Walk into Betsy Samson's* airy spanish-style home in Los Angeles, and the first thing you notice is its spareness. Crayon drawings line the walls, evidence of her two young children, but otherwise the place is minimalist—which is startling given how Samson has spent the past 15 years. "Reminders would be nauseating for me to have in the house—they've all been either given away or discarded," says the 40-year-old with a mop of brown, curly hair and haunted dark eyes. "I've tried to keep the habit as far removed from my family and work life as possible."
The habit is Samson's passion, her preoccupation, and her illness. This well-educated, upper-middle-class woman with a supportive husband and successful career is a compulsive shoplifter. Every day for 15 years, she brought home hundreds of dollars' worth of stolen goods, few of which she wanted or needed. The habit is shameful, dangerous, illegal, immensely time consuming, and, until a few months ago, seemingly impossible to resist. She has told almost no one. Even her husband of ten years has no idea just how out of control she's been.
To many people, kleptomania—the uncontrollable impulse to steal—is almost a joke. (Woman walks into her shrink's office. "I'm afraid you're a kleptomaniac," he tells her. "Really?" she says. "Is there something I can take for it?") To those like Betsy Samson, however, it's anything but funny. According to Shoplifters Alternative, a national recovery organization, one out of 11 Americans is a shoplifter—a fact that the National Retail Federation claims cost U.S. businesses almost $11 billion in lost retail sales last year. And among those who shoplift, an estimated 85 percent are doing it not out of necessity or because they're professional thieves but because they can't help themselves.
"When I lecture on kleptomania, people will come up to me and say, 'Oh God, I've done this for 30 years. I had no idea it was an illness. I just thought I was a horrible person,'" says Jon Grant, MD, one of the leading researchers on kleptomania. Grant usually sees patients in their late 30s and early 40s, almost all of whom have been stealing since they were teenagers. Many also struggle with depression, and most are women—but that may be because men are less likely to seek help and more likely to get caught, which means they wind up in the penal system.
The clinical definition of a kleptomaniac is a person who often steals without forethought, regardless of her need for the object. A compulsive shoplifter is considered more calculating, more aware of what she's doing. But the difference is mostly semantic, according to Grant. The urge is the same, he says, "and even though many start off taking ridiculous items, well...as one of my clients put it, 'I'm not an idiot. I have to get rid of the urge, so I might as well take something I need.'"
Compulsive shoplifters are not, Grant adds, the beady-eyed, lawless characters one might envision. Far from sociopaths, "they're almost the opposite," he says. "Many are religious and have very strong ethical codes. This is where the deep shame and embarrassment come from. When shoplifters come to me, they say, 'Why do I do this? I never want to, but I have to.'"
The common denominator among compulsive shoplifters is an acute sense of deprivation, whether or not money is scarce, according to Terrence Shulman, an attorney, psychotherapist, and author of Something for Nothing: Shoplifting Addiction and Recovery
. A former shoplifter himself, Shulman also runs a recovery Web site at shopliftersanonymous.com
. Through exchanges with almost 3,000 shoplifters, he has found that "people who steal have this feeling of: I have been taken from. The question they're asking is, 'How can I make up for what I feel has been taken from me?' Stealing offers—at least momentarily—relief, peace, and completion. For a few minutes, they've made life fair again."
This is true even among the rich and famous. "I can only speculate about Winona Ryder's personal issues," says Shulman, "but shoplifting is rarely about money." A celebrity is as capable as anyone else of feeling life hasn't treated her fairly, he explains. The content of the distress may be different from that of an ordinary person—"If I were just a little prettier, I would have gotten that role" or "Why didn't I win the Oscar?"—but the underlying feeling of being wounded, being deprived, is there.
Next: Behind the shoplifting addiction