Ruth Madoff: why I believe she didn’t know about Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme

Why I Believe Ruth Madoff Didn’t Know About the Ponzi Scheme

Why I Believe Ruth Madoff Didn’t Know About the Ponzi Scheme

Commentary about business and finance.
Nov. 2 2011 2:15 PM

The Eternal Teenage Life of Ruth Madoff

Maybe she really didn't know about her husband's Ponzi scheme.

Ruth Madoff on 60 Minutes.
Ruth Madoff on 60 Minutes, one of her several recent public appearances


After three years of near total silence since her husband, Bernard Madoff, admitted to running a Ponzi scheme that devastated thousands, Ruth Madoff has embarked on a nationwide sympathy tour. In the past week, she hit 60 Minutes and The Today Show, and gave an interview with the New York Times, all to support the new biography Truth and Consequences: Life Inside the Madoff Family. The overly sympathetic book was written by Laurie Sandell, who wrote about her own sociopathic father in the graphic memoir The Impostor’s Daughter. Truth and Consequences relies heavily on interviews with Ruth and her surviving son, Andrew. (Tragically, her other son, Mark, committed suicide late last year.)

Jessica Grose Jessica Grose

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

As Josh Voorhees points out on the Slatest, Ruth repeats the same details in each interview: Ruth and Bernie tried to commit suicide while he was under house arrest; Ruth’s reaction to her husband’s admission of enormous financial fraud was, “What’s a Ponzi scheme?”; Ruth had no idea that her husband was bilking his investors for all they were worth. It is this last point that remains contentious. A look in the comments section of any press coverage of Ruth Madoff shows that lots of people still think she’s lying about what she knows (sample from that New York Times article: “What a bunch of lies. Anyone in the industry knows that the returns had to be made up. ... [T]he sons knew it, the wife knew it, everyone knew it”).


Despite the haters who remain, Ruth’s big reveal seems to be working in her favor. The attitude toward her has certainly softened since 2009, when Sheelah Kolhatkar wrote a feature in New York solely about the vitriol directed toward Mrs. Madoff in the aftermath of her husband’s arrest. Part of why this publicity tour has been successful is because the last few years have been so clearly awful for her. She sobs in front of Morley Safer, not just about losing her companion of 50 years, but for losing her son, Mark, who had not spoken to her in the two years before his death. She’s small-boned, and looks breakable and frail beneath the studio lights.

Another reason why Ruth no longer inspires exclusively hatred is, quite frankly, she’s broke. She’s had to pay for her husband’s crimes, which gives an irate public something concrete to hold onto. When the news first broke in late 2008, Ruth was silent while her lawyers fought to keep a big pot of Bernie’s ill-gotten gains. (According to New York, Ruth argued for over $70 million in homes, savings and jewelry.) She’s let go of all that. Truth and Consequences outlines the terrible financial straits that Ruth is in. She’s living in Florida near her sister Joan and Joan’s husband, both of whom have had to come out of retirement to work as cab drivers because they lost their nest egg when Madoff’s financial fraud was unearthed. She can barely afford a $30 present for her granddaughter, or new shoes. (“Luckily, in Florida you can wear flip flops all the time.”) And either because she knows it’s good P.R., or she feels legitimately penitent, Ruth hands out food with Meals on Wheels in her spare time.

But the main motivation for the modicum of forgiveness granted to Ruth Madoff is that the more airtime she gets, the more believable her story becomes. Maybe she really was in the dark about the Ponzi scheme. In Truth and Consequences, the picture that emerges of Ruth is one of a weak, cosseted adolescent, a spoiled Betty Draper-type from another era, and Sandell even uses the word “teenager” more than once to describe the nearly 70-year-old Ruth. She lived with her parents in Brooklyn until she married Bernie at age 18. Before the scandal broke, she barely ever spent a night alone. Bernie would be an obsessive bully toward his kids and grandkids, screaming and carrying on if there were a spot of dirt in one of their lavish homes. Ruth would silently stand by and tell her kids that they needed to work things out themselves—she wanted to stay out of any strife, because she was too immature to deal with it.

If these were truly the dynamics of the Madoff marriage, then it’s entirely believable that Ruth didn’t know that her husband was defrauding all his clients. (Sidenote: She did do invoicing for the firm and balanced the family’s personal check books until the ’90s. According to Bernie Madoff, that is when the Ponzi scheme began.) Even when she was working there, she wouldn’t have seen the big picture, as she was mainly focused on raising the kids and keeping up their pristine homes. At least some jurors in the court of public opinion now seem to accept this narrative. “It is not inconceivable to believe that Ruth did not know what was going on,” one commenter on the 60 Minutes video argued. “My husband has owned his own business for many years, making over a million dollars a year and I do not get involved or ask questions regarding his business matters. I run the home and take care of the children, his work is his work!”

Ruth was so enthralled with and subservient to Bernie that she can’t even muster the will to get a divorce. Her sister Joan can’t understand why Ruth doesn’t go through with the breakup, after everything that’s happened. When Morley Safer asks Ruth why she doesn’t start divorce proceedings, she says, resignedly, that he’s going to die in jail anyway, so what’s the point. She even admits that if she had found out about the Ponzi scheme before their sons did (the sons were the ones who turned him in), she’s not sure if she would have called the feds. “It would have been tough, I would have left. I like to think I would have [turned him in] but I couldn’t say.” This all illustrates that Ruth Madoff’s fatal flaw is not that she was in cahoots with her husband. It’s that she’s too weak to stand on her own two feet.