I've been thinking about Ruth Madoff a lot this week. It feels like we're in some sort of Bernie Madoff bonanza — I saw a few headlines and even a podcast about Madoff at the end of last week. The hubbub seems to have been caused by the release of the new HBO movie, The Wizard of Lies (which is based on a book by incredible journalist Diana Henriques), on Saturday.
Quick rewind though. A little history: Bernie Madoff became the embodiment of the 2008 recession after it was revealed that he had been running a Ponzi scheme for years. Basically, he told people that if they invested their money with him, they'd get massive returns. He faked some trades and showed unreal returns, but eventually, it caught up with him. He ultimately lost investors billions.
So where does Ruth come in? She had been living a life of luxury in Manhattan, blissfully unaware of what her husband Bernie had been up to. There's a scene in the Wizard of Lies movie where Ruth literally asks, "What's a Ponzi scheme?" She had no clue what her husband was up to, and in her cluelessness, she became complicit in his lies. What's more is that Ruth's life has changed radically since her husband went to jail. Ruth was allowed to keep $2.5 million her husband earned through the scheme, but in the process, she lost her two sons — one of whom committed suicide as a result of the fraud, and the other who lost his life to cancer believed to have been brought back from remission by all of the stress the situation caused.
I think Ruth's life, while truly tragic, can act as sort of a warning to us all. Sometimes it feels easy to say, oh, I'm not the math-oriented person, I'll let my partner handle the finances. But that can really screw up our lives in myriad ways. The fuck-off fund, a story circulated by women last year, shares the same lesson. It's important to have some measure of financial independence, even if you're in the most perfect relationship on earth. You never know what could happen with your partner. They could be running the biggest Ponzi scheme of all time, and you definitely don't want to be screwed over by something like that.
- Alicia McElhaney / She Spends Issue #4