Emile Durkheim, the great French sociologist, tells us that there are four kinds of suicide. None of the four really gets at the sort of suicide Bernard Madoff's son committed. New ways of life create new paths to death.
Durkheims' anomic and egoistic forms are related, having to do with a person's failure to assimilate psychologically and morally into his or her culture. Think of characters like Saul Bellow's dangling man, Albert Camus' stranger, and Herman Melville's Bartleby the scrivener.
Altruistic suicides kill - or more properly, sacrifice - themselves on behalf of the higher good of the culture. They are the precise opposite of the first two types.
Fatalistic suicides occur among people in prisons and prison societies - North Korea; Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago - whose degrading conditions make death preferable to life.
The three suicides, now including that of his son, which Bernard Madoff has caused (there may be more, but only three have been written about in the press) differ from these types of suicide. Madoff suicides don't feature alienated, deracinated, degraded people. They involve a sense of hopeless entrapment, and/or a sense of unbearable shame.
William Foxton, a brave and decent man who invested his personal fortune with Madoff, killed himself, his son said in Britain's The Telegraph, because he was "distraught after losing his family's entire savings in the Ponzi investment scam." He could not live with himself, could not forgive himself for having ruined his family's life.
According to the New York Times, 'In a note to his brother written shortly before his death, [Rene-Thierry Magonde] la Villehuchet [an investor heavily involved with Madoff who lost more than a billion dollars of his own and his clients' money] said that he needed to be held accountable for the losses, his brother said. “If you ruin your friends, your clients, you have to face the consequences,” Bertrand said, explaining what his brother believed.'
Although these suicides have echoes of altruism to them, they are not really altruistic, since they did nothing to make the lives of their survivors better. They are intimately punitive and self-loathing acts, done, it seems, with a conscience-stricken, stoical belief that you are carrying out, on your own body, a sort of higher justice. If you can't make things right financially for your family and others, you can at least redress what you regard as the moral balance.
Mark Madoff, who hanged himself in his apartment with his dog's leash, was simply trapped. Suicide, he presumably felt, was his only way out.
A man who worked closely with his father for his entire working life and who probably knew something about the crimes being committed, Mark Madoff correctly perceived that the rest of his existence amounted to lies, lawsuits, ridicule, and contempt. His wife changed her last name, and the last names of their children, but Mark Madoff himself refused to do this. Was it bravado? Fatalism? A belief that he was innocent of any wrongdoing and therefore had no need to disavow his given name? Did he still love his father, and the mother to whom he had not spoken in years? And if he loved them, did he feel that jettisoning their name would cause them grief?
Mark Madoff had the misfortune of coming from a crime family. Bernard Madoff's parents were small-time financial crooks; Bernard Madoff was a big-time financial crook. So the entrapment that ultimately killed Mark Madoff started at birth. Did he wonder, as his father paid him almost thirty million dollars a year, whether his remarkable good fortune could really last? Was he ever afraid, ever tempted to escape from his very wealthy, very sketchy, family? Surely he knew that Harry Markopolos was out there for years telling anyone who'd listen that his father was a massive crook...
Greed and love and entitlement and the thrill of playing the market -- we can only speculate about what kept Mark Madoff on the path to suicide. But one thing we can be sure of -- his suicide wasn't Durkheim's modern, but New York City's postmodern, suicide: A grotesquely imbalanced spectacle, an almost psychotic admixture, of worldwide financial leverage and the pathetic tug of an animal's leash.
Rest assured that one particular body will never be added to the Madoff body count. New York Magazine, last June, described Bernard Madoff, in prison, enjoying the life of a rock star.
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