What It's Like To Lose Everything Many of investment manager Bernie Madoff's clients lost their life savings, homes and hopes of retirement when his Ponzi scheme fell apart. If you've ever lost it all — in a natural disaster, a robbery, or something else — what did it feel like? Have you rebuilt your life?
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What It's Like To Lose Everything

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What It's Like To Lose Everything

What It's Like To Lose Everything

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. It happened to thousands during Katrina, to thousands more when Wall Street numbers plummeted last year, and more recently to many of the clients of investment manager Bernard Madoff. Seconds passed like hours amid the sickening realization that suddenly, everything is gone - your life savings, your house, the foundations for your life gone. Anger, blame, confusion, denial, stages of grief are likely to follow before any silver lining appears.

Today, stories about what it's like to suddenly lose everything. If that's happened to you in a storm or a fire or a robbery or some other kind of personal catastrophe, tell us your story. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on Talk of the Nation.

Later in the program, new rules and new laws emerge as more and more mothers employ breast pumps. But first, losing everything, and we begin with Geneen Roth who wrote a column for salon.com called "I Was Fleeced by Madoff." And she joins us today from KQED, our member station in San Francisco. And it's nice to have you on the program today.

Ms. GENEEN ROTH (Writer, Salon.com): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And one of the most moving things in your story is the phone call that you got that changed your life.

Ms. ROTH: Yes it did. It was from my good friend, my best friend, who called and told me to sit down and then went on to tell me that I and she and many, many, many people we knew had lost everything. You know, as I wrote in my column, I thought she was just calling to tell me that she had gotten a bad haircut, and I laughed.

But then I really did sit down. And as I sat, and she told me what was going on, I felt - I felt as if I had died. I felt that the world had stopped. And I knew in that moment that life as I knew it had changed irrevocably.

CONAN: How much did you lose?

Ms. ROTH: You know, for some reason, our lawyers have warned us or counseled us not to talk about how much we lost personally, but I can tell you that the group of people that I was in, about 20 or 25 people, that the loss was tens of millions of dollars ranging from as little as $40,000 a person to $15 million.

CONAN: So, you're somewhere in that range. And it was everything. It was all your life savings?

Ms. ROTH: It was all our life savings, yes.

CONAN: Why did you put everything in one basket?

Ms. ROTH: You know, that's the question that people keep asking, and it's good to say first of all that we had done enough due diligence. We had asked around. We had talked to financial advisers. We had spoken to accountants. We had talked to people about Bernie Madoff, reputable people.

We had heard for instance that Henry Kaufman, who's now called Dr. Doom - he used to be the former Salomon Brothers chief economist and who predicted the bear market - had put several million dollars in Madoff. We had known, for instance, that Madoff had been investigated three times by the SEC and had come up clean. So that was one reason. It was that we had heard wonderful things about Madoff.

And the second reason, which was very personal to my husband and I, was that we had lost money in everything else we had done. We had bought our house at the top of the market and sold at the bottom of the market. And another financial adviser that we had had 10 years ago had embezzled a quarter of our money.

And so when a very good friend offered to let us into Madoff, and part of it, of course, was that here's something that I know about that not many people know about, but here is something that's safe. Our friend had been in it for 30 years. And while he hadn't made the gains that people are saying people made in Madoff, the 18 percent gains, he hadn't lost money, and it was a safe and reliable investment. When something has been going on for 30 years, you begin to believe in its safety and its reliability.

CONAN: So, from your point of view, some people - there has been little sympathy, I suspect, for the people who got stung here?

Ms. ROTH: Yes, I know, and I've noticed that. I noticed that when people responded to the piece I wrote on Madoff, and, you know, the first thing I want to say is that not everybody was wealthy who put their money into Madoff. I got a letter from somebody who lost all she had, which was $15,000. We know of somebody else, a 90-year-old peace activist, who had perhaps maybe $50,000.

Now, I realize that's wealthy to many, many people. In fact, I realize that I'm speaking from an incredibly privileged position since I've always had clean water. I've always had food, and I've always had a house over my head.

Though for many years, as I also wrote, I lived in the back of my car. I brushed my teeth in community bathrooms. I was homeless for a couple of years, living - by homeless, I mean I didn't have the money to pay rent, so I lived as a nanny in a friend's house. And my exchange was taking care of her child for her house, for shelter.

So, I understand people's rage, but what I also want to say about that rage is that first of all, it's not accurate in terms of what's being said about people and their money that they put in Madoff. And second of all, what I think it does is perpetuate the victim-predator mentality.

I think it puts an us and them, a have and a have not when all of us - all of us right now are going through some kind of loss. The people who didn't have money in Madoff who had money in the stock market, for instance, have lost a third of their money.

The people who didn't even have enough money to put anything in anything are also experiencing losses the way we all do every day. The loss of someone we love, the sudden death of someone we love, an illness, people who are aging, the loss of their capacities. There's a general feeling and a general understanding, an experience of loss. And I think that's what I was trying to speak to.

CONAN: As we speak, Bernard Madoff is in a courtroom in New York City arguing that he ought to be allowed to continue to live in his apartment with a monitoring device out on bail. The federal government would like to put him in jail. What do you think should happen to him?

Ms. ROTH: Well, I think the hard part about what's going on with Bernie Madoff is that he is still being treated like a special person. It seems that if any one of us had been accused of and had actually confessed to basically stealing $50 million...

CONAN: That's billion with a B.

Ms. ROTH: We would - oh, sorry, that's right, 50 billion.

(Laughing) I try to diminish it. We would be thrown in jail before we could blink our eyes. And so the question is, why is he being treated with kid gloves? And I think the anger is about the fact that he is still being treated as a special, holier-than-thou person, when somebody who's caught on the street dealing drugs and dealing very, very simple drugs would get thrown in jail in a second. Somebody that gets caught shoplifting would get thrown in jail.

But the thing that I want to say about the rage that so many people are feeling - and that is a stage. It's one stage of grief. I went through shock. I went through just incredible rage and grief, and finally I realized - and it's not that I'm still not going through the shock of having lost so much, but I finally realized it was my mind that I had to wake up with and go to sleep with. I was waking up in the middle of the night terrified, feeling like somebody had thrown a bomb into my chest, and in this ranting place - about ranting about Madoff, also terrified about my husband and I keeping our house, being out on the street, so many friends of mine being out on the street.

And I realized that the one thing I actually had control over was not what happened to Madoff, although I could do everything I could do to compel those in power to mete out the justice that he deserves. But the one thing I had control over was my mind. And it was living in this ranting mind that was so incredibly painful, living with that kind of agony and rage. I was on fire, and it was that that I finally needed to come to terms with - or I shouldn't say finally, because I'm still coming to terms with it. It's a constant sense of seeing what I haven't lost, which is my life and my capacity to see and breathe and feel and sense and love, and also, what I have lost, which is staggering.

CONAN: We're talking with Geneen Roth, who lost everything in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme. If that's happened to you, not necessarily Madoff, but during a storm or some other catastrophe, give us a call, 800-989-8255.

Richard's on the line, Richard calling us from Cincinnati. Richard, are you there? Richard has apparently left us. So, let's see if we go instead to Jeremy, Jeremy with us from Salt Lake City.

JEREMY (Caller): Yup. Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you. What happened to you, Jeremy?

JEREMY: In June of 2006, we were living in upstate New York in the Susquehanna River Valley and had a catastrophic flood that destroyed our home. We lost everything, bedding, furniture, food, pans, toothbrushes, name it. And we ended up spending two months living in our van, going from an upper-middle-class income to unable to get assistance due to, you know, paperwork snafus.

CONAN: How dizzying was that?

JEREMY: It was devastating to go from being able to provide well for my family to not having work because my accounts were destroyed, not being able to get assistance from the federal government or the state government, and not having any roots, anywhere to be.

CONAN: Hm.

JEREMY: Kind of disorienting...

Ms. ROTH: Yes - and I think, Jeremy, and I think that's what's been true for us and so many people we know, part of it is that the whole sense of who you are in the world completely is gone. This sense of the ability to provide or what you have or what you think you have or what you think you had, all of that goes in a moment. It was - it just is gone, and there's coming to terms with that.

JEREMY: I agree with that. I agree with that totally. We ended up relocating 2,300 miles away to my wife's family just to have a roof over our head and somewhere where the economy wasn't destroyed by a natural disaster, you know. And it...

CONAN: Jeremy, we're glad you made it out. Appreciate the phone call. We're going to hear from another person affected by a natural disaster, in this case, Hurricane Katrina, in just a moment. Stay with us. This is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking today about losing everything. Our guest is Geneen Roth, who wrote about her experience losing her life's savings, her and her husband's life savings in the - on Slate - excuse me, on salon.com.

And joining us now is Blake Bailey, whose story of losing it all starts two months before Hurricane Katrina, when he moved to New Orleans. He evacuated with his family ahead of the storm and then saw a video of his neighborhood on television and realized that everything he owned was gone. He joins us know from - he joins us now from W station - WHRO in Norfolk, Virginia, and it's nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. BLAKE BAILEY (Author, "A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates"): Hi, Neal. It's good to be here.

CONAN: And tell us a little bit about that moment when you looked at the video on the TV camera - and I guess you were up in Mississippi there - and realized that, you know, it was not just six inches or a couple of feet of water in your neighborhood, that the street signs were underwater.

Mr. BAILEY: (Laughing) Well, we didn't really know based on what we were seeing on TV because there was aerial footage of the Lower Ninth Ward, which, of course, was completely underwater. But there were also, you know, sort of the odd shot of the track by the Super Dome with the water just sort of up to the tires.

So we couldn't determine, and we couldn't find any photos of Gentilly, which was our neighborhood. So we went online, and, you know, photos from local neighborhoods around New Orleans were rapidly popping up online. And finally, we saw a photo of a street sign about a block and a half away from our house, and it was just barely poking out of the swirling groundwater. So, that was pretty definitive.

CONAN: And you could laugh about it now. But at the moment, it must have been like a hole in your stomach.

Mr. BAILEY: I wasn't laughing at the time, no. It's interesting.

(Laughing) You know, it takes a long time to soak in, and really, for months after that - and a lot of stuff transpired in those months, needless to say - you wake up in the morning, and, you know, you think it's your old life, and it takes about 15 or 20 seconds, and then suddenly, you know, this sort of pall of depression reclaims you because you realize, oh yeah, all my stuff is gone.

CONAN: I wondered what you thought of what Geneen Roth was saying just before the break, that that sense of who you are, what the world is about, what the pillars of your life are.

Mr. BAILEY: Well, yeah. Exactly. And, you know, I think sort of the long-term philosophical lesson you take away from this is essentially a positive one because...

(Laughing) When I first went down to New Orleans, and you know, before that, we had left our cat behind, and that caused a lot of controversy in the Slate writers - readers, you know, discussion forum because they thought we were these cat haters. But, you know, there was no question our cat was not going to get in the car with us, you know. That's just not - the cat doesn't roll that way.

So we left the cat thinking we'd be right back, right? You know, hang in there. Well, the cat survived 21 days without food or potable water and was eventually rescued by a friend of mine who went back to New Orleans early. And I asked this friend - his name is Alfred, good guy - I said, you know, I need to rent a truck and go back and get whatever's salvageable. And he said, my advice is bring a little red wagon...

(Laughing) You know, because not a whole lot of stuff could be salvaged. And sure enough, you know, I went there, and there was all the furniture that we had bought only two months before Katrina, you know, and it was completely destroyed. And there was this damnably expensive Persian rug that I had given to my wife for our anniversary. Of course, that was solid mold. And it really, you know, sort of instills a sense - really reinforces, you know, the vanity of human striving, you know. This is - it's only stuff, and we end up throwing it out on the curb.

CONAN: And I wonder, it's only stuff, but nevertheless, it's also your life. But is it better or worse, do you think, when the agent of your - the destruction of your life, as you will, is sort of this impersonal thing, a storm, or, you know, would it have been better to have somebody to blame, like Bernie Madoff?

Mr. BAILEY: Well, I tried to blame a lot of people, actually. One agency that I blamed, I blamed the federal government. I blamed the FEMA maps. You know, we didn't have flood insurance because we were outside the flood plain. That's another thing that they ate me alive for on the Slate discussion forum, you know? Well, the idiot, he deserves what he gets. He didn't have flood insurance. Well, you know, less than one percent of people nationwide who don't have to get flood insurance actually do get flood insurance. You know, it's just not a very common thing.

And according to the FEMA maps, we were outside the flood plain, you know, and the FEMA maps were, of course, based on the assumption that the levees were going to hold. Well, you know, the Army Corps of Engineers has known for years and years that the levees aren't going to hold, you know, in a category-three scenario. It's now turning out that Katrina by the time it hit New Orleans was a one or a two, and they didn't hold. So, you know, that makes me kind of angry. And I didn't think that the Bush response was very crackerjack, either.

CONAN: No.

Mr. BAILEY: And don't have a lot of patience for him saying otherwise in that valedictory press conference he did the other day.

CONAN: The other day, yeah. Geneen Roth, by the way, just news coming across the wires that Bernie Madoff will remain free on bail.

Ms. ROTH: Yes. Well, that's what seems to keep happening, and they keep saying that part of it is because they, the federal government, feels that or the investigators feel that the way they can get the most information out of him is to keep him comfortable.

So it's hard to know what to believe at this point, and I think it is in general hard to know what to believe because if the SEC investigated him three times and found him clean, what does that mean in terms of their investigative abilities, and what does that mean in terms of them investigating Bernie Madoff at this point? So, you know, it can - either you can look at it that he's treating - he's being treated like a special VIP, or they feel that the way they can get the most information out of him is if he's home and comfortable. I don't know.

CONAN: Let's get...

Ms. ROTH: But, you know, something Blake was saying, I think that feeling of waking up in the morning and it taking a little while for it to sink in, that's what happened to me the first couple of weeks after the Madoff loss. One thing that really helped me a lot was community, actually being able to be with friends, talk about it. So many people feel so much shame and humiliation, devastation or loss, especially where money is concerned, that they don't feel that it's OK to talk to other people about it. There's just so much shame.

I mean, I could go into that, and I wrote about that in Salon, that how deeply ashamed I was that we had not diversified, and also that I had bought into this cultural money split, which is, though I say I believe in clean air that - and in companies that produce real things, I was putting my money into something I couldn't even explain. So, I saw that I was part of the money split in our culture, and I was also ashamed about that.

It's - what the Madoff debacle or debacle - I don't know how to say that - has actually opened up for me is to allow me - and I hope this is true for other people with loss - to actually look at my relationship to money, which I saw was quite distorted in many different ways. And so, having lost everything I've lost forces me to actually look and see, gee, what did I believe? Where was I putting my money? Did I believe in accumulating more and more? How come I believed I never had enough?

And, of course, because I write about food and people's relationship to food, I see the same exact patterns with compulsive eating and overeating and money and the way people spend money, and it's been just astonishing to see that in myself.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Barbara in Lakewood, Colorado. My in-laws lost everything when the Japanese invaded the Philippines in December 1941. They were also then POWs for the duration of the war. Their lack of bitterness is completely amazing, and, she adds, my son lost almost all he had in Katrina. Thank goodness he had a grandmother who understood and could talk about it. And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Diane(ph), Diane with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

DIANE (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

DIANE: My husband and I lost everything in a fire on New Year's Day in 1979.

CONAN: And - lost everything?

DIANE: Yeah, we had the clothes on our backs.

CONAN: And what was the feeling like? Did you feel as if everything had been pulled out from underneath your feet?

DIANE: Yes. Absolutely. For many years, we - our time frame was always referred to by AF or BF, before fire or after fire.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And how...

Ms. ROTH: Yes. I refer to my life right now as BM and AM, before Madoff and after Madoff.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROTH: It's definitely two different lives. So I completely understand what you're talking about. Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROTH: Yes. Really. And yeah, it's a whole different life.

DIANE: Yes.

Ms. ROTH: A whole different life.

DIANE: We lived on a farm in Wisconsin, and we had some great neighbors that we lived with until the house was rebuilt. And we took care of our farm animals from just a short distance away, so it wasn't too bad. But it really did change how we felt about stuff.

Ms. ROTH: Yes.

DIANE: I mean, we lost a lot of things like - things that were irreplaceable in terms of not, you know, just - what do I want to say.

CONAN: Sentimental value, I think.

DIANE: Thank you. Sentimental value.

Ms. ROTH: Yes.

DIANE: Like quilts that my grandmother had made. But we still had our lives. We still had our jobs. We still had family, but it took a while to come around to being thankful for what we had left.

CONAN: Blake Bailey, you were trying to get in there?

Mr. BAILEY: I'd like to say something on that point. Again, that ultimately, this sort of philosophical reward for something like this is generally - it's sort of positive because, you know, as I came back, and I was taking all the ruined stuff to the curb, all the furniture that we had bought during the two months that we got to live in our house, you know, again, it was kind of just stuff.

There was a guy across the street from us. His name is Robert. He was kind of an eccentric bachelor who had lived with his mother, and his mother had died recently. And he wouldn't evacuate, and he shot himself while the floodwaters were rising apparently. And there were two old people who were rather ill on our block, and they both died within weeks after Katrina.

And, you know, I took the Gray Line Tour of the Lower Ninth Ward, and, you know, it's just - whatever I went through, it's just not on the same plane of reality as what those people went through. You know, an old lady got off the bus and went over to the house where her sister and her brother-in-law had died and collapsed.

And, you know, you see that, and you see the dead animals who floated up and got caught in telephone wires and, you know, the moonscape that was that neighborhood, and you feel pretty lucky. And ever after, you know, your concern with stuff is radically diminished.

CONAN: Diane, thanks very much. I'm glad you made it out.

DIANE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And here's an email from Jerry Anne(ph) in South Milwaukee. Our loss occurred in 1979 during the Islamic revolution in Iran, and I almost lost my US Air Force officer husband in the process. Our three young children and I were evacuated with only a few suitcases the day after New Year's Day. I had about $100 to my name.

My husband had to stay. We didn't know when or ever he would get out. It turned out to be about two months after the apartment he was living in - and he was inside - was shot up by revolutionaries. All of our household goods and automobile were left behind. We did eventually receive some payment from the US government, although it didn't cover our total loss. My greatest worry until my husband was evacuated and my greatest relief when he did get out was his safety. No, we weren't made whole, and we suffered another huge loss later in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, but we've learned that family is paramount in our lives.

Now, we're talking about losing everything. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Let's talk with Doug, Doug with us from Cave Creek, Arizona.

DOUG (Caller): Hello there.

CONAN: Hi, Doug.

DOUG: Well, my story is a little different in that I didn't lose any stuff, but I lost my career. I went out on a - in the words of Arlo Guthrie, I was making a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn't be beat. I went out to put a screw in the garage door, and the spring just exploded in my face. And that was the end of my career at age 40 in a large law firm as a partner making a whole lot of good money, and it just ended.

CONAN: In a moment.

DOUG: Yeah. In a - well, in a nanosecond, yeah. And, you know, the curious thing is that, you know, people talk about the support system. It was really - I don't know if it's shocking or what you might say - but, you know, the people for 18 years that I thought were my closest friends in the planet all of a sudden disappeared.

CONAN: Really?

DOUG: You know, I mean, you - I guess life goes on. And I was kind of instructed to people who think they're indispensable in the business world that if it's - you know, if you get hit by a truck tomorrow, life goes on, and you are just insignificant.

CONAN: Have you managed to recover at all, Doug?

DOUG: Well, I'm still on disability, and I guess I probably will be for the rest of my life. It sure gives you a whole different view of humanity and reality and, you know, what's important and what isn't.

CONAN: Blake Bailey, let me ask you. You were talking about Katrina and the lessons you learned back then. Have things worked out for you?

Mr. BAILEY: Well, yes and no. I did want to address what that caller just mentioned. I mean, again, I seem to be sort of this bringer of sweetness in life, you know, emphasizing all the positive things that came of this. And really, I'm a very cynical person by nature. But, you know, people - what I found out as a result of this is that people are really nice, you know, if given half a chance. You know, people I had not heard from in 10 or 15 years suddenly were sending us toys for our daughter, clothes, which was a good thing because I had two T-shirts, you know, and my laptop and a pair of shorts basically.

But a friend of mine, Christian Casee(ph), he had a place, and he's quite wealthy, sort of a Bertie Wooster type with, you know, a social conscience. And he had sold a place in the Hamptons, and he sent us his furniture. And at the time, we were living in this one-bedroom apartment at this huge anonymous complex called Windmeadows in Gainesville, Florida - that was another, you know, through the largesse of another friend. And he had - he paid for everything.

He had all this mahogany ornate furniture sent to this tiny, little apartment. You know the movie "Arthur," when the butler, Hobson, played by John Gielgud, gets sick, and Arthur moves all the furniture into the hospital room, you know, that's what our apartment looked like because Christian sent all that stuff. So that was wonderful.

All our friends were just great, you know, and family rallied around and all that. However, you're stuck with a 30-year mortgage, and you find that your mortgage lender does not share the same humanistic values as your friends and relations. And so, we have had a terrible, terrible time.

And indeed, I will just say this - I have agreed not to name my mortgage lender because they are listening. And I told them I would be on this show. And I said that if you don't hurry up and process the cash offer on our house - it was made on October 3rd and has been essentially ignored since then amid the chaos of - yeah, of everything, the economic implosion, then I am going to come after you guys. I'm going to name names on NPR. So - but I did not name their names, but it's been horrible.

CONAN: Stay in touch, Blake. If you need to name names, we'll be right here for you.

Mr. BAILEY: Thank you so much, Neal. That may come in handy.

CONAN: Doug, thanks very much for the call, and we're sorry for your troubles. We'd like to thank Blake Bailey for being with us. He's the author of "A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates." And we'd like to thank Geneen Roth for her time today. She's the author of "The Craggy Hole in My Heart." And when we come back, we're going to be talking about the politics of the breast pump. Stay with us. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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