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.)
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.