Mrs. Madoff, I've Been There

Jul 31, 2009 | Updated May 25, 2011

I drove my husband to prison on a crisp spring morning. We talked little along the way. He spent most of the trip on his cell phone to his lawyers. They were trying to persuade the judge on the case to push off this day a little longer. Finally he got word that, no, he must surrender himself by 9am. When we reached the entrance to the installation, a soldier directed my car to a bay inside the checkpoint. This was an army base, the prison deep inside it. As a prison guard approached the car, my husband and I both stepped out.

"Ready?" the guard asked him. "Anything in your pockets?"

Some coins. His keys. His wallet.

"Leave it all with the missus. Wearing a belt?"

He handed it over it.

"Anything in your shoes?"

He tipped them upside down.

"Well then," said the guard.

Well then, indeed. I watched as my husband was driven into the interior of the base, his head held stiff and alert, getting smaller and smaller, until the prison truck and my husband were gone. Sitting back inside my car, I stared disbelieving at the official personal moving freely about, and eventually I began to cry. I cried and I cried, until the checkpoint soldier rapped on the window. "You all right, Missus? 'Cause if you are, would you move your vehicle for the next one?"

It was my awakening. There would be little sympathy--and why should there be? After all, I was driving a gold BMW X5.

My life had been turned upside down just a few months before, when my financier husband told me that he was pleading guilty to a charge of wire fraud. Before that, I had been leading a life of affluence that many people would have envied. There was the 26-acre estate in the exclusive bucolic Westchester town of Bedford, New York, and there were three separate condominiums in a luxury midtown Manhattan building. Now, I was quite suddenly a single mother of two young boys and a newborn infant, with no job and no readily available way of making a living. The gold BMW would go. So would all the properties.

Today, Bernie Madoff, confessed architect of history's most elaborate Ponzi scheme, was sentenced to 150 years in prison. I imagine his wife Ruth Madoff is in shock. I recall how it was when I learned my husband must go to prison. Hearing the words was an out-of-body experience, something so surreal I couldn't understand it. I realized the enormity of the situation over time. Delivering him later to prison was in many ways like delivering him to death. This man who had taken up so much space in my life and the world was suddenly gone.

There has been furious speculation about how much Ms. Madoff knew about her husband's machinations. I can't possibly speak to her guilt or innocence. I can only say that in my case, I didn't know anything about my husband's working life. I came from a different world, one of writing and ideas, with two degrees in literature. I had no knowledge of finance, and no interest in learning. I was focused on being a mother of two with another on the way. All I knew was that I was now two things I never expected to be, the wife of a felon and alone.

Overnight, I had to figure out family finances, clean up the legal mess left behind, and navigate a prison visiting system. The first time I took my children to visit their father I was turned away after having driven more than two hours to get there because I was wearing khaki-colored clothing. It resembled too closely the army green of official personnel. On another visit, a guard shunted me like a prisoner myself to a cell-like concrete bathroom to breastfeed my baby. If Ms. Madoff wants to continue to see her husband, she must herself now navigate this bewildering system, and there will be no privacy again between them. His recorded phone calls to her will be limited to fifteen minutes, their letters to each other will be read, and her restricted visits videotaped.

Just last week, Ms. Madoff also lost her home in a forfeiture order--and she is struggling to find a landlord who will rent to her. I can sympathize with how this must be. My husband's crime was a minor one, compared to that of Mr. Madoff's, and it victimized other dealmakers, not charities or the elderly. Nonetheless, I found myself shunned by my community, by people with whom I'd traveled and played tennis and planned baby showers. No one offered to watch my children for a few hours so that I could get some rest; no one stopped by with foil-wrapped dinners or an offer to stay with them for a while after the children and I lost our home. What had happened to me hit too close to home for the banker wives around me.

My experience was not something I was glad I went through. But it did help me to reclaim my life.

The properties all went to pay my now-former husband's restitution. I moved out of Bedford, and back to the life of literature that I loved. I began to write again, to support my children. The novel that quickly sold, based on these real-life experiences, restored my financial independence, something I will never again relinquish.

I hope Ruth Madoff is similarly able to pick up the pieces. I know that I came to realize who my real friends are, and who I am, and what matters most. Above all, I've learned to take full responsibility for the way I live my life, something that we all need to learn in these times.

Karen Weinreb's novel, The Summer Kitchen (St Martin's Press), one woman's story of saving herself and her family after her husband is arrested for a white-collar crime, will be in stores July 7, 2009.