As the Bernard L. "Bernie" Madoff scandal broke in December 2008, the first thing I noticed about the man was his tightly compressed lips. They were rolled in and pressed together so tightly that I barely saw them. After studying the widely publicized photo by Don Emmert for Getty Images of Mr. Madoff's right-facial profile, my first impression of the man was that he had something serious to hide. The more I learned about him, the more I realized that Bernie Madoff's chronic lip inversion was symptomatic of something very serious, indeed. He had knowingly violated the trust of his investment clients--including the trust of his closest friend and mentor, Carl Shapiro (to the tune of $400 million)--and had bilked them out of an estimated $65 billion.
The man with the chronically disappearing lips had himself disappeared more money in his Ponzi scheme than anyone had in the history of finance. Though clearly a man not to be trusted, many did trust Bernie Madoff to take care of their personal fortunes. What visible tokens of trust did his clients see? Why were so many so flabbergasted to learn--after Mr. Madoff confessed in December to his sons and the FBI--that their investments were null and void? Had no one read his lips?
Tense lips can signal negative emotions. The Nonverbal Dictionary defines "tense-mouth" as (1) "a gesture produced by compressing, in-rolling, and narrowing the lips to a thin line," and (2) "a position of the mouth in which the lips are visibly tightened and pressed together through contraction of the lip and jaw muscles." Lips, the muscular, fleshy, hairless folds surrounding the mouth opening, are our most emotionally expressive body parts. Lip and jaw tension clearly reflects anxious feelings, nervousness, and emotional stress. An acutely tensed mouth can precisely mark the onset of a mood shift, a novel thought, or a sudden change of heart.
A tense-mouth expression may be chronic or acute. The lips of a chronically angry or upset person may "freeze" in a permanently tight-lipped expression, such as that shown in 1960s photographs of then-FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover. In his later years the controversial Mr. Hoover was seen by many as a rigid, embittered, paranoid man. In contrast, an acute or temporary tense-mouth expression was captured in photos of President Bill Clinton, such as the well-publicized cover shot on the September 21, 1998 edition of U.S. News & World Report. Earlier, as he sat in the Map Room of the White House on August 17, 1998, minutes before confessing to the American people--"Indeed, I did have a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky that was not appropriate"--Mr. Clinton's usually relaxed, everted lips compressed tightly, inverted, and disappeared from view.
More like Hoover's than Clinton's, Bernie Madoff's tense-mouth likely reflects a deeply troubled man, someone who has long felt the torment of trust disfigured. His once visible lips--seen in a 1960 photo of Mr. Madoff, in happier times, serving as best man at a friend's wedding--vanished as the tense-mouth clamped down on his face. This facial expression is well studied. Monkeys and apes show compressed-lip expressions prior to attacking. Children in threatening situations compress their lips. Compressed-lips is an aggressive sign in our nearest primate relative, the pygmy chimpanzee. In the Highlands of New Guinea, when tribal men were asked to show what they would do when angry and were about to attack, University of California psychologist Paul Ekman reported that "They pressed their lips together."
A gestural fossil left after millions of years of evolution, the tense-mouth display is innervated by special visceral nerves originally designed for feeding. The expression is emotionally responsive today and still reflects visceral sensations--gut feelings--aroused by aggression, anger, and fear. We tighten our lips to seal off the mouth opening in a form of "nonverbal lock-down" to protect the oral cavity from harmful chemicals, for example, or approaching enemies. Bernard Madoff's chronic tense-mouth is a likely response to the toxic financial world he created, a world that poisoned thousands of investors and brought revengeful clients to gather on the street below his high-rise penthouse door.