Madoff told me he wished he’d been caught earlier, anything to put an end to a nightmare he didn’t have the courage to end himself. In his mind, he even tried to act honorably. “I was always able to rationalize it … Look, I tried to give moneys back to my individual clients when I realized it was impossible to get myself out. I tried to return funds to my friends, moneys to the smaller clients. They wouldn’t take it back … Everybody said, ‘No, you can’t do that. You can’t send me my money back. I’ve been a friend of yours, or a client, for years’ … I couldn’t tell them I would have been doing them a favor. I couldn’t. I mean, could I have insisted? Yes.
“I did block it out of my mind,” he said. “I had no choice.”
On December 10, 2008, three months after the stock market cratered, Andrew and Mark went into their uncle Peter’s office, not far from theirs on the nineteenth floor of BLMIS—Madoff’s investment-advisory business was located two floors down. “What’s wrong with Dad? He just looks like he’s falling apart,” the boys told their uncle. He’d been alternately frantic and near comatose. The boys had seen similar behavior before: when Andrew had been diagnosed with lymphoma. Madoff had been “a vegetable” for weeks. He could barely speak and rarely left home. This seemed even worse. They sent Peter in to speak to him, and he confessed. Peter insisted he tell his sons. “I said, ‘Look, let’s all go to my house,’ ” Madoff said. “ ‘I haven’t told Ruth either. I have to tell her as well.’ So we got into my car, and my driver drove me the few blocks to my home.” They went to Madoff’s study. On the couch, Madoff broke down crying.
He faced $7 billion in redemptions, which he didn’t have. He’d been feverishly trying to raise money and in fact had commitments for $700 million, which could have kept the scheme afloat for several more weeks. “What was the point? It wasn’t going to solve my problem. And I was so exhausted and deep down with worry, and so on. I just said to hell with it. I decided I wasn’t going to take [the money]. There was no point in me hurting additional people,” he told me. The authorities found checks for $173 million in his desk—uncashed.
“I owe all of this money out, and I’m not going to be able to recover it,” he told his family. Everyone was crying. “Look, I don’t know what else to tell you. I don’t know what you’re supposed to do,” Madoff continued. Mark stood there in shock. “Andy, I remember, took me in his arms,” Madoff told me sadly. “He felt sorry for me at that stage.”
A few minutes later, Andrew and Mark found themselves on Lexington Avenue in a daze—they headed to their lawyer and soon made the most wrenching decision of their lives: They turned in their father, knowing he’d spend the rest of his life in jail.
Ruth was torn by Madoff’s confession, her emotions complicated by 50 years of marriage. “She was mortified by what I did,” said Madoff. “We had a very luxurious life. There’s no question about that. But that was not what she was interested in. She would have been perfectly happy if I’d been a teacher. My wife, quite frankly, doesn’t forgive me for what I did. But at least she understood. You know, I guess, they say for better or for worse,” he explained and gave that tiny laugh. “Better and worse. She stood by me. She’s my wife.”
Madoff was freed from his nightmare, but for his family, the troubles had just begun. At first the boys hadn’t known what to feel. Soon their emotions crystallized. Andrew, the steelier of the two, slipped into a rage—his emotion for once unmistakable. “I was furious beyond measure with my father for having done this to us,” he confided to a friend. Madoff had thousands of victims, but for Andrew and Mark, it was as if their father took direct aim at them. They’d lived in his shadow, nodding as strangers gushed about his genius. Now they’d never get their fair share of credit for the legitimate businesses they had built. Andrew told a friend: “Then we find out it’s bullshit. The genius is fake. We’d been competing with a phantom.” That was one more injustice, and they felt it intensely. Mark, as a friend recalled, knew Andrew had greater reason to be bitter. He’d tried to leave the business, but Madoff had “manipulated” him into staying, as if their father had needed the cover.