Patrick Radden Keefe has made a career of finding out about people who don’t want to talk to him. In 2021 he published “Empire of Pain,” a nonfiction account of the Sackler family, noted philanthropists and purveyors of the opioid OxyContin. He has also taken on the Troubles in Ireland in his book “Say Nothing,” and CIA maneuvering during the Cold War in his podcast “Wind of Change.” Patrick Radden Keefe joins us in front of an audience of high school students at Lincoln High.
Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We’re coming to you today in front of an audience in the library of Portland’s brand new Lincoln High School. It is an hour with the best selling writer, Patrick Radden Keefe.
“If there’s one connective thread that runs through a lot of my stories,” Keefe has said, “it’s secrets. Secret worlds, uncovering things I’m not supposed to know.” As a journalist and reporter Keefe has plenty of company in that desire to tell stories that powerful people would rather remain untold. But few journalists match his craft, his ability to shape meticulous reporting into propulsive, novelistic prose, and few can keep pace with his output. In addition to a seemingly constant stream of New Yorker articles, Patrick Radden Keefe has released three books and a rollicking podcast series in just the last five years. His book “Say Nothing,” which came out in 2018, did double duty as a murder mystery and an intimate history of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Two years later he released the podcast “Wind of Change,” which is a globetrotting adventure about the CIA and the Cold War and pop culture. Then came his book “Empire of Pain.” It’s a tale of how the Sacklers, a pathologically secretive and proudly philanthropic family, turned a small company that made laxatives and earwax remover into the engine of our country’s opioid addiction epidemic.
In all of his work, Keefe tells complicated stories with clarity and elegance, and painful stories with compassion. Patrick Radden Keefe, it’s great to have you on the show.
Patrick Radden Keefe: It’s so great to be with you.
Miller: One of the lessons in your book about the Sackler family is that we can’t really understand the marketing of OxyContin and how OxyContin turned into what it is without understanding the patriarch of the Sackler family, his name is Arthur Sackler, who died before OxyContin was was brought to the world. He is, in your telling, a tireless, fascinating, creative, sometimes infuriating person. And one of his huge innovations was in the way drugs were marketed. So what was pharmaceutical advertising or marketing like before him?
Keefe: It hardly existed at all. Back before the Second World War what would happen is you would go to the pharmacy and they would have drugs which weren’t really branded drugs. The pharmacist would mix together whatever remedy it was that you needed. And then in the aftermath of the Second World War, we have really the birth of big pharma as we know it today, in which all these big companies, like Pfizer and Roche, the names that you would know, come onto the scene and start selling these individual branded drugs. And of course when they do that, they want to let consumers and also doctors know about these new drugs. So they turn to advertising people.
And if any of you have watched the show “Mad Men,” Arthur Sackler becomes kind of the Don Draper of medical advertising. He’s a doctor, he’s very interested in advertising, and he actually started out working at his high school student newspaper selling ads. So he had this way of selling advertising, thinking about advertising. And he builds that into this career selling drugs, starting off with a really big drug, Valium, which was sort of the blockbuster drug of its day.
Miller: What are the connections between how he sold the tranquilizers, Valium or Librium, and the way his brothers or nephews or the rest of his family later sold OxyContin?
Keefe: Well, this was part of what was interesting for me in writing this book. It’s not really an opioid crisis book, it’s kind of a biography of three generations of this family. And what was so interesting to me is, if you look at the 1990s, when OxyContin, this powerful painkiller is released, the Sackler family really pushes to get doctors to prescribe the drug much more widely, they’re using a playbook that Arthur, the patriarch, had invented back in the 1950s. And so part of that is figuring out that when you’re selling a drug, you’re a big pharma company, you’re not really targeting the consumer in the way that you would if you’re selling a sports car or some other consumer product. It’s the doctor that you want to persuade. There was this sense that you appeal to the doctor and it’s one doctor talking to another doctor, that it all feels very sort of formal and clinical. But in fact, it’s just advertising.
And so when you have OxyContin, it’s this powerful painkiller. And what happens is that they make a real push to doctors saying “when you have patients who are in pain, this is this incredible remedy.” It has very few side effects, really no side effects whatsoever in their original pitch, and it can be incredibly helpful at alleviating pain. That turns out not to have been true in retrospect, but that was the marketing pitch that they came up with.
Miller: One thing that I struggled with, because obviously now we know better, there is plenty of evidence to show that that they knew better too, that they knew their drug was just as addictive as the versions of morphine or opioids or whatever that had come before. But there’s something so delicious about these lines: here’s a magical pill that can alleviate your anxiety that can make life emotionally or psychologically better with no repercussions. And with painkillers it’s the same thing, we can get rid of your physical pain with no repercussions. On some level, anybody who has lived even a little bit has to know that this is too good to be true. And yet, collectively, we bought into them for a while, with disastrous results. I’m just curious how you think about our readiness as a society to buy these lines that have to be too good to be true?
Keefe: It’s funny because one question I’ve gotten as this book has come out in various languages in other countries around the world is people often ask “is this a particularly American story?” You do get abuse of heroin and fentanyl and prescription opioids in other countries, but there haven’t been opioid crises of anything like the scale that we’ve had in the United States, where more than half a million people have died from these drugs over the last several decades.
And I do think that there is a kind of American naive belief in new technologies and push-button solutions to problems that bedevil us, that we’re always looking for some new fix that will be quick and easy. So for me, if you look at the Sackler story and you go back to the 1950s, there was a kind of idealism there, that we want to come up with a cure for what ails you, someday there’ll be a pill for everything. And obviously, you’re quite right that if you live any time in the world and you know people with almost any kind of pill or drug, there often are side effects and problems, things that people don’t necessarily count on. But I do think that there’s a kind of an especially American hucksterism that is out there trying to sell these myths to the next generation of consumers.
Miller: You’re saying both a particularly American salesmen, but also a particularly American susceptibility to their sales pitches.
Miller: Let’s take a question from our audience. Go ahead, what’s your name?
[Audience Member] Isabel: Hi, I’m Isabel. I just had a question about what brought you to write such dark stories?
Keefe: That’s a good question. It’s funny because I don’t think of myself as having a particularly dark personality. It’s funny that we’d be having this conversation in a high school library because it was actually in my high school library that I first started to think about the idea of writing for the New Yorker as a job. You guys, I’m guessing, don’t have a periodicals room, it’s a very 1990s kind of detail. But we had a periodicals room where there were all these magazines on the wall. Your periodicals room now would be your phone.
I would come into my high school library and take the New Yorker off the shelf, and I loved when I discovered that there were these articles that were true stories, but they were told in a way that felt like it had more flavor than what I was reading in the newspaper. And you could really get lost in these stories, and I could sit down and take 45 minutes to read a piece, and yet at the same time it wasn’t as much of an undertaking as a book. You could just sit down and you were in and out of the story, and you could move on. I was actually your age when I started thinking that that might be something I would want to do for a living.
It was one thing to have that ambition, and another thing to make it come true. I did a whole bunch of other stuff along the way before I persuaded the New Yorker to let me start writing for them. But then once I did, I found that I was really interested in crime as a subject. I was really interested in the ways in which people do wrong of one sort or another. And sometimes those are people we would think of as criminals, I’ve written about Mexican drug traffickers and arms dealers and fraudsters. But sometimes they’re people who our society actually celebrates and doesn’t punish, whether it’s white collar criminals or people who I think of as elites who are guilty of a kind of grand corruption, but get away with it because of their stature in society, the color of their skin, their educational pedigree, whatever it is.
And I don’t know why I have that interest, but I do keep coming back to these pretty dark subjects. I think it’s partially because when you see irresponsible behavior or you see violence or crime, it’s like a moment of rupture in our lives. You can read a lot into the kind of psychology of people’s motivations that feels just rich and interesting to me as a subject matter,
Miller: One of the really fascinating tensions as we learn more about the Sackler family, is that on the one hand, they are unbelievably secretive in terms of the way they organized their corporate structure and their desire to remain out of the spotlight. On the other hand, they are more eager than most families I’ve ever heard of to put their name on anything that they see would reflect back on them in some way. How do you reconcile these two strands?
Keefe: It took me the longest time to puzzle through this. So for me, the way I came into this book about the Sacklers, which started as an article in the New Yorker, was that I had actually been looking at Mexican drug cartels. And in around 2010, suddenly the cartels in Mexico started sending more heroin into the US, and nobody could figure out why. And it turns out that the answer was the opioid crisis, that there was a whole generation of Americans who had started out not using heroin but using pills like OxyContin, and then they sort of moved over to heroin, because heroin is a chemical cousin of OxyContin. When they made that switch, there was suddenly more demand for Mexican heroin, and so the cartels obligingly started sending more heroin.
And I started looking at the opioid crisis, and I found out that there was this one company that really kicked things off with OxyContin, Purdue Pharma. And then I learned that it was owned by the Sackler family, and that was the moment where the penny dropped for me, because I knew the Sackler name. I grew up in Boston, and after high school I took a year off because I didn’t get into the college I wanted to go to, and I worked for a year. I worked in Harvard Square, and at Harvard University there was a Sackler Museum. And then I ended up moving to New York City, and I would go to the Sackler wing at the Met. And I lived in Washington DC, and there’s a Sackler gallery in the Mall. So suddenly you start seeing the Sackler name everywhere. And what was so shocking for me was to learn that this name that I saw in all these different places, which I guess I had assumed were maybe like a 19th century family that made their money in railroads or something, I was shocked to learn that it was the family that was responsible for OxyContin.
And then when you delve into it, you find that there was this mania going back to the 1950s to give money to institutions, usually universities or arts institutions, and then put their name on the wall. I think it was careful and a strategy, I honestly think there was a desire to kind of venerate the family name, but keep the family business hidden. And I think that actually predated OxyContin, I think it’s a kind of an interesting characteristic that runs through generations of this family.
Miller: Did writing about illicit drug sellers inform the way you wrote about very public, ostensibly legal sellers of drugs?
Keefe: 100%, yes. My path into the subject was determined in part by the fact that I’ve always been interested in the difference between the licit and illicit. I’ve always been interested in what it is that society accepts and condones, and society says is illegal and wrong. Years ago I wrote a story for the New Yorker about the legalization of pot in Washington state. And it was just so interesting to me that there was this thriving pot economy that had been there for decades, and it was always illegal. And then at the stroke of midnight, with a signature on a piece of paper, suddenly it becomes legal, and the kind of strange way in which these things fall on both sides of that divide.
I had written about the Sinaloa cartel. I’d written a big piece about Chapo Guzman. Some of you maybe have read my book “Rogues,” and I tell a story at the beginning of that, about how after the article I wrote about El Chapo, his lawyer got in touch and asked me to ghost write his memoirs, which I declined to do. But I had a kind of intimate connection to the black market side of things. And to me, even though the Sacklers are billionaires, even though they’ve never been criminally charged with anything, if you think about that story I told a moment ago, that that their business helped change the business of the Mexican drug cartels because suddenly there was more demand for heroin, I think that these are uh these are different groups of people we should include in the same conversation.
Miller: Let’s take another question from our audience. Go ahead.
[Audience Member] Nico: Hi, it’s Nico. In the piece you wrote about Astrid Holleeder and her family, was there any worry that publishing this piece would put her in further danger? And what precautions did you take to avoid doing that?
Miller: Before you answer, if you can give listeners an understanding. And then I think it’s fair to say this is something you may need to grapple with not just for that reporting, but for a lot of stories you tell.
Keefe: 100%, it’s such a great question. This is a question about a story in the New Yorker that I wrote a few years ago about a woman named Astrid Holleeder, she lives in the Netherlands in Amsterdam. And her brother was the biggest gangster in the Netherlands. You may be thinking “Amsterdam? Are there really gangsters in Amsterdam?” And there are. One of the things that for me was a real revelation is there’s a really thriving underground economy and sort of mafia scene there. And her brother was this guy whose nickname was The Nose, his name was Willem. And she for years was his close associate, and actually his lawyer, she always sort of protected him. But then at a certain point, he was very abusive to her and her sister, and she secretly flipped and started secretly recording him to gather evidence so that the authorities could finally put him away. And when he found out, he wanted to kill her, and so she went into hiding.
And when I went to Amsterdam and visited her, she was living in hiding, and I had to kind of do all this cloak and dagger stuff in order just to find the safe house where she was. There’s a photo of her that was in the New Yorker, there’s no photos of her online after her childhood because in part she’s very careful about security, so we had this amazing photo where her whole face is dark except for her for one eye, that’s the only thing that you can kind of make out.
I was very very careful about that, and talked with her a lot about her own safety, about the details that could and couldn’t go in the piece, about the mechanics of that photo. When I went to town I had to go to a particular street corner and a driver would pick me up and take me to another place. I should say these are issues that I have with a lot of the stories that I write, either because I’m dealing, say, with a source, somebody who worked for the Sackler family and is giving me inside information, and maybe they signed a nondisclosure agreement and they could get sued. So I have to be very careful about shielding their identity. Or in Northern Ireland, I wrote this book about the Troubles there, and a lot of people are still very afraid of violent repercussions associated with that.
A lot of what I do day to day is try and cultivate sources, people who are sometimes vulnerable people, sometimes victims. And I need to try and get their story and capture that story, but always being very mindful of doing it in a way that is hopefully not gonna cause terrible consequences for them. It would be the worst kind of irresponsible journalism for me to sort of parachute in, get their story like some kind of a vampire, and then leave them exposed in ways that I wouldn’t be myself.
Miller: Let’s take another question from our audience.
[Audience Member] Addison: I’m Addison, and my question is, did you get paranoid at all? Especially because you write about true crime, have you ever gotten backlash or threats because of the serious topics that you write about?
Keefe: Um… yes. I do get a little jumpy and paranoid sometimes. There’s two categories. There’s “will something bad happen to me or my family?” And it’s something to be mindful of, I feel like I’m pretty responsible, I’m pretty careful about these things. It’s sort of an ongoing joke in my house because my wife has a point of view on this stuff.
There’s a funny story recently where I got a tip about a story about the Russian mafia, and somebody sent me a bunch of files, and I printed out the files on my printer. And my wife and I share a printer, she uses it for work as well, so it’s in my home office. And I printed out a bunch of files, and one of them was this picture that somebody had sent me of a text message that somebody sent threatening someone else, so the text messages in Cyrillic, in Russian script, and then there was a photo of a dead body in the text, it was one person saying to another “don’t do this thing or we’re gonna do this to you.” And I printed out all these documents and I left them on my printer, and I went into the city for the day. And when I came home, the documents that had been in the printer tray were just sitting on my desk, and that one was on the top. And my wife had just written “NO” in big letters, like “you are not writing this story.” So that’s always a conversation.
The thing that’s been more of an issue, to be honest with you, is legal threats. When you write critical pieces about billionaires, it is a very standard feature of their toolbox to threaten you with legal threats. And so this book that I wrote about the Sacklers, they threatened me for two years with lawsuits.
Miller: And when you say “you,” you’re not just talking about threatening the New Yorker or the publisher, you as an individual?
Keefe: Yeah. But it’s a good question because I have a certain privilege in that I write for the New Yorker, and I have Doubleday as a publisher in New York, which is a major publisher. I was a freelance journalist for years. It’s much scarier when you’re a freelancer, because then you really are on your own a lot of the time. And if you have a litigious billionaire family threatening you, you have to take that very seriously. I think it can really silence people. It’s easy for me to sit here and make myself sound brave in saying that I got a lot of legal threats but I stood my ground and published the book, and they didn’t end up suing me. Part of the reason I can say that is that at the New Yorker there’s a lawyer who represents me there. My publisher, there’s a lawyer. These are people I have a relationship with. So there’s a kind of privilege that I have that helps me summon some courage in the face of that kind of thing.
To me it’s a big and really important issue that there’s a lot of impunity for the super elite, for the billionaire class in this country. I think there should be more accountability for these people, and I think they often use the legal system to threaten people who are trying to tell the truth about them.
Miller: To go back to what your wife wrote on that text message death threat warning, she wrote “no.” Was that the beginning of a conversation between the two of you, or the end of one?
Keefe: Yeah, it’s a complicated issue. We’ve been married a long time, and I have a lot of respect for her judgment on these things. And we have two small kids. So it’s always a conversation. I don’t report from war zones. I have friends who have kids who report in war zones. And for me, there are certain things that are a red line, I won’t do it. But when I wanted to go down to Mexico and write about Chapo Guzman, she wasn’t crazy about it. And when I went to Amsterdam to visit this woman whose brother was trying to kill her, she’s not wild about it. But she understands that it’s a negotiation. But what that means is when she says “okay, I see this death threat text message, this is a story I’d prefer that you not write,” I take that seriously.
Miller: Let’s take another question from the audience. Go ahead, what’s your name?
[Audience Member] Eirene: Hi, my name is Eirene, and I was wondering how you deal with unreliable sources, and also how you can figure out that a source is unreliable?
Keefe: Ahhhh, what a fantastic question.
There’s a story in “Rogues,” which was originally the New Yorker, about a guy named Hervé Falciani. And when I first heard about him, what I heard that this guy is the Edward Snowden of Swiss banking, that he was a guy who worked at a bank in Geneva at HSBC, and one day he walked out with all this data about clients of the bank who were wealthy people who were hiding their fortunes at this Swiss bank. And he eventually ended up giving the data to the French government and to all these other governments, and the governments used them to crack down on tax evasion.
So I thought that sounded cool, the Edward Snowden of Swiss banking. And I persuaded my editor to fly me to France to meet with him. And we met at a restaurant in Paris, and we had a four hour conversation. And 20 minutes into that conversation, I had this sinking feeling, and this voice in my head was saying “Oh God I’ve made a terrible mistake. This guy is a compulsive liar.” Everything he says doesn’t add up. The more questions I ask him, the more this just seems really fishy. I don’t believe what he’s saying. And even worse, I started to think I don’t think he’s a whistleblower, I don’t think he’s an Edward Snowden, I think he’s a thief. I think he stole that data because he wanted to sell it, and when he got busted he said “oh no wait, don’t lock me up, I have this important data that can help you fight tax evasion.” So I came back and I actually told my editor we have to kill the piece because I can’t build a story around an unreliable narrator. I need to feel as though I can kind of trust what somebody says.
And the fun thing with that story is I woke up like six months later in the middle of the night, and I thought “no, you build it around the fact that he’s an unreliable narrator. This would be really fun.” In a novel or a movie, you could really lean into it. There’s a movie, it’s actually based on a book, that came out probably 15 years ago, a Matt Damon movie directed by Steven Soderbergh called “The Informant,” which is a really fun movie. But it’s about a person who was a corporate whistleblower who turned out to be a compulsive liar. I was really inspired by the way they told that story, so I ended up writing the piece.
I think you need to always evaluate the credibility of the people that you talk to in real time. I feel as though I’ve developed a good nose for it over the years. I can sort of tell when somebody’s lying, I think because I ask so many questions in a way that’s probably annoying for the person.
Miller: But for you, in those moments when you’re deciding you don’t trust somebody, is it more because of your ability at this point to read somebody, or more because of the preparation you’ve done in advance and you just know that factually you’ve got the documents that you read the night before that contradict what this person is saying? I guess I’m wondering if you feel like you have kind of a lie detector in your eyes, or if this is more about data?
Keefe: Yeah it’s both. I’ll tell you, when the Sacklers were sending their lawyer after me, he would send me these very confident letters, very official, where he would spell out all these things that he said were wrong about what I was saying. And I had the documents, I had the receipts. So I would get these letters from this guy, and I would say okay there’s two possibilities. Either he’s lying to me, or he’s just kind of an idiot and doesn’t know the facts and hasn’t done enough homework, he doesn’t realize that the things he’s saying are not true. And then I would come back to him and I’d be like what about this, I have this internal email that contradicts what you said? And then often he wouldn’t respond when I did that.
But no, I think it’s more that it’s like playing poker or something. Over time, it’s not so much that you’re like reading people’s faces and can immediately tell when they’re telling a lie, it’s more that I just always ask a lot of questions, and I’ll keep coming back until I really understand something. And I have found that people, when they’re lying, it’s not always true, that if you ask the question six different ways, you see their answer start to shift from one reply to the next, and it just starts to feel a little shaky.
The other thing I should say about the New Yorker, and this again comes back to an area in which I feel very lucky to be there as an institution, is they have a fact checking department. So every time I finish an article, somebody who’s not that much older than you guys, usually somebody who’s right out of college, they’ll take the article, and their whole job is to act as though I’m lying about everything. Look at every single fact, every single quote, they want to double check everything. If you said something happened in a certain month in a certain year, they’re gonna check it. You said that you talked to somebody who said such and such, they’re gonna call that person and say “did you really say such and such?” And over the years, when you have had your pieces fact checked a bunch, you’re thinking in real time when you talk to somebody “how is this going to be with fact checking?” If you seem squishy to me in your account, what I’m thinking is “I don’t want to put too much weight on this because this guy’s gonna have to talk to the fact checker later.” And they really are the sort of lie detector. Like their job is to tell, can we bank on this or not?
Miller: One more question, go ahead.
[Audience Member] Millie: Hello, my name is Millie, and the question I have for you is what’s the hardest story you’ve ever had to write?
Keefe: Oh man. I wrote a story, it’s in “Rogues,” for the New Yorker called “A Loaded Gun,” which is a complicated story. I’ll tell you a very abbreviated version. In 2010 there was a woman named Amy Bishop who was a professor at the University of Alabama in the biology department. And she went into a faculty meeting one day, and she sat through the meeting, it was about 45 minutes. And then at the end of the meeting, just as the meeting was breaking up, she reached into her handbag, pulled out a gun, and shot six of her colleagues. And three of them died. And in the immediate aftermath of that there was a lot of press coverage of this mass shooting, because even though mass shootings happen virtually every day now in this country, it’s really unusual for it to be a woman who was the perpetrator. And so there’s a lot of attention for that reason.
But then there was this other interesting thing that happened, which is that after that mass shooting in 2010, the cops in Alabama got a call from a police chief in a town called Braintree, Massachusetts, which is not far from where I grew up, who said “Oh that woman you have in custody, Amy Bishop, back in the 1980s she shot and killed her brother with a shotgun.” And it turned out that in the 1980s, in her early 20s, she had a little brother, who I think was 18 at the time. In the family home in the kitchen, she shot him with a shotgun. There was only one witness, it was their mother. So the mother only has two kids, she walks into the kitchen, she sees the sister killed the brother with a shotgun. The cops are coming and she has to tell them something. And when the cops show up, the mother said “I saw the whole thing, it was an accident.”
And Amy Bishop goes on, finishes college, goes to Harvard, gets a PhD. She never gets any counseling, she was never questioned by the cops in a serious way, never charged with anything, never investigated in a serious way, no record in her permanent file. And eventually there’s this mass shooting. And that story was really for me a story mostly about the parents. And I went and I interviewed them at great length about their experience being the parents of this woman. And it was just very difficult emotionally to get that close to people who were in such a raw state, and look at that much tragedy up close. I feel good about the piece, I wrote the piece I wanted to write, but it was a very hard piece to write emotionally.
Miller: Let’s take another question from our audience.
[Audience Member] Thomas: Hi, my name is Thomas, and my question is, you talk about these secrets being the driving forces behind many of your stories. What has led you to want to write about these secrets?
Keefe: You know, I’ve never known, I’ve never really been able to understand it. I think I have probably a slightly childlike thing where if you tell me there’s a secret you won’t tell, if you show me there’s something behind your back, I want to see what it is. I’m just suggestible in that way. I like to dig, I just like doing the spadework of investigation. It wasn’t something I set out to do necessarily as a journalist, but I like uncovering things. And there’s no more thrilling moment for me than when you make some huge discovery.
I wrote this book, “Say Nothing,” which was about a murder that happened in 1972 in the Troubles in Northern Ireland. There was a woman named Jean McConville, who was a mother of 10 children, and a widow. And one night in 1972 she was at home with her kids, she lived in a housing project in West Belfast, and a group of armed intruders came to the door and they dragged her out. They told the kids “we just want to talk to your mother for a few hours, we’ll bring her back,” and they never did. She disappeared, and what happened to her was a mystery, and her kids grew up orphaned because their father had already died. I spent four years working on that, it started as a piece in the New Yorker and then it became a book and I never really cared who killed her. I wanted to know what happened to her, where she died, where she was buried, who gave the order. It turned out it was the Irish Republican Army, the IRA, this armed group that was involved in the Troubles.
But there was a moment when I was basically finished with the book, and I went back over this transcript of an unpublished interview that I had already read, but there was a clue. I’m not gonna spell the whole thing out for you, but I do at the end of the book. And suddenly I had this moment, I was by myself, and I was rereading this interview, and suddenly I saw this thing that I hadn’t been able to see before in this interview, and I realized who it was that had actually pulled the trigger, who the shooter was back in 1972. This was like a very cold case, a murder that happened before I was born. I sat up straight, I started shouting, I had a little dog who would like to sit in the corner while I was doing my work, and I started all by myself kind of losing my mind because I’ve made this discovery, and my dog thought the house was burning down.
Obviously there’s a huge gravity there, right? This woman’s children are still alive, I would have to tell them who it was that killed their mother. I ended up publishing the name in my book, and it was somebody who had never been arrested before, and that’s a big step to accuse somebody of a terrible murder who hasn’t been accused by the police of that murder. So I don’t mean to trivialize it. But I do find those moments, where you’re actually able to excavate something that wasn’t known before and feels important, to me those are the moments where I feel like I’m doing what I want to be doing with my life.
Miller: Another question, go ahead.
[Audience Member] Megan: Hi, my name is Megan. My question is, have you ever regretted the way you portrayed someone or their story?
Keefe: When I was young and starting out in my career, I could sometimes be sort of withering in my physical descriptions of people. I liked to feel like I could come up with just the right turn of phrase to describe the way somebody looked, but sometimes I did that in a way that was kind of ungenerous and I think really wounded some people. It’s a small thing, if you see yourself described in a magazine article that lots of people who know you are going to read, and somebody uses- it might be the right adjective to describe you, but it’s not the one you want to read. And that’s a hard one, because normally I’m not thinking about trying to make people feel better, I try not to pull punches, I think that’s a way to do bad journalism, you should write in service of the truth. But I also think that there’s no need to be unnecessarily cruel, which maybe I was when I was young and arrogant.
In terms of deeper instances of that, no, I feel pretty good. Once again, one of the luxuries of the work that I do is, newspaper reporters, radio reporters, tv reporters, often people are working on very fast deadlines, and if some of you are thinking about going into journalism probably early on in your careers, it’ll be a thing where you need to write a story in three hours. And I can take six months. And the nice thing about having all that time is that you can really think through and stress test your own ideas in terms of how you portray people. So I don’t have any huge regrets in that regard.
Miller: Let’s take another question, what’s your name?
[Audience Member] Coral: My name is Coral, and I was just wondering, you wrote about a lot of heavy topics, how did you take the time to care for yourself emotionally?
Keefe: This is a thing I have been thinking more about lately. I hope that I do. It’s funny, there’s a story at the end of “Rogues,” the last story, which was about Anthony Bourdain. And the reason that I wrote that story was that I had written a series of these really dark pieces and my editor said you need the equivalent of R&R, you need to do something fun, what do you want to do? And I said I want to travel with Anthony Bourdain.
And I spent this amazing year- I probably didn’t need to spend a whole year working on the piece, but I found it very fun to go to restaurants with him in New York, I traveled with him to Vietnam, we had a wonderful time. And of course, then he ended up killing himself. So even in that instance I was sort of seeking out something a little more light and bright. But I hope in the piece I captured some of the magic of who he was when he was alive.
I wrote a piece about the Boston Marathon bombing, and the woman who was the lawyer for the bomber, who was trying to save his life, she’s a death penalty lawyer. For that, I had to sit through testimony of victims of the bombing, and I had nightmares for quite a while after that experience. I’m sort of cautious even to mention it because, of course, my suffering is nothing compared to people who you talk to, who are real victims. But I do think that you need to, as a journalist, particularly writing about these dark subjects, you need to sort of be mindful of the residual impact of listening to that kind of thing too much. For me, it’s my family, my kids, friends, good food, music. I think I find solace all over the place. But it is an important thing, I think, for journalists to think about.
Miller: We’ve talked a lot about reporting, but I want to ask a question about writing itself. I did this too - often when people are describing your writing, they call it novelistic, which is shorthand for a lot of things. But to me, one of the things that I guess I mean is that you clearly are making an effort to make it so the reader has no choice, no desire but to turn to the next page. What are your conscious strategies to do that? How do you consciously try to get us to keep going when there are a million things that could draw our attention away from your work?
Keefe: It’s funny, earlier I mentioned discovering the New Yorker when I was in high school in a library like this, and part of what I noticed even then was that, with all due respect to the teachers who may be with us today, unlike the stuff I was getting assigned, which I often felt as though I’d be reading, and I couldn’t make it through a page, and I felt as if the person writing it knew that someday it would literally be somebody’s assignment to finish it-
Miller: Which freed them from having to make it interesting?
Keefe: Whereas the articles that I was reading, I felt as though I couldn’t stop turning the pages. And I think about that constantly, is that I want to earn your attention in every paragraph, in every sentence.
Miller: And so what are some of the tricks? And I don’t mean that in a bad way, you have to be a kind of magician to keep us going.
Keefe: A lot of it is from fiction, honestly. It’s misdirection, it’s withholding information. It’s all about, when do you deal out the cards? Sometimes there’s a kind of an interesting thing, and you want to save it for halfway through the story because you want it to feel like a big reversal.
I’ll give you a very good example, there’s the story I wrote about Chapo Guzman, which is in “Rogues,” and it’s called the “Hunt for El Chapo.” And the first thing I thought was, people feel like they know Mexican drug cartel stories, they feel like they’ve read a bunch of them, they watched “Breaking Bad,” they kind of have a sense of “I know this” and probably they’re just gonna flip right past it. So I want to find a moment to start that is gonna feel totally different from any Mexican drug cartel story that you’ve ever read. And in my reporting, I knew I was looking for something like that. And I encountered this story of this guy who was an assassin who worked for El Chapo. He was young, and he was kind of new age, he had an Instagram account, he traveled around Europe, he had this very luxe lifestyle. And at one point he was in Amsterdam, and he went to the airport in Amsterdam, and he was arrested there on an international arrest warrant.
And he’s a totally minor figure in the piece, but the first sentence of that story is something like “one day, at the airport in Amsterdam, a Mexican assassin was about to board a plane when he was pulled aside by the authorities.” And my feeling was, you’ve seen the headline, you know this is about Chapo Guzman, it’s about a Mexican drug cartel. But you start in Amsterdam. And I think for the reader, that puts a question in their mind, they’re like “how are you going to get me back to Mexico,” “You’ve dropped me in this unfamiliar place, how do you get me back to the main road?” And that’s the kind of thing I’m constantly thinking about, is what’s your expectation for where we’re gonna be? And how can I upend that expectation?
Miller: So say nothing starts in a library in Boston.
Keefe: Absolutely. And it starts in 2013. It’s a story that’s mostly about the 1970s, but I thought I want to start you somewhere else. In TV they have a name for this in, they call it a cold open. Often you’ll start an episode and you’re in some unfamiliar place with some unfamiliar character, and you know that eventually you’re going to get back to the characters that you know. If any of you are watching the “Last of Us” right now on HBO, they do this, where you’ll like start out and you’re like “well who is this person? And how are they going to connect back to the characters that I care about?” I think that audiences are smart, I think readers are smart, and I think they like the misdirection of deposited in a strange place. And part of the fun of it is this challenge of, how do I get back to familiar ground?
Miller: I’m glad you brought up the podcast because I think some of our members of our audience here have listened to it, I’m sure many folks in the radio audience have as well. In terms of the content, it’s about the Cold War and about popular culture and the CIA and spycraft. But by the time you get to the end, and I won’t give things away, but to me as a listener, it was at least as much also about how we know we know, and how confident we think we can be in saying “this is what happened.” And this is most crystallized in a bunch of conversations you have with your friend Michael, where you and he have very different ideas about what you should even say. Without giving things away, can you, can you boil down those disagreements? And I’m curious what you think they say about your approach to journalism?
Keefe: I’m so happy that you characterized it that way, because to me that is what the podcast is about on a deeper level. For those of you who haven’t listened to it, in 1990 there was a song that came out called “Wind of Change,” which was by this German heavy metal band the Scorpions. It was like a power ballad, came out around the time that the Berlin Wall fell, and it’s actually one of the biggest rock songs in history in terms of sales and what have you. And it was this anthem celebrating freedom and change. and it became sort of the soundtrack to the end of the Cold War, to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
And the podcast is about the fact that this dear friend of mine, who’s also been a source for me over the years in my journalism, my friend Michael. About a decade ago he came to me with a tip. He said you know that song wasn’t written by the Scorpions, the rock band. It was actually secretly written by the CIA. And they deliberately used this heavy metal song to try and bring about change and overthrow the Soviet Union. And that was this irresistible idea, in part because it brings together these worlds of hair metal, leather clad rockers, and Cold war spies. And the podcast is about trying to get to the bottom of it, and figure out whether or not it’s true.
But on a deeper level, it’s about what does it take to make you believe? Michael was always convinced that the story was true, and I was always a little bit more skeptical, which is kind of my role as a journalist. And I wanted to show you what it’s like to go into a story, and you have all these different switchbacks. It’s like if we were to look up at the stars, you might point to a constellation and say “look, I see a picture, I see I see a goat, I see a pan, I see a cart.” And I might say “I just see a random smattering of stars.”
Any of us as we move through life, particularly when it comes to conspiracy theories, to what degree can you pull together these diffused dots and tell a story? And I’m thinking about that any time I write a piece, and I think there’s a responsibility in journalism to think through that kind of thing in a serious way. And that, you’re absolutely right, was a theme in “Wind of Change.”
Miller: I want to go back to the Sackler family in the time we have left, which is only a few minutes. What they, not alone, but more than any other family, what they’re responsible for is almost unimaginable in terms of the scale, hundreds of thousands of people died of overdoses, millions of people’s lives and families scarred. Various folks have tried to total up the financial price, it’s sort of mind boggling and maybe unimportant compared to that. And there have been so many efforts to hold them accountable in various ways, most of which have fallen short. And in the end, you point out that even though in headlines it says they’re going to pay $6 billion, you’ve pointed out that by the time they actually pay whatever money that they will pay, they will even be richer than they were before they started to pay that amount.
I’m just curious what you think justice would look like? It seems clear to me that this is not justice. But it’s not clear to me what justice would look like.
Keefe: You’re right about the scope of the opioid crisis. This book came out a while ago, almost two years ago, and I’ve been traveling around the country talking about it ever since. I’m giving a talk tonight here in Portland, I gave a talk last night in San Francisco. Almost any time I talk about this book, somebody comes up to me afterwards and tells me that they’ve lost a loved one, a child, a parent, a cousin, a sibling. It hits everywhere. And I will say that when you talk to people who have lost loved ones to opioids, they never talk about dollars when they talk about justice. It’s just not about money. Part of the problem with the Sacklers is they’ve committed to paying $6 billion to help remediate the crisis, but they’re paying it out over 19 years so they can manage that. They have an $11 billion dollar fortune. And they’ve said that they won’t apologize, they won’t take any responsibility. And I think that’s part of what’s really going on.
I think some people say I want to see them in prison. If Chapo Guzman is in prison for the rest of his life, why are they not? But even short of that, there’s a sense of, just a recognition, just an acknowledgement of what happened. And I don’t think we’re gonna get that, unfortunately. For me, I feel as though my own small contribution is, I wrote this book because I want the truth to be there, between two covers, on the shelf in a library forever in a way that they can’t really expunge. There’s somebody, I can’t tell you who it is, but somebody who was involved in this whole mess, who worked closely with the Sacklers, who, when I contacted them about this, they were very angry, and they said “this thing, this story, this is gonna be like a piece of gum sticking to my shoe for the rest of my life.” And in a weird way, that’s what I want my book to be, is that piece of gum. It’s not justice, but you want this to follow these people in a way that they can’t escape.
And and the the irony at the end of this story is that, having spent decades putting their name up on all these institutions, the Sacklers have now had to see that name be scraped away from the walls of the Met and the Guggenheim and the British Museum in London and all these other places, because now the name is not something that is venerated and celebrated, it’s actually something that’s thought of as a mark of shame.
Miller: Patrick Radden Keefe, thanks very much.
Keefe: Thank you.
Miller: Thanks as well to Lori Lieberman and Mary Rechner at Lincoln High School. And Olivia Jones-Hall of Literary Arts. And most of all, huge thanks to our awesome audience of students here at Lincoln High School.
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