Pop Culture Under a Microscope

Book Review: Truth and Consequences: Life Inside the Madoff Family

At this moment, hundreds of people are camped out across the country in protest of Wall Street greed and most of us are struggling to understand how the richest 1% of Americans wound up with 40% of the wealth. At a time like this, who isn’t a little curious about the man who did greed better than anyone–the man behind the largest financial fraud in American history?  Bernard Madoff used his asset management firm to defraud thousands of people, including his own friends and family, of at least 18 billion dollars (or as much as 68 billion, depending how you count).  When he confessed to his family in December 2008 and was promptly turned in to the SEC and the FBI, Madoff’s investors, many of whom had literally entrusted their entire life-savings with him, were left holding—well, not holding much.  Once the head of the most reputable firm on Wall Street, Madoff was eventually sentenced to 150 years in prison.  Many of his family members were employed by the firm, and though they claimed to know nothing about Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, they became the target of intense suspicion and scrutiny.  Author Laurie Sandell conducted “dozens of hours of intimate interviews” with the Madoff family (excluding Bernie), and she accounts their experiences in Truth and Consequences: Life Inside the Madoff Family.  Unfortunately, both “truth” and “consequences” are in short supply in Sandell’s book.

Sandell explains in the Preface that she “deliberately chose not to invite [Bernie] to participate in [the] book,” wanting it to be “his family’s story—not his.”  This decision seems reasonable until you get to know the family, which is full of self-centered assholes.  They can offer little insight into Bernie’s fraud, since they were apparently ignorant of it, but neither do they provide much useful context.  The story they chose to tell is strictly about their own life choices and feelings: they are not much interested in shedding light on Bernie’s character or helping us understand what makes such a far-reaching deception possible.  Much is said in the book about the sons’ marriages, their in-fighting, and their wives’ affairs, for example, but only very little about their relationship with their father.  We learn more about Madoff’s in-laws than we do about Bernie himself.  And when the scandal finally breaks, we really see the family’s true selves: Ruth, Bernie’s wife, is more angry at her friends for not contacting her (though they are legally forbidden from doing so) than at her husband for creating the situation; elder son Mark spends all day reading news and blogs about the case in order to gauge his own reputation, and finally commits suicide to “make Mom and Dad understand what they’ve done to me,” though he has four kids of his own that he is abandoning.

The book itself, meanwhile, mimics the subjects’ lack of perspective.  Many of the details Sandell offers seem more arbitrary than revealing, rarely working together to present a clearer picture of either Madoff or his family.  There is more than one reference to “the underwear that Bernie had custom-made due to his aversion to elastic.”  Normally, quirky details like this are meant to provide color or depth, but in the absence of actual substance, they merely perplex.  Is this meant to reveal Bernie as hopelessly demanding?  Prone to pointless luxury?  Or just suffering from OCD?  Sandell attempts no interpretation.

Similarly, when the Madoffs bump into Saul Katz, co-owner of the Mets and a long-time friend and investor of Bernie’s, Katz showers Madoff with gratitude and offers to buy the family’s dinner.  When he leaves, Bernie grumbles, “I did everything for that guy….  Everything he has, he owes to me.  The clients can be so ungrateful.”  Other than having Andrew explain to Catherine that this sort of thing is “just his rap,” Sandell refuses to probe this incident at all. It might suggest a deluded feeling of importance and entitlement, which could go far to explain Madoff’s motives; then again, Katz is one of the investors who has been alleged to be in on the scheme (not that the book mentions this), so perhaps Bernie was responding to hidden drama.  We’ll never know–the potentially telling episode is simply dropped.

Sandell has chosen to present much of the narrative from the perspective of Catherine Hooper, Andrew Madoff’s fiancé, who barely knows Bernie and can therefore venture no conclusions about his behavior.  All her observations of him are presented as indecipherable, framed simply in terms of her learning to fit in with the family.  Hooper is preoccupied with pleasing Andrew’s parents; when we meet her, she is:

mov[ing] through the living room, trying to find her shoes.  They were black patent-leather lace-up Gucci booties, and she planned to wear them to her fiancée, Andrew’s office Christmas party that night…. She was running late and had two hours of professional hair and makeup appointments ahead of her.  Being a part of Andrew’s family meant looking the part.

This may be meant to paint Bernie and Ruth as cruel or superficial, but mostly it makes Hooper seem painfully vain. Worse, by using the couple’s romance as a narrative vehicle, Sandell has turned a tale of colossal betrayal and theft into merely a series of obstacles for a budding romance.  She glosses over the hundreds of lives that were ruined by the fraud, lamenting instead how long Catherine and Andrew have to wait to get married.

What little remains of the story is only interesting (to the extent that it is at all) for the shocking egotism and total lack of perspective it portrays—not of Madoff himself, since he remains opaque, but of his family, who are nearly all unable to see the “consequences” for anyone but themselves.  Back in the “Preface,” Sandell explains that the book “is not meant to be a piece of investigative journalism,” but rather “the human side of a tale that has, so far, been told only in terms of dollars and cents.”  This is a laugh, since Sandell fails spectacularly at humanizing; Andrew is the only one in the book who even comes across as human.  It is hard for me to imagine that the family approved of this version of their “story,” unflattering as it is, but perhaps they really are just that self-absorbed.  Which I suppose explains a little about Bernie Madoff’s chutzpah after all.

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