I didn't see any Ruth Madoff masks on Halloween night, but it wouldn't have surprised me if I had. The wife of disgraced Wall Street Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff is Pariah No. 1 this week, followed closely by her son, Andrew. The two, along with Andrew's fiance, appeared on "60 Minutes" on Sunday night to promote their "authorized family biography," "Truth and Consequences."
"I have been eager, I would say almost desperate, to speak out publicly and tell people that I'm absolutely not involved," Andrew told Morley Safer. Ruth, a tiny, gravelly voiced blond whose Connecticut WASP-like looks seem to be warring against her native Queens accent, said repeatedly that she had no reason to suspect her husband was up to any kind of malfeasance. "I trusted him," she told Safer. "Why would it ever occur to me that it wasn't legal? The business was — his reputation was almost legendary."
This isn't exactly a revelation. Madoff's story all along was that he acted alone. And as difficult as many find it to believe that his sons, Andrew and Mark, who essentially worked for him, had no knowledge of what was happening at Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC, nothing has surfaced to disprove the family's claim that the brothers ran a legitimate securities trading firm on a separate floor. Also fairly well known is the story line about the brothers cutting off contact with Ruth because of her refusal to sever ties with her imprisoned husband, a stalemate that continued until Mark committed suicide in December 2010.
The only juicy news that the book appears to offer is that Ruth and Bernie themselves attempted suicide. On Christmas Eve just a few weeks after the scheme was discovered, the couple ingested large quantities of Ambien in the hope that they wouldn't awaken the next morning (though Ruth says she was glad when she did). This detail seemed almost shoehorned into the narrative. Sure, they took the pills (can you blame them?) but as a suicide mission it seemed too inept to be altogether earnest, and I thought Ruth spoke of it almost as if she'd only recently recalled it.
On the other hand, I believed Ruth and Andrew Madoff's claim that they knew nothing about Bernie's crime. Despite the garish reminders of their former 1% status (the jet, the yachts, the multiple homes) they didn't seem wholly different from a lot of families who are so fiercely loyal to one another that they manage to ignore the reddest of red flags. In fact, in Ruth I saw shades of the fictional Mafia wife Carmela Soprano, another bottle blond whose domestic duties included not just looking good for her man but looking the other way when it came to the "family business" that kept everyone fed, clothed and sheltered in such high style.
Of course it's easier to forgive made-up criminals than a real-life one. Even if the Madoffs were to prostrate themselves before society in every conceivable way, if Andrew were to spend a lifetime turning every paycheck over to his father's victims, if Ruth ended up eating out of dumpsters, it's unlikely that the hate mail and name-calling would stop, let alone give way to sympathy. That's because the Madoffs' disgrace isn't your everyday variety. It's a symbol of the disgrace of something much larger than them or even Bernard's towering crime: the whole banking industry, the government that enabled it and a lot of other practitioners of "irrational exuberance." The Madoffs are absorbing the hatred not just of those who were defrauded by Bernie but the resentment of a nation that feels defrauded by schemers that are not as easily rounded up and placed in the public stockade.
In many ways, the question of whether Madoff's wife and sons knew exactly what he was up to is now almost irrelevant. The bankruptcy suit on behalf of the victims seeks $60 million from Andrew; it essentially asks that the family hand over everything they have because, well, they "should have known." There's an appealing righteousness in that assertion, but as is often true of righteousness, there's also a failure to recognize certain realities of human nature. In other words, Ruth and Andrew Madoff are guilty all right — if not of fraud then of that crime most families commit in one way or another: denial. In the absolute first degree.