In one of the few truly unexpected twists in Laurie Sandell's recent book "Truth and Consequences: Life Inside the Madoff Family" (Little, Brown and Co.), Ruth Madoff, the wife of disgraced financier Bernie Madoff, has nowhere to turn. Her husband of nearly 50 years has just been hauled off to jail. Her sons, furious that she hasn't abandoned their father, aren't speaking to her. Her friends, many of whom have lost money in her husband's multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme, are staying away.
Then, with federal seizure of her apartment looming, Ruth's sister Joan Roman steps forward. Roman and her husband are among those who lost all their retirement savings to Bernie and, now in their 70s, are driving cabs to make ends meet.
Still, Roman not only helps her sister but also staunchly defends her, insisting that Ruth knew nothing of Bernie's crimes.
"I know the upbringing she had," Roman says in "Truth and Consequences." "I know her mother and father. And there is no way she would ever be a part of anything like that."
Family loyalty has taken a public beating in the last year, with high-profile blows such as the short-lived marriage of Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries (their "family" lasted 72 days); the revelation that Arnold Schwarzenegger fathered a child with a trusted household employee; the publication of two detailed Madoff family tell-alls; and the decision by "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" star Taylor Armstrong to come out with a memoir of her troubled marriage less than a year after her husband's suicide.
But exposes and tabloid headlines can be deceiving. Beyond the limelight, there are signs that family loyalty is going strong, experts say.
"There's been a social and economic change that's actually made us more dependent on family loyalties," says Stephanie Coontz, author of "Marriage, A History" (Penguin).
"You don't know your neighbors. It would be crazy to be loyal to your employer in the same way you used to be because your employer's not going to be loyal to you. All of those things have simultaneously made us want more loyalty — long for more loyalty — and try, I think, to have more loyalty in our personal lives."
Loyalty itself is difficult to measure, but likely indicators such as family closeness appear to be on the rise. A 2010 Pew Research Center study found that 40 percent of Americans say their family life is closer now than when they were growing up, and only 14 percent say it is less close. Another Pew study showed that the percentage of adults who talked with a parent every day rose to 42 percent in 2005 from 32 percent in 1989.
The family loyalty picture is complex, with Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, saying that though couples who marry today are less likely to get divorced than couples that married in the 1970s, more people are forgoing marriage or delaying it.
"Depending on which sector of American family life you look at, you can make the case for more or less loyalty, but I think it's a fair point to make that for those Americans who are marrying today, or have married in recent years, we're seeing more loyalty than we would have seen among Americans (who) married in the '70s," Wilcox says.
The Madoff book, published last fall, highlighted one of the most spectacular cases of family breakdown: Bernie Madoff, serving a 150-year prison term, financially ruined close friends as well as strangers. His sons, Mark and Andrew, who said they knew nothing of their father's crimes, turned him in and cut all ties with him.
Mark subsequently committed suicide. Andrew went on to grant extensive interviews to Sandell, the author of "Truth and Consequences," a book that argues strongly for Andrew's innocence and paints unflattering portraits of his father.
Coontz sees the book as a sign of the times — but only insofar as our age offers unprecedented financial rewards for such exposes. Our current expectations of family closeness and good behavior are actually higher in many ways than in the past, Coontz says, citing Revolutionary-era diaries that showed a remarkable tolerance for male infidelity.
"Truth and Consequences" highlights dramatic family estrangement, but even there, strong bonds are often in evidence. There's the kindness of Ruth's sister, Joan, and Joan's daughter Diane Hochman — both of whom take Ruth in. And then there's the stubborn connection between Ruth and her husband.
The book includes an email Ruth wrote to her elder son, Mark: "You accuse me of choosing Dad over you and Andy. … You have given me up and I pray that one day you might understand that I have not chosen one over the other. I miss you terribly. Why can't you understand? He is a human being, suffering, and is only going to get worse. I don't expect you to pity him, but I just can't let him rot in there."
And yet, Ruth eventually decided to break all ties with her husband, in part to repair her relationship with her son. She has not divorced him.
The Madoff saga presents a dilemma that confronts many individuals: Should you be loyal to a family member who has done something wrong?
There are no hard and fast rules, says Stephen Scales, an associate professor of philosophy and religious studies at Towson University in Maryland, but there are some questions you can ask yourself to clarify your thinking. Among them:
Is your relative causing ongoing harm to innocent third parties?
Is the relative causing ongoing harm to you?
In the case of Madoff, Scales notes, there was harm "caused to all kinds of people on an ongoing basis — these people are being defrauded and losing their life's savings."
"You can't allow (someone) to do that — even if it's your dad."
Ranking the relatives
Is there a pecking order of closeness? Details of a Pew Research Center survey show the percentage who said they felt "very obligated" to provide needed financial assistance or caregiving to their:
Parent: 83 percent
Grown child: 77 percent
Grandparent: 67 percent
Brother or sister: 64 percent
Spouse or partner's parent: 62 percent
Grown stepchild: 60 percent
Stepparent: 55 percent
Step- or half-sibling: 43 percent
Source: "Families Drawn Together by Communication Revolution," 2006 Pew Research Center studyCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun