The Madoff mea culpas: Repenting sins not your own

With disgraced Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff set to serve a life sentence in prison, it’s hard to make a case for incarceration as restorative justice. And yet, Madoff himself told ABC News correspondent Barbara Walters during an interview last week that he is happier in prison.

“I feel safer here than outside,” Madoff reportedly told Walters during a recent two-hour, in-person interview at the Butner Federal Correction Complex in North Carolina. “I lived the last 20 years of my life in fear,” he continued. “Now I have no fear because I am no longer in control of my own life.”

Lucky him.

The same could not be said, however, of Madoff’s closest kin. Scarlet-lettered for life, guilt by association is a death sentence all its own. And lately, Madoff’s family members seem to be offering up their confessionals as self-retribution and relief.

Last week, Madoff’s daughter-in-law Stephanie Madoff Mack released a book, “The End of Normal: A Wife’s Anguish, A Widow’s New Life”. Next up is a tell-all penned by Madoff’s other son, Andrew, which is set to hit bookshelves Monday, and will be preceded by a 60 Minutes interview with both Andrew and his mother, Bernie’s wife Ruth Madoff. Why, all of a sudden, Madoff’s relatives have chosen to come forward with their tails of woe seems oddly tied to the mythos of the moment in which Occupy Wall Street is railing against unequal distribution of wealth.

Madoff himself tried to blunt the brunt of his crime by telling Barbara Walters, “The average person thinks I robbed orphans and widows. I made wealthy people wealthier.” Sure he feels bad for defrauding clients out of billions of dollars, but not that bad. “The gravy train is over,” he told Walters. “I can live with that.”

But while Madoff’s moral relativism may work when applied to his clients, the peripheral pain he caused his family cannot be quantified.

In “The End of Normal” Madoff Mack, who was married to Bernie’s son Mark before he committed suicide last December, is indignant and unforgiving. She told ABC’s 20/20 that if she were to see her father-in-law again she would “spit in his face” and that she holds him “fully responsible for the death of my husband.” The book is part angry diatribe, part vehement defense of her “hero” husband who supposedly “held up” $140 million in (bogus) bonus checks that Bernie had promised his family and friends following his confession.

She has no shame about her shadenfreude. With a barely concealed smirk, Madoff Mack said she had written a letter to Bernie detailing Nantucket vacations she took with her children—his grandchildren. “I thought that would really sting him,” she told the 20/20 reporter. But to her dismay, Madoff replied with characteristic narcissism of a sociopath, telling her about his celebrity status in prison and how inmates and staff refer to him as a “mafia don” and shower him with “greetings and encouragement.” Madoff Mack said Bernie’s letter made her “smoking pissed and sick to my stomach.” Which, at least in part, explains her book’s vengeful impulses. In it, she dishes dirty on her husband’s suicide (a note to Papa Bernie read: ‘F——you’) and Mama Ruth Madoff’s descent into hiding (“Ridiculous!”).

Family wounds are slow to heal. And yet, some wounds do not heal at all. Madoff’s closest kin—his wife and sole surviving son – seem to be suffering the most. Their pain and shame is unrelenting; it is the curse that comes with the blessing of family, which is permanent.

Earlier this week, 60 Minutes released a teaser from the upcoming interview in which Ruth Madoff confessed she and Bernie had attempted suicide after he confessed. 

“It was so horrendous, what was happening. We had terrible phone calls, hate mail—just beyond anything, and I said, ‘I just can’t go on anymore,’” Ruth Madoff told CBS’s Morley Safer. “That’s when I packed up some things to send to my sons and my grandchildren…things I thought they might want,” she continued. Then, she said, “We took pills… and woke up the next day.”

Ruth said the decision to take her own life was “impulsive” and that she was glad, after consuming all the Ambien they could find, that she had woken up. But for years after, she moved through the world in disguise, ashamed of who she was and who she married. After their son’s suicide in December 2010, the couple cut off ties. Bernie told Barbara Walters that around that time, Ruth had said to him, “Let me go.” They have not seen each other or spoken since.

Madoff also told Walters he believes his family has it worse than him, because they must face the public’s judgment. Which is, probably unintentionally, a very Jewish thing to say; because according to Jewish tradition, a person must make teshuva (return, repentance) in relationship to other human beings. God cannot forgive for a wrong committed against another person; only the person wronged can forgive the sin against him.

Unfortunately Madoff’s family must confront his crimes while he safely languishes in a cell. Daily they will pay the price for his crimes, in shame, in “sorry”, in suffering. But what they have ahead of them is life, a chance for renewal and repair. While Bernie Madoff has ahead of him only death, his end the only near, far as the eye can see.