Bernard Madoff announced yesterday, through his lawyer, that he will not attend the funeral of his oldest son, Mark Madoff, 46, who committed suicide over the weekend. Mark hung himself in his Soho, New York, apartment, using a dog leash slung over a pipe. He left his second wife, his two-year-old daughter, and also a previous family that includes two grown children.
A father ordinarily might wish to attend the funeral of his oldest son, but Bernard Madoff is serving a 150-year prison sentence for perpetrating the largest, most damaging (non-governmental) Ponzi scheme investment fraud in history, which devastated the lives of thousands of investors who trusted him. If he attended his son’s funeral, his presence would create a media circus of epic proportions, turning the funeral into a horror show for Mark Madoff’s wife and baby daughter and other family members, including Bernard Madoff’s wife.
It was the firestorm of anger and hate for the very Madoff name, and also an endless stream of lawsuits, criminal and civil, that drove Mark Madoff to kill himself on the second anniversary of his father’s arrest for the legendary Ponzi scheme. The same vehement notoriety caused Bernard Madoff’s wife to petition a court to change her name and the name of her two children from Madoff to something — anything — else.
As Bernard Madoff’s various homes, boats, and other possessions, including even his shoes, have been auctioned off to raise a few dollars to help compensate his victims, his name has become synonymous with dishonesty — the very embodiment of ugly immorality. Given the sentence he received, he will die in jail, but this is viewed as inadequate punishment for his crimes.
Our culture has one virtually universally agreed-upon term for Bernard Madoff’s behavior: “selfish.”
He acted only for himself; and, we have been taught, selfish behavior in all its forms is the cardinal moral danger to the social order.
To act merely for oneself, one’s own values, goals, interests, implies a possible range of behavior from merely mean to monstrous.
Given no principle but selfishness to guide behavior, there supposedly are no limits to destructiveness. Hence Bernard Madoff.
But this brief description of Bernard Madoff’s life, today, raises an obvious question: How did behavior motivated solely by concern for himself, for his own self-interest, lead to the life he now lives — and will live until his death behind bars?
He has nothing of his own, save personal effects in his prison cell. His wife seeks only to sever herself from his name. His eldest son timed his suicide to mark the anniversary of Bernard Madoff’s arrest and public disgrace, and Madoff himself is viewed as such a fascinating object of loathing and morbid curiosity that he dare not attend his son’s funeral.
Bernard Madoff was and is a brilliant man. He created and maintained a mind-bogglingly complex scheme of deception that over decades fooled government regulators, bankers, brokers, and investment professionals of every kind — as well as his associates, closest friends, and family. He built an empire based on out-witting all comers in one of the most scrutinized and competitive businesses in the world. If he set his mind to pursuing only his self-interest, his own values and fulfillment, how could he have gone so completely, disastrously wrong?
Posed this way, the question has no satisfactory answer. The problem, I think, is with one of our assumptions. Before we accept the assumption that Bernard Madoff acted selfishly, we should pose a commonsense test. If we were in young Bernard Madoff’s shoes, beginning his career, what would be some obvious selfish goals? To be plain, and perhaps unimaginative: to earn lots of money to obtain and enjoy comforts, such as luxurious apartments, and pleasures, such as perhaps travel, vacation homes, boats — and to enjoy these acquisitions in peace.
Perhaps to marry an attractive woman (he did) who would love us and admire us, and to have children who would admire us and make us proud by succeeding in their own right. To enjoy the admiration and friendship of colleagues and friends. Simple and obvious things — and nary a mention of what are deemed unselfish pursuits, such as philanthropy, service to our fellow men, religious piety, or sacrifice for supposed ideals such as public service, patriotism, making a better world.
But I would suggest that Bernard Madoff, by any common reckoning, pursued none of those selfish values. He did not earn money, he stole it; and, although he acquired many possessions, he hardly could have enjoyed them in anything like peace and serenity, given his constant vigilance, scheming, deception, and manipulation. And, of course, he lost everything and is spending what should be his years of achievement and satisfaction in a medium-security federal prison.
Did he enjoy the admiration and love of his wife, given what he knew all along about the life he had created for her? And what do any years in which she did love and admire him mean now, as she seeks to disown his very name? His sons, his friends, his colleagues? He did not in fact pursue any of these values; he pursued the pretense of them: the appearance of achievement, the misguided love and admiration of wife, sons, and friends. He pursued not one real value, not one real interest of the self.
I would suggest to you that Bernard Madoff pursued only an image in the minds of others: the image of a successful businessman, the image of a caring husband and father, the image of the creator of wealth and plenty, the image of a man on top of the world. He was not selfish; he created a life in which his existence was solely in the deluded minds of others.
Bernard Madoff’s “self” was a mere misapprehension in other minds. When he dies, nothing real will die. Whatever existed will continue to exist in the minds of others — but now as an avatar of contemptible and ultimately pathetic futility.
Bernard Madoff is a very selfless man.
And we should be very, very afraid of unselfish men.