Bernard L. Madoff is in therapy. Each week, he waits for the signal that prisoners are allowed to leave their housing units, then he walks the five minutes from his “room,” as he calls it, to the psychiatric unit at the Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, North Carolina, where he can unburden himself. The sessions are often teary.
“How could I have done this?” he asks. “I was making a lot of money. I didn’t need the money. [Am I] a flawed character?”
In some ways, Madoff has not tried to evade blame. He has made a full confession, telling me again and again that nothing justifies what he did. And yet, for Madoff, that doesn’t settle the matter. He feels misunderstood. He can’t bear the thought that people think he’s evil. “I’m not the kind of person I’m being portrayed as,” he told me.
And so, sitting alone with his therapist, in the prison khakis he irons himself, he seeks reassurance. “Everybody on the outside kept claiming I was a sociopath,” Madoff told her one day. “I asked her, ‘Am I a sociopath?’ ” He waited expectantly, his eyelids squeezing open and shut, that famous tic. “She said, ‘You’re absolutely not a sociopath. You have morals. You have remorse.’ ” Madoff paused as he related this. His voice settled. He said to me, “I am a good person.”
There aren’t many who would agree. For most of the world, Bernie Madoff is a monster; he betrayed thousands of investors, bankrupted charities and hedge funds. On paper, his Ponzi scheme lost nearly $65 billion; the effects spread across five continents. And he brought down his own family with him, a more intimate kind of betrayal.
Madoff, 72, is in prison with a sentence of 150 years, which seems more than just, given the enormity of his crime. Though the financial damage continues, prison seemed to conclude Madoff’s part of the story. Then, on the second anniversary of Madoff’s arrest, his son Mark, age 46, slipped a vacuum-cleaner cord over a pipe on the living-room ceiling of his Soho loft and tried to hang himself. When it broke, he tried again with a dog’s leash, and succeeded. This was the kind of cosmic retribution that might have been exacted in the House of Atreus, the suicide an accusation of a vast betrayal. It seemed a death designed to hurt the living—even a monster’s conscience must be moved by such a demonstration. After all, before he was exposed as a fraud, Madoff had been a family man.
After Mark’s suicide, I became interested in this most tragic of families and the elemental forces that had torn them apart. And so I began calling everyone connected to the business and the family. Soon a picture began to emerge. Madoff’s youngest son, Andrew, harder-edged and less prone to self-doubt than his brother, had been protected by his anger at his father’s betrayal. Mark’s rage consumed and overran him. Neither would speak to their father, even if their lawyers had permitted it. Their mother, Ruth, had to choose between her husband and her sons. She had chosen her husband of five decades—though after Mark’s suicide, she too no longer speaks to Madoff. After the death, Ruth rushed from her apartment in Florida—but wasn’t at the memorial service at his widow’s house. Most of the family didn’t want her there. Mark’s widow still won’t let her visit Mark’s two young children. Andrew, who hasn’t spoken to his father since December 10, 2008, the day Madoff confessed, is still largely estranged from his mother and distant from his brother’s widow, Stephanie. As he tells friends, his rage at his father, far from dissipating, has metastasized. To friends, he’d described his father as a bully and a gifted manipulator. Madoff was a family man, yes, but to Andrew, that was yet another manifestation of his narcissism. The family served the needs of Bernard L. Madoff.
And so I was left where I’d started: with the black hole at the center of this exploding galaxy, its destructive waves still radiating outward. I tried to reach Madoff multiple times. But the Bureau of Prisons intercepted and returned my letters. Requests through his lawyer were met with polite refusal.
Eventually I came across an unusual inmate named Robert Rosso, who is serving a life sentence for a drug offense and is one of Madoff’s new friends. In recent years, he’d turned writer—he’d even interviewed Madoff himself. (For more on Rosso, see here.) As a favor, he agreed to pass Madoff a letter from me.
Then one evening a few weeks ago, my home phone rang. “You have a collect call from Bernard Madoff, an inmate at a federal prison,” a recorded message announced. Out of nowhere, there was that accent, familiar to anyone who’s visited Queens. Madoff apologized for calling collect. “I don’t have that much money in my commissary account,” he told me, before starting on a remarkable conversation that would stretch to several hours in more than a dozen phone calls. This being Bernie Madoff, in dollar terms the greatest criminal in history, I didn’t know what to believe. But I listened.