After having read two of his books in (relatively) quick succession I can say with full confidence that Patrick Radden Keefe is an excellent writer and a dogged journalist. He was starting with topics that I wanted to read about, even if they were difficult, but he was able to draw me in in ways I wasn’t expecting and achieved more than I had anticipated.
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland takes on the bitter conflict in Northern Ireland and its aftermath, using the McConville case as an entry point for the tale of a society wracked by a violent guerrilla war. But that isn’t the only thing Keefe is pulling at, as the subtitle clearly says this is also a story about memory, about the way various people involved in the sectarian violence chose to remember, and how they do or don’t embrace an accurate public memory especially as it’s about a culture that, traditionally, isn’t known for talking about things. He also describes how the peace that came out of the Good Friday agreements fell short in providing a way to reckon with the consequences of over thirty years of violence in a population of approximately 1.5 million people at the time and how the peace fell far short of the goal of a united Ireland and left many wondering whether the killings they committed were not justified acts of war, but simple murders.
Reading this one was a bit of a roller coaster experience. Patrick Radden Keefe writes an intricate history about a notorious killing in Northern Ireland, the way it elucidates thousands of others, and the devastating repercussions of decades of violence. The book is broken into three sections, and while I was reading the first section, I remember thinking that it was very well written and engaging but wondered at how firmly the story of Jean McConville was going to manage to be included into the actual story Keefe was writing, as it seemed to keep taking a backseat to the other strands of the story that were being woven in as he brought into focus The Troubles through the lens of Provo violence. By the second section the story of McConville and her children was largely missing, and I thought the narrative suffered (and I stalled out on reading). And then the third section came roaring in, and Keefe takes all the various pieces and gives us a mosaic of how various crimes and violence illuminate the story of one woman who was disappeared in 1972 and its effects on her children over the next forty plus years.
Keefe follows the trajectories of many players within the conflict, as well as the murders of the sixteen people who were disappeared by the Provisional IRA. Deeply and thoroughly researched, this is an excellent example of narrative non-fiction.
Empire of Pain
I requested Keefe’s most recent work, Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty before Say Nothing but read it second. The Sackler story was what brought Keefe’s writing to my attention although I admit that it wasn’t until late in 2021. Keefe’s article for The New Yorker about the artists who lobbied the Metropolitan Museum of Art to remove the Sackler name from their galleries (seven in total) was big news in the Museum world, even those of us firmly on the outside of the art world. That article referenced Keefe’s earlier article for the magazine and this book, and with a string of five-star reviews from fellow Cannonballers this book skyrocketed up my to read.
And boy, did this book make me angry. The rage it induced within me was by no means small, as this is the story of the family that owns the company that possibly single handedly created the modern opioid crisis while hiding in plain sight and denying their drug was addictive at all, and lying about having studied that component at all while paying off all the right people. There are many fatal overdoses have resulted from opioids other than OxyContin, but the crisis was initially precipitated by a shift in the culture of prescribing—a shift carefully engineered by Purdue that Keefe chronicles.
Keefe is methodical in tracking the story of the Sacklers, starting with Arthur Sackler, the patriarch of the family who made his money as a medical advertising guru, in many ways birthing the system that we see today. He and his brothers were doctors, had worked and studied at psychiatry hospitals, but their money came from the advertising and publishing endeavors which in turn led to buying Purdue in 1952 which was then a patent medicine company focusing on such pedestrian needs as laxatives and ear wax removers. But Arthur remained focused on his publishing company, and while he owned a third, he was largely silent partner – his brothers Mortimer and Raymond were joint CEOs. Within two decades the brothers were rich, and already beginning to spend the money on securing the good family name. Within another decade they started working on Oxycontin because their then current money maker in the painkiller arena was about to come to the end of its patent and they were going to be fighting with generics.
In the end this is a story of greed and dishonesty. It’s a must read, but a tough one as well.