Madoff Psychopath
© Associated Press
During his trial Bernard Madoff showed no remorse for his crimes and did not offer an apology.

Be true to yourself, and keep your inner Madoff where he belongs.

How do you recognise a psychopath? It's not easy. You can start by reading or watching the film of The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. Tom Ripley is a man with no prospects who inveigles his way into the lives of the wealthy East Coast elite and, when it seems his con is about to be found out, murders them. Ripley has no moral core.

Or you could study Bernie Madoff, the creator of the world's biggest Ponzi scheme. Ripley is fictional, Madoff is real: but in the mind of a psychopath reality is only a construct, so what's the diff? Like Ripley, Madoff was an impostor in the moneyed world he inhabited until his downfall. Like Ripley, Madoff also appeared not to feel any shame for his crimes. At the time of his trial a Vanity Fair reporter observed that Madoff smirked and did not say sorry. "A sincere apology would imply remorse - a conscience. But then, if Madoff had a conscience, he would have committed suicide by now."

This week Bernie Madoff's son did just that. It had been two years since Mark and his brother Andrew blew the whistle on their father's Ponzi scheme, putting him behind bars for 150 years. "No one wants to hear the truth, take care of my family," Mark Madoff was quoted as writing in an email shortly before he hanged himself with his dog lead in his New York apartment.

He was 46. His 2-year-old son was asleep nearby. Friends said Mark had been increasingly despondent as he tried to move on with his life and get a job. He could barely get anyone to even call him back, the source said.

Should the sins of the father be visited on the sons? The trustee, who was trying to claw back Madoff's millions, seemed to think so. So did Madoff's victims. One has sympathy for those who are elderly and living without pensions. But many of Madoff's investors were the super-privileged. One victim moaned about her losses while wearing a sheared mink coat. Her husband had lost most of "his Foundation" to the scam. Another Madoff victim boasted she spoke three languages and couldn't get a publisher for her book about her Madoff experience. My heart: bleeding.

Madoff was a deeply dysfunctional individual but it is hard to escape the conclusion his particular disorder was exacerbated and given full rein by the stuffed-up ultra-wealthy world he inhabited. Practically everyone Madoff mixed with was totally out of touch with the humdrum pain of ordinary life: how was he supposed to have a soul?

Even the Economist conceded that psychopaths find a comfortable niche in the boardroom - and are not easily identified. "The combination of a propensity for impulsive risk-taking with a lack of guilt and shame (the two main characteristics of psychopathy) may lead, according to circumstances, to a criminal career or a business one."

Only after the fact did anyone admit they sensed Madoff was a fake. "I could never understand a word that Bernard Madoff said," one old money real estate tycoon drawled to Vanity Fair. The remark was "Upper East Side code", the magazine said. For all Madoff's success, the hungry kid from the wrong side of the tracks, from Queens, never fitted in.

Mark Madoff did not leave a suicide note. It is not clear what he was trying to say by taking his own life. Maybe he was just saying I can't take it anymore. Maybe: I am taking responsibility for my father's sins. Maybe that there is a little bit of Ripley inside every one of us.

What sets us apart from Bernie Madoff is that we guard against it every day by admitting our petty vanities and foolishness and at least being real to ourselves.

Happy Christmas and don't believe your own BS.