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Journalist Patrick Radden Keefe: ‘I’ve always been interested in secrecy’

·6-min read

The 45-year-old American journalist Patrick Radden Keefe has written two of the most compelling nonfiction books of recent years and also created and presented one of the best podcasts – Wind of Change, an investigation into whether the classic Scorpions song was actually written by the CIA. Somehow, he combines these projects with his day job as a staff writer on the New Yorker. His new book, Empire of Pain, is a history of the Sackler family, a dynasty long known for cultural philanthropy, some of which has been funded since the 1990s with profits from their company Purdue Pharma and by the production of the highly addictive painkiller OxyContin. Keefe’s previous book, Say Nothing, an investigation into the murder of Jean McConville by the IRA in 1972, won the 2019 Orwell prize.

Opioids were responsible for the overdose deaths of nearly 500,000 Americans from 1999 to 2019. It’s hard not to feel very angry towards some members of the Sackler family, both for the way they promoted OxyContin and their lack of contrition. Did you feel that too?
As I was doing my reporting, there were moments where my eyes would bug out of my head. I was shocked. I kept thinking I couldn’t be more shocked. Then I would be. But when it came to the writing of the book, it was important to me to keep the temperature pretty cool and to just allow the evidence and the stories to speak for themselves.

For many of us, our first exposure to the Sackler name would have been their endowments, since discontinued, to galleries such as the Serpentine and Tate Modern. What’s behind the philanthropy? Is it atonement?
There’s something important to understand about the Sacklers, which is that they don’t feel that they have anything to atone for. I describe in the book this congressional testimony where David Sackler and Kathe Sackler spoke last December. And Kathe Sackler says: “When I look back over all these years, there’s really not a thing I would do differently.” When I look back over my life, there’s not a day that I would say that about.

Some of the Sacklers are thought to now live in London, which you describe as “a city long favoured by oligarchs with unsavoury fortunes”. Is that how London is known in the world?
Oligarchs? Yeah, absolutely. Come on, if I were an oligarch, that’s exactly where I would settle. A big old house, I’d dig out a swimming pool in the basement and buy a soccer club. Having a little bit of a sub-speciality on the naughty billionaires beat, London very often comes up in my crosshairs for precisely that reason.

If we have downtime on a weekend, I will just disappear back upstairs and start digging through some old court files

While you were writing Empire of Pain, you and your publishers received “several dozen letters and emails” from a lawyer representing some of the Sacklers. Was this in the back of your mind? Did it intimidate you?
Of course, it was in the back of my mind, it had to be. But I wasn’t intimidated. On the contrary, I was emboldened to be honest with you. In part, because they don’t do that sort of thing unless you’re on the right track. I thought a little bit about my colleague, Ronan Farrow, who had a similar experience when he tried to write about Harvey Weinstein. These are the sort of tactics these types of people employ. And they work until they don’t. And with Weinstein, they worked for a long time until they didn’t work any more. And the truth caught up with him.

You were formerly a policy adviser in the office of the secretary of defense. Has that experience influenced your writing?
I should say: office of the secretary of defense sounds like it’s me and the secretary of defense. There are 1,000 people who work in the office of the secretary of defense. I never even personally laid eyes on the secretary of defense in the entire year I was there. But it was incredible, because I’ve always been very interested in secrecy. And I was able to get a top-secret clearance and, as long as I didn’t write about the classified stuff, I was free to use the experience, anecdotes I’d heard, contacts I had made, which was really helpful.

Photographer Nan Goldin with protesters at the V&A’s Sackler Centre, calling for the museum to remove the Sackler name from the wing.
Photographer Nan Goldin with protesters at the V&A’s Sackler Centre in 2019, calling for the museum to remove the Sackler name from the wing. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

With Say Nothing, was it helpful being an outsider writing about the Troubles?
Yeah, I found that people couldn’t really plot me on any ideological grid. Even with my Irish name, I thought I’d have to have a whole conversation about how my family came from Donegal and it must have been a 100 years ago and so on. Nobody cared. I was American. I was parachuting in. I was a foreign correspondent. And most people, I think, see it for what it is, which is I hope a nuanced telling of this story by somebody who has no agenda going in.

Your podcast, Wind of Change, was the Guardian’s No 1 pick of 2020. It’s such a mad premise: a strangely credible conspiracy theory that the 1991 power ballad was covert propaganda planted at the end of the cold war. First of all, thanks, I’ve been whistling it for a week now.
Oh, God yeah, many apologies.

You admit you weren’t a Scorpions fan to begin with, but has their music grown on you?
It did. We went to Kyiv and saw the concert with this huge audience of Ukrainians and it was intense. There’s tears streaming down people’s faces and I was quite caught up by the emotion of it all. Then obviously meeting [lead singer] Klaus Meine, who was such a gentleman, so wonderfully accommodating of these two Americans who came all the way from New York to Hanover to accuse him of not having written his most famous song. I’ll always have a soft spot for Klaus.

Your wife’s a lawyer and you describe hers as “a real job”. What does that make what you do then?
I just really love this work. I don’t think of it as work. It drives my wife and children a little crazy. If we have downtime on a weekend, I will just disappear back upstairs and start digging through some old court files. Or trying to find the contact information for some person I’m seeking out. And I do that not out of some compulsive sense that I need to be working, but because it’s just so fun.

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty is published by Pan Macmillan (£20). To support the Guardian order your copy go at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply