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'Sins of the fathers' can weigh heavily on sons

Mark Madoff

Kimberly Unger/Associated Press

When Mark Madoff hanged himself in his New York apartment this past Saturday, it was a chilling development in a dramatic narrative. Mr. Madoff chose to commit suicide two years to the day that his father, Bernie Madoff, was arrested in connection with the largest Ponzi fraud in U.S. history - for which he is serving a 150-year sentence.

Some observers see Mr. Madoff's suicide as an admission of guilt. But it has also widely invoked the biblical notion that the "sins of the fathers" will be visited upon the sons.

Ruth Madoff, for one, reportedly blames her husband for the suicide. Bernie Madoff's biographer Jerry Oppenheimer told the New York Post this week that Ms. Madoff believes her son "would not have died if it weren't for what [Bernie]had done."

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Modern psychiatry and psychotherapy have a lot to say about the power of an errant father to alter the psyche of his son. A father-son relationship can create a negative legacy when a son - of any age - learns of his father's "sins" in an abrupt way, says Marshall Korenblum, chief psychiatrist at the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre for Children and Families in Toronto.

In normal child development, sons gradually move away from seeing their fathers through the idealizing lens of childhood as they enter adolescence. "By the time you're 18 or 19, you come to realize there are some good things about your father and some bad things. But … hopefully he's a good guy," Dr. Korenblum says.

When a dramatic shift in perception happens suddenly or traumatically - at any age - he says, it can be devastating. "Here's a guy who had a very, very famous father who for many, many years to all the world appeared to be successful. So you construct a model of what your father is like based on that, in this case, myth," he says. "Then, when the myth is shattered, it's like the rug is pulled out from under you: 'Everything I ever thought about my father must've been wrong.' "

It can throw your own identity for a loop if you've modelled yourself after your dad, says Beverly Hills, Calif., child and family psychotherapist Fran Walfish. "They wonder: 'How can I be a strong, productive, successful male without identifying with all of those traits?' "

Regardless of whether Mr. Madoff was involved in the Ponzi scheme, this confusion could have taken the form of severe self-hatred - and the sense that there was no escaping the stigma of the Madoff name.

"[Suicide]isn't just hostility outward, it's inward, too," says Dr. Walfish, author of The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child.

In her practice, Dr. Walfish says, therapy is aimed at both repairing the father-son relationship and avoiding the repetition of hurtful mistakes such as cheating, lying or adultery by the son. She reminds fathers that children learn by example and that fathers should have the courage to own up to bad behaviour and face the anger. "Give your son the opportunity to blast you," she says.

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When she sees the sons of fathers who have made grievous errors - kids whose dads are in jail for tax fraud, for instance - she says she tries to gently "separate that son from the father emotionally" and help that son see that while he may be very different from his father, he can still love him and not reject him entirely.

"The job of the therapist is to teach grey, not black and white. Some of these sons feel that they have to love or hate their fathers," she says. "It's possible to love and hate the same person."

Unless families come to terms with these issues, patterns can be repeated for generations.

This could be the risk for the Madoff clan. Mark Madoff's four children (two teens and two very young) will now have to grapple with the circumstances of their father's death - especially the two-year-old, who will learn one day that he was sleeping in the next room at the time of the suicide, Dr. Korenblum says.

"It's a double burden. Not only was the grandfather humiliated but now the father is dead. So the burden on that two-year-old is going to be huge."

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