Sins of Their Father: How Madoff Shame Strikes Sons

Why Andrew Madoff may have coped better with the family crisis.

December 14, 2010, 2:36 PM

Dec. 15, 2010— -- In the years since infamous Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff was arrested, and ultimately convicted, his sons, Mark and Andrew, who were also his employees, faced public shame and criminal investigation. The financial world they had been a part of all their lives had effectively excommunicated them.

The severity of the family's trauma reached new heights this weekend when the oldest son, Mark, took his life early Saturday morning, on the two-year anniversary of his father's arrest. Forty-six-year-old Madoff hanged himself in his New York SoHo apartment as his 2-year-old son slept soundly in the next room.

Mark Madoff "had been struggling" for years after his father's arrest and conviction, a source close to him told ABC News. "This wasn't something he thought of overnight."

The sons were executives in their father's company but claim to have known nothing about the Ponzi scheme until their father told them about it in December 2008, at which point they turned him in to the federal authorities. But both sons have been the subject of numerous lawsuits and persistent public scrutiny, as many believe they couldn't have been blind to the business dealings of their father.

Despite enduring the same loss of face and financial stability, the brothers handled the crisis in different ways. Andrew Madoff took up long-distance biking, and has been helping his fiancee, Catherine Hooper, with her consulting work. Mark Madoff, however, was distraught, believed he'd become unemployable and feared he could never rise above the scandal, sources close to the family told ABC News.

Mark Madoff was under admitted duress last year when he went missing, prompting his wife, Stephanie, to call the police. He was found in a New York hotel room registered under a different name. He told police at the time that he was going to seek help for his mental health problems.

What might explain the different reactions of these two brothers? Why has one been able to dig himself out of the disabling notoriety of his family's shame while the other remained tortured by it? Psychology experts weigh in on how the steps taken in the aftermath of trauma can help activate a person's natural resiliency and ability to recover.

Get Back in the Saddle

The majority of people will experience a host of symptoms in the days and weeks following a traumatic event, which can include feelings of numbness, disconnection from others, anxiety and recurrent nightmares, psychology experts say, even though most people start to make a natural recovery in their own time.

"People are pretty resilient and get back into their lives without any type of intervention often, but a small percentage will have persistent symptoms and go on to develop post traumatic stress disorder," says Dr. Simon Rego, director of the Cognitive Behavior Therapy Program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.

For others, struggles with anxiety, intrusive thoughts and reliving the event make them feel hopeless, depressed, and, ultimately, suicidal. "The question is, how do you interrupt that downward spiral" before it gets to such a dire state, says Dr. Ken Robbins, depression expert at Stoughton Hospital in Stoughton, Wis., and clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Re-engaging with life and rediscovering a purpose or use for one's talents is essential for recovery, experts say.

"Go back to the routines, go back to things that give you a sense of meaning. One of the key factors that exacerbates PTSD is avoidance," says Rego. While avoiding the environments and people connected with a trauma can be comforting in the short–term, ultimately, that makes it worse, he says, and perpetuates the anxiety.

For Mark Madoff, employment was a struggle, and he believed his soiled name kept him from finding work in his field. Andrew Madoff, on the other hand, returned to a working life through helping his partner.

Re-engagement doesn't have to involve employment, however, especially if employment is not a valid option, says Nadine Kaslow, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University in Atlanta. "It's crucial for all of us to have a sense of purpose, but that can be through an occupation or an avocation. Take up a cause or throw yourself into family life," she says.

Support and Perspective

What psych experts emphasized as most important in overcoming trauma was the ability to express one's feelings openly in a trusted venue.

"It's a feeling of being very alone that puts people at higher risk for suicide," says Robbins. In many cases, there are others in a similar situation who can become a source of support, but this may have been one of the challenges for the Madoff brothers: No others were going through a similar trauma. Couple that with the ridicule they faced in the public sphere, and it can make for a dangerously isolating experience, says Robbins.

It was crucial for Mark and Andrew to find at least a few close friends or loved ones that they could confide in, says Kaslow, especially given that they had to sever ties with their father, and chose to sever them with their mother. They'd become orphans in a sense.

In an odd twist of events, Andrew Madoff's battle with cancer years before his father's confession may have helped him gain this type of long-term perspective on his later familial trauma, experts say, although having to cope with two such life-altering experiences within the span of a few years could also prove too overwhelming for some, and put them at even greater risk of falling into distress.

While it's normal for traumatic events to be emotionally trying, psychology experts counsel people not to shy away from seeking help, whether it's from family members or a support group or therapist, whether it's in the days or years following a harrowing experience.

"It's important to feel supported in your experience and to have some way of talking about and making sense of what happened to you," says Rego.

ABC News' Brian Ross, Aaron Katersky, Rhonda Schwartz, Anna Schecter and Richard Esposito contributed to this report.