Sarah Sands: Madoff has the sociopathic composure of a Shipman

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A criterion of being a sociopath is composure. Bernard Madoff, jailed last week for the greatest personal financial fraud in history, did not look ghastly and his apology to his former clients carried no explanation. He has borne the waves of hysterical loathing calmly.

The Palm Beach Country Club is not quite the same milieu as Hyde, Greater Manchester, but Madoff reminded me of another pillar of the establishment, Dr Harold Shipman. Shipman was also a record-breaker, having killed an estimated 250 of his own patients. Asked to explain the high number of deaths of mostly elderly women, Shipman replied patiently: "People do suddenly die of old age. They just wear out."

Despite the statistical implausibility, no one could nail anything on Shipman. An inquiry began and fruitlessly closed. In the end, Shipman himself became impatient and concocted a will from one of his many suddenly deceased patients, which made him the beneficiary. It was only once money was involved that detection grew efficient.

We will never know why Shipman, who hanged himself in his jail cell, decided that those who entrusted him with their lives were better off dead. Was it planned from the start, or was it an opportunistic venture? If he were to play God with his patients, he must be able to kill as well as save.

It looks as if Madoff also experienced intimations of immortality. Days before he was busted, he was still dining with clients and friends.

Apart from the $65bn fraud, there was no final recklessness of the kind shown by Shipman. Madoff was discreet and unpretentious, a cunning disguise to assume. He was caught out only by an unforeseen lack of liquidity, which brought the massive Ponzi scheme tumbling down.

When Shipman was rumbled, his victims were portrayed as pathetic. Widows with names such as Winifred, Irene, Jean, Ivy, who were too meek and medically ignorant to challenge him. Madoff's victims were film stars and moguls and financial titans. The genteel poor and the timid do not have a monopoly on credulity.

The two unanswered questions about Madoff are: Why did he do it? Why did smart, rich people believe him? Perhaps Shipman and Madoff did it simply because they could. All the regulation in the world cannot contain the gods that we create.

Shipman was a sociopath of his time. It was not just the quaint names of his victims that placed him so accurately within the 20th century. His crimes also evoked an Alan Bennett-style northern culture of deference and embarrassment.

Madoff embodied a societal longing for miraculous wealth. The most sophisticated financial minds in the world suspended disbelief. What goes up need never come down. People said that they invested with Madoff because they trusted him. It was more a blind faith.

Charlatans answer our deepest longings. In the late Victorian era, a squat Russian woman called Madame Blavatsky, who claimed to be psychic, counted W B Yeats among her followers. The many who were unsettled by the advance of science turned to New Age gloop.

The following century brought John R Brinkley, an American doctor who claimed he could cure male impotence with goat glands. Men would be virile for ever. The worship of money created Bernard Madoff. What will replace him?

Sarah Sands is editor in chief of British Reader's Digest

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