January 15, 2009
Religious Suicide In An Investor's World
— Rita Polevoy
As the New Year begins, many are haunted by losses suffered from the ongoing economic crisis. Amongst the biggest losers sits Bernard Madoff, mastermind of a fifty billion dollar Ponzi scheme that stole from those who invested with him, including multiple Jewish charities such as Steven Spielberg's Wunderkinder Foundation; businesses like L'Oreal; and individual investors like Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, who committed suicide after Madoff's exposure. Chairman of the NASDAQ stock exchange, Bernard L. Madoff was charged with committing what may prove to be the largest fraud scheme in history. As he later admitted, "it's all just one big lie...basically a giant Ponzi scheme." In this scam, named for con artist Charles Ponzi, investors are provided with a consistently high percentage of returns for their money from the contributions of newly recruited investors. If the inflow of new investors falters, however, the entire system collapses - which is precisely what happened to Madoff, who, in his own words, "paid investors with money that wasn't there."
As a Jew, Madoff belongs to a religion that highly regards tzedakah - charity or giving. This practice is regarded as one's daily duty and often involves starting or giving to charities in large amounts (usually, the total given amounts to ten percent of a household's income). Knowing this, Madoff had an open door through which to approach many Jewish charities, including Speilberg's foundation, the Chais Family Foundation (which has now shut down completely), Yeshiva University, and the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. The immeasurable damage these charities felt when they lost so much was accentuated by the pain of betrayal in a close-knit community, in which Madoff had played the "religion card" to help himself instead of helping others. Moreover, Madoff robbed individual investors of their life savings and, in many cases, their retirement funds, leaving a number of elderly investors in fear for their very survival.
Among the investors for whom the collapse of this con hit particularly hard was 65-year-old Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, who lost more than 1.4 billion dollars. On December 23, Villehuchet was found dead in his office with a box cutter and a bottle of sleeping pills near his desk. With the door locked behind him, he slashed his wrists and quietly bled to death into a garbage can in his office. Villehuchet had trusted Madoff so much as to invest his clients' and friends' money along with his own, only to be left "totally ruined." Feeling no other option, he took his own life: "I have to fight for my clients and myself. It's a complete nightmare." He sent a note to his brother expressing guilt for his investments and empathy the multitude of people hurt by the con.
Suicide, as historian of religion David Chidester reminds us in Salvation and Suicide, his seminal study of the People's Temple, is frequently a religious act, invested with religious motivations and following a religiously understood logic. The Jewish zealots at Masada, for instance, facing death (or, worse, torture, rape, forced conversion, and slavery) at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE took their own lives as a way of escaping with their religious identity and dignity intact. Likewise, when the utopian community at Jonestown drank poison in 1978, a ruling interpretation among those who participating willingly was that this act of suicide was in protest of "the conditions of an inhumane world." Suicide presented a means of remaining fully human in the face of a society defined by race, class, and gender divisions and, thus, intent on dehumanization. It is worth considering Villehuchet's bloody end in the light of such examples of religious suicide like the Japanese Samurai, revenge suicide amongst the Yoruba, and Sati traditions amongst Hindu female widows. Such notorious suicides also took place in protest of the Vietnam war, with the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức burning himself to death.
Villehuchet's death, as an anthropological phenomenon, shares some similarities with these acts, all of which are meant at least in part as public statements. Perhaps he simply didn't want to face the music of the aftermath; but his spectacular suicide is nonetheless symbolic, offering an undeniably powerful visceral statement on the loss suffered by victims of Madoff's crimes. His act dramatically exemplifies the shock, pain, and fear that all of the Madoff investors felt when their hard-earned money was nowhere to be found because a man whose pockets were greater than his morals used it to benefit himself. Villehuchet's suicide was a public act, an utterance aimed, surely, to resonate throughout the media and thus voice the outrage and despair of many anonymous investors, in the process focusing public attention on the very real ramifications of this white collar crime.
Rita Polevoy is a student at Loyola University Chicago.