There is hardly a behavior more headline-grabbing and curious than one that states that a wealthy, prominent or famous person has been charged with shoplifting. Or what if the alleged thief is someone you know personally; perhaps one of your friends or relatives, or -heaven forbid-, yourself, who has committed a seemingly nonsensical, bizarre act of stealing! Such behaviors are far too often referred to as examples of ‘kleptomania’ - even by clinicians who should know better!
Consider this scenario; until a short time ago, you - an honest, hard-working, possibly deeply religious person - had never (or almost never) shoplifted. And yet, you have now done it, and perhaps, amazingly, not for the first time! What gives? My over 40 years of clinical investigations suggest that it is very likely that you have recently experienced an extraordinary amount of stress, perhaps when you lost your job or your home, or your marriage disintegrated, or when your child became very seriously ill, or you or a loved one had a cancer diagnosis, or ever since you've gotten that new, entirely unreasonable boss.
Or perhaps there is some other very troublesome situation in your life. And now, here you are - charged with stealing! Chances are you're very scared, deeply embarrassed and very anxious that some family members or friends -and/or perhaps someone at work- will find out. And to top it all, you really haven't a clue why you would have risked stealing anything, and certainly not something you could easily have afforded, and perhaps didn't even want!!!
So, why did you do it?After all, you have always viewed stealing as inexcusable! And why would you – or anyone for that matter - risk so very much for an item that may well have cost so little, especially when compared with your readily available assets? Until you determine why you did it, and dealt with whatever the underlying reasons mignt be, how can you be sure that you won’t do it again? Well, actually, you likely can't be sure! Answering these and related questions have been at the centre of my own clinical investigations as a psychologist for more than four decades.
Consider the following remarkable cases:
(I) Victor, a wealthy retired business owner and Holocaust survivor, was referred to me back in 1995 by a psychiatrist who knew of my work in the area of ‘atypical theft behavior’. A scrupulously honest man, Victor assured me that he had never stolen before, and certainly could not possibly understand why he had stolen a package of Dr Scholl’s footpads from a drug store on May 12th of that year. During our lengthy interview it finally emerged that he had stolen on the exact 50th anniversary of his liberation from a concentration camp. On May 12, 1945 he and his fellow inmates had been marched, at night, bare feet bleeding, along a rough gravel-filled rail line for hours until dawn, at which point they were freed when their captors ran away and when the American army and Red Cross were just miles away.Was Victor’s single instance of shoplifting a case of his unconscious mind at work? Should his stealing behavior be labelled ‘kleptomania’?
(2) In 2002, Winona Ryder, the Hollywood actress, was charged with allegedly stealing items from a Saks 5th avenue store in Beverley Hills. (3) In another case, a prominent surgeon was caught stealing jewellery and cash from colleagues’ lockers while they were in their operating rooms. (4) In a fourth case, a religiously devout woman stole whenever her husband had yet another bout of prostate cancer. She had never stolen before his initial diagnosis, had never been caught, and furthermore, she always threw the items she stole into the Goodwill box on her way home immediately after her thefts. (5) In January 2012 California Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi (D), wife of Dennis Hayashi, an Alameda County Superior Court judge, allegedly left a Neiman Marcus store without paying for items of clothing worth nearly $2500. She pleaded ‘no contest’ to misdemeanour shoplifting. () As a last example, consider that in 1993 the Acting Secretary of the U.S. Army, John W. Shannon, was charged with stealing $30 worth of goods, including a blouse, from a store on an Army base. Should any of these folks really be considered ‘kleptomaniacs’?
Readers can be excused if they quickly associate the term 'kleptomania' with any of the above cases; after all, this is the term that is still most frequently used by the media and by far too many psychiatrists and psychologists, when referring to acts of seemingly nonsensical shoplifting. But, I most strongly suggest, based upon my extensive clinical work in this area over the past 40 years, that to term these and a myriad of other cases of atypical theft behavior, examples of 'kleptomania' is almost always wrong!
Our first article on this topic, titled Shoplifting: An Occasional Crime Of The Moral Majority, was published in the major peer-reviewed journal, the Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, more than thirty years ago, in 1983. Our clinical investigations of a representative sample of 34 shoplifters who had presented on our forensic service (at the University of Toronto-affiliated Clarke Institute of Psychiatry, between 1974 and 1982) concluded that when these usually honest - and yes, in some instances, even prominent and/or financially affluent - people stole, one or more psychological factors had very likely precipitated their actions. These contributing factors included: (i) what the theft offender perceived as actual or anticipated unfair personally meaningful losses (of a spouse, job, country, health, etc…), (ii) extreme stressors, (iii) a desire for unconscious retribution or manipulation, and/or (iv) the actual or anticipated occurrence of cancer or another serious illness in one’s self or in a loved one, among other reasons.
My latest (2013) study of 30 more recent cases, as described in my latest book titled Why Usually Honest People Steal (2013) provides considerable additional insight into such behavior. It turns out that many of these ‘Atypical Theft Offenders’ (as we term usually honest persons who display atypical theft behavior) often had highly disturbed or traumatic childhoods, often involving serious mental, emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse perpetrated by one or both parents, who themselves had serious mental, emotional, alcohol and/or drug abuse problems. These theft offenders also, almost invariably, had very low self-esteem (regardless of how accomplished they actually were in the world – consider that three were highly successful physicians, three others were experienced nurses and four others were exceptional teachers). And they all had long-standing feelings of anger and major problems in their primary relationships.
Another likely precipitating factor has become prominent in our finding over the past more than fifteen years - the use of antidepressants. It has become almost a common form of treatment for physicians to prescribe antidepressants for these sorts of theft offenders. Now, major questions have arisen in recent years about the efficacy of such medications. To this debate I would merely point out that the pharmaceutical manufacturers themselves indicate that the side effects of such drugs can include increased hostility and aggressivity, disinhibition and self-defeating, acting out behavior. My clinical experience is that when usually honest people shoplift, they do so while experiencing these very emotions and behaviors. In fact, among the 30 individuals in my latest study were three senior physicians, three dedicated nurses and a pharmacist. Most of these medical professionals were taking prescribed antidepressants at the time they stole and all reported that their stealing had not decreased - or had actually begun- while taking such drugs. Also, seven of the 30 persons in the latest study reported that they had never shoplifted until shortly after they had begun taking antidepressants.
Among the several serious objections that have been raised by other clinicians regarding the American Psychiatric Association’s latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5), I would like to add one more, based upon a very large proportion of the more than 700 cases that I have dealt with over the past four decades. In virtually all instances, thorough assessments of these individuals have suggested that their theft behaviors were very likely precipitated, at least in large part, “to express anger or vengeance”, which according to explicitly stated DSM-5 criteria, must exclude them from being labeled as suffering from kleptomania. Actually, I have likely never encountered a single instance of true ‘kleptomania’, as defined by DSM.It is my professional opinion, as possibly the most experienced and senior clinician to have dealt with acts of seemingly nonsensical or bizarre shoplifting by usually honest persons, that true cases of ‘kleptomania’ hardly exist.
A much more useful and realistic classification would be to refer to these folks as ‘Atypical Theft Offenders’, as indeed I have referred to them in my own writings for over 31 years. I have developed a 33-item questionnaire, the Theft Offender Spectrum (provided in full in my latest book) which helps differentiate such individuals from the majority of 'common thieves' who happily steal without remorse or embarrassment, and who we have termed Typical Theft Offenders.Helping Atypical Theft Offenders stop stealing invariably requires that the these individuals uncover and deal with - probably with the help of a suitably trained therapist - the psychological factors that helped trigger their stealing. Successful clinical work usually involves dealing with earlier as well as more recent issues, which nearly always includes long-standing feelings of anger and low self-esteem.
My two books on atypical theft behavior, Why Honest People Shoplift Or Commit Other Acts Of Theft (Revised Ed, 2002), and Why Usually Honest People Steal (2013), can be of considerable benefit to these clients, their loved ones, therapists who wish to work with them, their lawyers and the courts.
The 20-session long Intensive Intervention Programs that I offer (one version via Skype; the other in-office) have the same goals: (a) to help determine the underlying reasons for the individual's atypical theft behavior, and (b) to help minimize the likelihood of recidivism. In some instances I provide Psychological Reports to their lawyers and/or the courts.
Meanwhile, the most important thing for Atypical Theft Offenders to keep in mind, especially as they tend to be extremely self-punitive in relation to their theft behavior, is that they are worthwhile individuals who deserve to get the appropriate psychological help they need. And in the meanwhile, they and their loved ones need to treat them with consideration and compassion.
This article was last modified on April 22 2014
~~A SPECIAL NOTE: Dr Cupchik’s original 1983 article on the subject of atypical theft behavior, titled Shoplifting: An Occasional Crime Of The Moral Majority, was published in the peer-reviewed professional journal, The Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. When last checked, it was still available to read, for free, on the AAPL website; to go there now simply click on the following link: http://www.jaapl.org/content/11/4/343.full.pdf+html?sid=331bd4e2-bd09-431c-858b-38bd3e11cb9d
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