A stunning interview with Bernie Madoff appeared in The Financial Times recently, in which the infamous conman speaks frankly about the mental mechanics of his crimes. How much of it is the honest truth is a separate issue (as is whether or not that even matters: as we all know, retribution can be a powerful narcotic, esp when it’s helping us circumvent our individual or collective complicity/depravity). But there’s something undeniably beautiful about confession, whenever it occurs. The powerlessness is something to behold – Romans 7 etc – as is the admission that the real enslavement here is to the ego. One would certainly think that the desire for absolution can’t be too far off. Then again, there’s a lot of things one would think when it comes to Madoff, ht CB:
So in 1992, he says, his slide into the Ponzi scheme began, using money from new deposits to pay some returns. “I thought I could do it. I did! I took the money – let’s say I had $1bn, by then – and I was convinced that when the market straightened out I would be able to cover things.” But it never happened.
“The turning point was really about 1992 onwards. From then on, it started getting worse and worse. I spend a lot of time thinking about it – it is almost like a blank to me now. I try to piece it together; why didn’t I say, ‘I cannot do it?’ Why didn’t I return the money to those four or five clients – and the others – and say, ‘I can’t do it.’ Why?”
We ask why he didn’t just hand the money back to investors. After all, he says that in 1992 he was already a fairly wealthy man, since the market-making operation was performing well. “Ego,” he explains. “Put yourself in my place. Your whole career you are outside the ‘club’ but then suddenly you have all the big banks – Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse – all their chairmen, knocking on your door and asking, ‘Can you do this for me?’
“[I was] under a lot of pressure – a lot,” he mutters. “And I was embarrassed. It was the first time in my life that something hadn’t worked. I was just dumb. Dumb! Starting in the early 1990s there were no trades. It was just paper. But let me tell you,” he adds forcefully. “It looked real.”
Suddenly, Madoff the raconteur evaporates; he starts to speak very carefully. “I have spent a lot of time with a psychologist [in prison], which I had never done before in my life, in order to try to figure out how I could have done it,” he says. “There are these mafia people who can kill people all day long, do terrible things, and then go home to their families. I used to wonder how it was that people in wars could shoot people. But the thing is that you can compartmentalise things in your life.”
Madoff says he never considered fleeing. “In the end I was almost relieved,” he says. “The pressure I was under in the last 16 years was almost unbearable. I wish they caught me sooner.”