Journalist and author Alexandra Penney started working when she was 16 and had saved all she could since then.
Then there was an arrest, and her phone rang.
"I received a phone call from my best friend, and she said, 'Bernard Madoff's just been arrested. Isn't your money with him?' The phone then rang again, and it was my son, and he said, 'Mom, Madoff's been arrested. You can come live with us.' So he knew that I had lost all of my savings," Penney tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer.
Penney's new memoir, The Bag Lady Papers, chronicles her experience as a victim of the $65 billion Ponzi scheme run by the financier. The former editor of Self Magazine says she had long held a fear of being alone with nowhere to live. So she saved and invested with Madoff.
"My savings were gone, and not having a nest egg absolutely galvanized my fears of being a bag lady," she says.
Penney doesn't reveal the amount she lost because of ongoing lawsuits, but she says she did exercise some due diligence before handing her money over to Madoff.
"I had talked to people who had gone to Harvard Business School," she says. "I asked oh, 10, 12, 15 people about Madoff. One person said, 'We don't know how he does it.' The rest of them said, 'You're perfectly safe and you're lucky to be there.' "
In the months since Madoff's arrest, Penney says, she has learned to ask for things and barter. She also learned that though she, like many women, has a fear of dependence, abandonment and loss of control, now she can get through anything.
"The reality was that I can deal now with these fears, now that the worst has happened," she says.