The Family Mindset: A Shared Perceptual Field in the Emotional Unit of the Family

The Sackler Family Mindset







I recently finished reading the challenging book, “Empire of Pain, The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty”, written by Patrick Radden Keefe.* I use the word challenging both because of its 535 pages, and its subject matter. For the Sackler family referred to in the title is widely considered to have launched the current worldwide opioid epidemic through the predatory marketing of the drug OxyContin, manufactured by their company, Purdue Pharma.

…one problem for the Sacklers was that, unlike a lot of human beings, they didn’t seem to learn  from what they saw transpiring in the world around them. They could produce a rehearsed simulacrum of human empathy, but they seemed incapable of comprehending their own role in the story, and impervious to any genuine moral epiphany. (432)

Of course, this book was written from a specific point of view and therefore not completely objective, despite the author’s detailed research into the history of the Sackler family. With that in mind, the shared Sackler mindset may be summarized as follows:

We may be billionaires but we always need more money. (“I would submit, sir, that you and your family are addicted to money”. U.S. Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi. [430])

The consequences that arise from how we make our money are not our problem.

Pain patients can’t get addicted to opioids, only addicts get addicted because they choose to abuse drugs. (“These are criminals…Why should they be entitled to our sympathies?” Richard Sackler [257]).

We can lie and cheat to make our money.

We must crush anyone who tries to interfere with our ability to make our money, and we are justified in using unethical and illegal means to do so.

It is important for us to be known as major philanthropists for the arts and we will donate huge amounts of money, and our name must be prominently displayed on anything we contribute to. (“The name was everywhere in the United Kingdom.” [327]) However, we do not want our name associated with how we make the money we donate. Therefore, art museums will carry our family name, but our companies won’t.

According to Keefe, almost every member for three generations shared this aspect of the family mindset or, perhaps, these family values. One troubled second-generation son committed suicide at age 24 and another daughter changed her last name in renunciation of her father’s family: “She stripped that name off her body with a steel brush…” (134) With the possible exception of these two, everyone else either remained in direct contact with the family business or used family wealth to further their own pursuits.

The seeming rigidity of the Sackler mindset got me thinking: What are examples of my family mindset? Or of other families?

Which is more important, group cohesion or individuality?

Is money made to be saved or spent?

Are outsiders seen as fellow travelers, or potential enemies?

Do we work to live, or live to work?

What happens when competing mindsets collide, as is inevitable when two families combine in marriage? For instance, my husband’s family was casual about birthdays and holidays, while those events came with heavy expectations in mine. The ability to successfully negotiate differences like these may mean the difference between families that stay together and those that experience divorce.

Some individuals adopt an “opposite” position with respect to some cognitive aspects of the family mindset. This can be generally be viewed as a reactive mirror image rather than a thoughtful new position, and is unlikely to lead to improved outcomes.

What happens when one grows up within a family mindset but is later exposed to new ideas and perceptions? Is the new information incorporated into the old? How easily, or not? Does it replace it? Is it rejected? To what extent? Is this to the good, or the bad? These are big questions, all stirred from reading this powerful book about a family whose members shared a mindset that allowed them to do so much to hurt so many.
Bowen…hypothesised [sic] from his observations that family members share a perceptual framework or mindset…a psychological oneness… The family mindset regulates information flow, interpretation of input, and decisions that result. The mindset of the chronically anxious family, therefore, would presumably reflect that common perceptual framework in the sensitivities of family members, the information to which they attend and which they ignore, the ways incoming information is assessed, and the processes that formulate the decisions and responses each individual and the family as a unit make. The psychological oneness also appears to extend to various emotional aspects of the family unit, for example, mood, general outlook in terms of optimism or pessimism, and the degree of apprehension with which family members approach the broader society and the challenges of living.  Papero, D., 2017. Trauma and the Family: A Systems-oriented Approach. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, [online] 38(4), pp.582-594. Available at: <> [Accessed 12 May 2022].

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