Over the last year it’s been at times difficult to remember that other epidemics beyond the novel coronavirus are plaguing the nation, but epidemics — defined simply as “a sudden, widespread occurrence of a particular undesirable phenomenon” — come in several forms, from the most obvious, like a disease outbreak, to the less evident.
From psychology fads that move faster than a news cycle to gun violence that has had lasting emotional effects on children across the country, this week’s reads highlight wide-reaching issues that have probably even touched your life in some way: In “Empire of Pain” by Patrick Radden Keefe it’s the family behind the painkiller OxyContin. In “Quick Fixes” by Jesse Singal it’s behavioral tips and tricks that really is too good to be true.
These three non-fiction novels tell the tale of prevalent American problems.
Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe
What’s in a name? The author of the award-winning true crime story about the IRA, Say Nothing, returns with a tell-all book about the rise and fall of the Sackler family. The heirs to the Purdue Pharma fortune, the Sacklers made billions off of OxyContin, the pain-relieving drug that lit the match for an overdose epidemic that is still increasing with no end in sight 25 years after the drug first went on the market.
Other books by reporters about the opioid crisis, including Beth Macy’s Dopesick and Sam Quinones’ Dreamland, have followed the people most harmed by the opioid crisis, namely addicts and their families. Keefe takes a different tack, instead bringing readers inside the secretive Sackler clan. Whereas his previous book followed the troubled politics of Northern Ireland, Empire of Pain is a deeply American story.
The first third of the book details the rags-to-riches story of the three Sackler brothers, who come from a poor immigrant family and build a pharmaceutical empire and a formidable philanthropic reputation. The middle section describes how the family rises even higher after the development of OxyContin, one of the most popular pharmaceutical drugs of all time. And the last part of the book describes how instead of emblazoning universities and museums on both sides of the Atlantic, “Sackler” instead became a byword for greed, misery and suffering after the scope of the damage that OxyContin has wrought comes to light.
At the beginning of the book, Keefe describes how Isaac Sackler imparted the importance of preserving your reputation to his three sons. “If you lose a fortune, you can always earn another, he pointed out,” Keefe wrote. “But if you lose your good name, you can never get it back.” The many lawsuits against the Sackler family may not be able to touch much of their offshore wealth. But their good name is gone forever.
Children Under Fire: An American Crisis by John Woodrow Cox
Washington Post reporter John Woodrow Cox’s harrowing investigation into how the U.S.’ epidemic of gun violence affects children was published only eight days after a mass shooting at a Boulder King Soopers killed 10 people, making the book all-to-relevant for a state that has been repeatedly rocked by gun violence.
Cox was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles he wrote in 2018 about how gun violence affects young people, and expanded his series into Children Under Fire, which takes a careful, deeply-researched look into shootings’ youngest victims. At the heart of his book are Ava and Tyshaun, two children who are coping with the long-term effects of losing a loved one to a gunshot. Ava survived a shooting at her South Carolina elementary school that killed one of her best friends; Tyshaun’s father was shot to death near his elementary school in Washington, D.C.
As Cox goes on to describe, the pair’s stories are far from unique. Though school shootings make up a small portion of the U.S.’ gun deaths, the number of children who have witnessed a shooting, lost a loved one to gun violence or had to go into lockdown at school is in the millions. In his reporting, Cox discovered that children who are not injured, and even those who do not directly witness a shooting, can still be deeply psychologically affected. Cox describes students who no longer feel safe at school after having to go into lockdown or participate in active shooter drills. It was hard to read that chapter without being reminded of the photos of elementary school students evacuating STEM School Highlands Ranch in 2019. Though one student, 18-year-old Kendrick Castillo, was killed, hundreds of children will live with the long-term ramifications of the fact that two of their classmates brought a gun onto their campus and started firing.
The hardest segment to read, however, is the section that deals with children who killed themselves intentionally or on accident by accessing guns that their parents owned and had unlocked in their homes. Cox found that many gun owners think that their children either don’t know where their guns are kept or “know better” than to handle them, which can have tragic consequences. In his conclusion, Cox identifies preventing children from accessing guns as one of the three most effective things that the country could do to curb gun fatalities.
“If children did not have access to guns, thousands of them would be rescued each year from death or disfigurement and thousands more from a lifetime of guilt over firing the round that struck their friend or sibling,” Cox writes. “If children did not have access to guns, thousands of others who pressed the barrels to their temples and pulled the triggers might still be alive. If children did not have access to guns, well more than half the school shootings over the past twenty years would never have happened.”
Colorado took a step towards making that a reality with the passage this legislative session of HB 1106, “Safe Storage of Firearms.” The law requires firearms to be securely stored when they are not in use and for firearm dealers to include a locking device with each gun sale.
How effective the law will be has been a source of debate. But Cox’s book paints a vivid picture of some of the consequences of inaction.
The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills by Jesse Singal
Power posing. The self-esteem movement. Implicit bias. “Grit.” You probably remember watching a TED Talk about how one of these psychological concepts could totally solve the gender pay gap/structural racism/the mental health crisis/[insert other social issue] and wondering “Is this too good to be true?” Unfortunately, yes. As reporter Jesse Singal explains in The Quick Fix, the field of behavioral psychology has repeatedly promoted concepts that did not have significant scientific backing and could not be replicated — and all too often, the mainstream press ate it up. Singal provides a number of case studies for how pop-psych trends caught on and how they got debunked, and also takes a big-picture look at psychology’s replication crisis and explores why “quick fixes” are so enticing in the first place. Solutions to entrenched social biases like racism and misogyny that don’t require dramatic structural reform are tantalizing, but ultimately are promising much more than they can deliver. At least none of us have to pretend to be Superman before going into important meetings anymore.