Mark Allen Henderson, “Snake Bit,” opiate prescription bottles, glass eyes, sculpted rattlesnake head. (image by and courtesy of Mark Allen Henderson)

The first time Megan Kapler noticed the stranger watching her from his car was on September 6, 2019, when she was leaving the Brooklyn apartment of artist and fellow activist Nan Goldin. The second time Kapler observed the same man, he was parked outside of her house, taking her photograph with his phone. A week later, he was in front of Goldin’s home again.

These instances of surveillance of Kapler and other members of PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), the advocacy group led by Goldin, are detailed in Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty. In the newly released book, Patrick Radden Keefe traces the origins of the Sackler family’s fortune and the role of its company, Purdue Pharma, in fueling an opioid epidemic in the United States by deceptively marketing its signature painkiller, OxyContin.

“We’ve been warned since the onset of PAIN that there could be tactics of intimidation physically or digitally, but no amount of precautions can prepare you for being followed,” the group told Hyperallergic. “It is a complete violation of your safety and it has lasting effects.”

Goldin, a survivor of OxyContin addiction, founded PAIN in 2017 to hold the Sackler family accountable for the opioid crisis, which has led to the deaths of over 500,000 Americans. Numerous organizations, including New York University, Dia Art Foundation, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have since heeded the call to suspend accepting Sackler gifts or remove the family’s name from their spaces.

Kapler and her colleagues strongly suspect that the mysterious lurker they saw in 2019 was a private investigator hired by Purdue or the Sacklers to follow them, but their suspicions are difficult to prove — and that is by design, Keefe explains in his book. PIs are often subcontracted by middlemen such as law firms, effectively muddying the trail to the person who hired them. In many cases, Keefe adds, the investigator himself doesn’t know who his client is.

“We’re heartened to see all of the institutions that have refused future funding from the Sacklers. But should anyone think that’s enough, we want to bring light to these inexcusable threats,” PAIN told Hyperallergic.

Following the repeated sightings, Kapler filed a police report, which was reviewed by Hyperallergic.

“Even if the threat was only meant to shake us up mentally, as women, we felt the threat of violence in our bodies,” Goldin and Kapler told Hyperallergic. “Because he made himself so obvious, we wonder what other tactics the Sacklers may be employing.”

In his afterword, Keefe recounts also being staked out at his house in the suburbs outside New York City one afternoon last summer while working on the book. A neighbor noticed the same man watching the house on a second occasion. Keefe recounts the incidents in a recent interview with NPR’s Terry Gross. 

“You know, I can’t say for sure that the Sacklers sent him,” he said. “But I can tell you I wasn’t working on any other projects at the time and that when I asked them, actually, in a request for comment whether they were responsible for this, they declined to comment.” When he asked Purdue about the incident, the company denied having any knowledge of it.

The purpose of the investigator’s presence, Keefe hypothesizes in his book, was “not to learn anything but to intimidate.” And the event was not unique in the history of Purdue Pharma: New York Times reporter Barry Meier, one of the first to write about Purdue’s deceptive marketing of OxyContin, had a similar experience nearly two decades ago. 

“There’s a continuity in their tactics, this tendency to throw their weight around and try and control the narrative,” Keefe said.

A public relations firm representing members of the Sackler family was contacted for this story and has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

A “die-in” protest organized by Nan Goldin’s activist PAIN in the courtyard of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London (photo by Naomi Polonsky for Hyperallergic)

Last October, Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges related to its implication in the opioid crisis. But critics of Purdue’s $8.3 billion settlement with the Department of Justice said the deal allowed individual members of the Sackler family to admit no wrongdoing. Attorney General Maura Healey of Massachusetts, one of the dozens of states that filed lawsuits against the company, said justice would only be served by “exposing the truth and holding the perpetrators accountable.”

As Keefe explores in his book, the Sacklers have deliberately sought to distance themselves from the inner workings of Purdue despite deriving much of their wealth — estimated at $13 billion — from the OxyContin maker. In recent years, the sources of that wealth and its imprint on cultural spaces has come under increased scrutiny, with groups such as PAIN denouncing the Sackler name’s continued presence in museums, universities, and other institutions as “artwashing.” A trove of private messages between Sackler relatives, first published by The.Ink last December, revealed the extent to which the family relied on its philanthropic image at the height of indictments against Purdue Pharma.

Less than two months before the first alleged PI sighting by members of PAIN, in July of 2019, the Louvre in Paris removed the Sackler name from its wing of oriental antiquities and erased all mention of the family from its website. The move followed an action by the group at the museum two weeks earlier. Days after the second sighting, PAIN protested outside the headquarters of Purdue Pharma in Stamford, Connecticut along with Truth Pharm, a nonprofit advocating for policy change to improve substance abuse treatment.

That was the week that Joss Sackler — who is married to David Sackler, a board member at Purdue from 2012 to 2018 — held a New York Fashion Week show of her clothing line. Courtney Love turned down an invitation to the show, citing the designer’s connection to the drug manufacturer, making headlines that roiled the fashion world.

Days later, on September 15, 2019, Purdue Pharma declared bankruptcy

This March, Sackler family members offered to pay $4.3 billion to settle thousands of lawsuits, up from the $3 billion initially proposed. As part of its bankruptcy restructuring plan, the Sacklers would also give up ownership of Purdue Pharma’s domestic operations, but retain control of overseas business for at least the next seven years. 

The House Committee of Oversight and Reform recently introduced the Stop Shielding Assets from Corporate Known Liability by Eliminating Non-Debtor Releases Act (SACKLER) Act. The legislation would prevent individuals accused of wrongdoing — like members of the Sackler family — from obtaining releases from lawsuits through bankruptcy proceedings.

PAIN hopes Keefe’s book “marks the beginning of the end for the Sackler Empire.”

“The institutions still bearing their name should be alarmed by the fact that one of their prominent artists whose work is in their permanent collections, has been surveilled by one of their donors,” they said. “The Sackler legacy is forever tarnished. It’s time to stop upholding their name.”

Valentina Di Liscia is the News Editor at Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...