Don’t sneer at Madoff’s wife

Why does Ruth Madoff inspire such vitriol? According to the New York Times, the wife of fraudster Bernie Madoff, who is now serving a 150-year sentence for running a massive Ponzi scheme, is “the loneliest woman in New York City”.

She has become “socially toxic”, dropped by all her friends. She has been told she is unwelcome at her hair salon; the restaurants she used to frequent; even her old flower shop. Charities with which she was once associated are distancing themselves. Her accounts have been frozen and every expense has to be approved by the US Attorney’s office, who deemed even her NYT subscription “an extravagance”. When she tried to use coupons to pay for a pizza, the press sneered. Indeed, the media has been brutal, from the grainy shots of her sneaking out of her Manhattan penthouse for the last time, and the calls to have her “wiped out” financially, to the snide comments about her highlights.

Even her own children — who are reportedly angry at her for standing by their father — now refer to her as “Ruth”. Her sons, who actually worked for Bernie, have not been similarly demonised and some have suggested that their mother is being hounded just because she is a woman. Others complain that she has not shown enough public contrition, and that she tried to keep some of the Madoff money.
But the root of the disdain comes from the almost universal assumption that she must have been “in” on her husband’s scheme. She could not possibly have lived with him, all these years, without being aware of his shady dealings.

Now, this may very well be so — I don’t know — but there is no evidence whatsoever. No legal charges are being laid, and it is entirely plausible that she was in the dark. Had my husband been a highly respected former chairman of the Nasdaq, I probably would not have asked too many questions about his finances either.
So why has she not been given the benefit of the doubt?

Compare Mrs Madoff with Frau Fritzl, wife of Joseph Fritzl, who imprisoned his daughter Elisabeth in a cellar for 24 years, raped her thousands of times and then imprisoned three of her children — a far more heinous crime than the one of which Madoff was convicted, shocking as it was.

The question of how much Rosemarie Fritzl knew seems much more pertinent. Three babies appearing from nowhere on the doorstep, with no sign of their mother, is far more suspicious than a never-ending flow of money from a successful businessman. Fritzl also had a history of violence and a conviction for rape, while Madoff had a clean slate.
Yet, despite the loud whispers that “she must have known” (she even refused to testify against her husband), Mrs Fritzl was given a free pass. It was “simply inconceivable” that any mother would have stayed silent had she had even the slightest suspicion. She was in denial; terrified of Fritzl; his lies were plausible. She has changed her name, but there is no press hounding her, and no sneers.

Few people have bothered making parallel excuses for Ruth Madoff. And the difference, it seems to me, is envy.

Rosemarie Fritzl is the kind of woman the press and public could relate to and feel sorry for: dull, downtrodden and middle class. She had “victim” written all over her. Ruth Madoff was essentially a Jewish American Princess. She was too privileged, too fashionable, too cold and, mostly, too rich for public opinion, even when she had lost most of her money.

Yes, she lived a lavish lifestyle with funds that turned out to belong to others. Perhaps it took her too long to understand this and behave accordingly. But if you accept that she may have been ignorant of her husband’s deceptions, you have to accept that she may not deserve the scorn and disgust that has been heaped on her.

Our collective insistence on treating her as a convicted accomplice is entirely irrational, and reveals as much about us as it does about her.
So spare a thought for Ruth Madoff. She may turn out to be one of Bernie’s saddest victims.

    Last updated: 4:23pm, June 27 2011