“Start off with saying I am not happy,” he wrote to a psychiatrist and “leadership confidant” named Kerry Sulkowicz. “I am falling significantly behind financially.”
The heir was prepared to sell off “artworks, jewelry, stock positions,” but it would not be enough to get him into the black. “I have been working for years on Purdue at what I consider to be a considerably discounted value relative to what MY TIME IS WORTH,” Mortimer wrote. “I am LOSING money by working in the pharma business.”
As for the secrecy, he conceded, the money could be “reported in the trust accounts as loan/cash flow assistance to family members but not be specific... I don’t want to hear my siblings’ opinion on this and I don’t need more stress for this. I need to have this resolved... This needs to happen, the only question is how much DRAMA will be needed for this to happen.”
Feelings of aggrieved entitlement were not exclusive to Mortimer. When David Sackler, grandson of co-founder Raymond, got married, the book reveals, he wanted to buy a bigger apartment, but was snubbed by his father and boss, Richard—the man who oversaw and pushed the development of OxyContin more than anyone.
On June 12, 2015, David wrote an email to his parents to “voice some thoughts.” He griped that as Richard’s assistant, he had worked hard to “manage the family fortune” and “make the family richer.” He was Richard’s “right hand for everything”—a grueling job because “beyond pushing myself to excel, I work for a boss (Dad) with little understanding of what I do.”
The Sacklers have always publicly denied any wrongdoing related to the opioid crisis, but other emails show the private lengths they went to in order to downplay their own role in the disaster. In one correspondence, Mortimer insisted prescription opioids had little to do with addiction, casting doubt on whether a crisis even existed.
In a Feb. 17, 2019, email, Mortimer ranted to family that prescription opioids “are NOT the CAUSE of drug abuse, addiction, or the so called ‘opioid crisis,’”—setting off the phrase in scare quotes throughout the message to underscore his skepticism. “I also don’t think we should use the term ‘opioid crisis’ or even ‘opioid addiction crisis’ in our messaging,” he added, favoring the terms “drug abuse and addiction.”
The same day, Mortimer’s cousin, Jonathan, who died from cancer in July, suggested the family’s predicament resembled that of the millions imprisoned in America’s bloated carceral system.