One out of 11 Americans does it—and that includes the rich and famous. What drives someone to waltz out of a store with stuff she hasn't paid for? A repentant shoplifter explains.
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
Certainly, it was there for Betsy Samson, a patient of Shulman's. Although there is no evidence that kleptomaniacs suffer childhood trauma at a rate any greater than that of the rest of the population, Samson was an abused child. While her father threw himself into his work as a university professor, her mother, Samson says, was a narcissist who humiliated and neglected her children while sending them to psychiatrists to get "at the roots of their problems." She would threaten to cut them up and once brought home a fetus from the hospital, where she had a temp job, to demonstrate how she'd do it. In the refrigerator she kept their food separate from her "good food"—when she bothered to keep food for them at all.
By the age of 12, Samson was living at other people's houses—with the neighbors, a cousin, whoever would take her in. She was the ultimate good girl. She never drank, smoked, or did drugs. Like most teenagers, she yearned for new clothes. Her mother, who dressed extravagantly, would occasionally buy her a few items from Goodwill. Other kids would tease her about what she was wearing. She thought about approaching the people who were taking care of her for wardrobe money but could never bring herself to ask for things. She also worried constantly about eating too much food at other people's houses: "I didn't want to impose."
Samson and her sister escaped their troubles by excelling at school. Samson was the high school valedictorian in a class of 500, then went to college in the Midwest, where her depression—twice she tried to commit suicide—and worries about food ushered in a period of chaotic eating. "I was bingeing, then fasting...there were laxatives and diet pills." Still, she gained 50 pounds. (Several studies have linked kleptomania with eating disorders, specifically bulimia—both illnesses involving difficulty with impulse control. One study of bulimia patients found that as many as 25 percent were compulsive shoplifters.) "I was eating Tater Tots out of the trash cans in the cafeteria when no one was looking," Samson recalls. "Even today I'm still tempted to eat out of the trash can."
Samson went on to graduate school to study occupational therapy. She loved giving care and encouragement to others, and she quickly became a favorite at the rehab center in Georgia where she got a job. That's when she began to steal.
The first thing she took was a cake from a bakery. As the months went on, her stealing escalated, usually involving what she craved most growing up: food and clothing. Samson moved to California, got married, had children, and, working part-time, continued to win acclaim both as an occupational therapist and as a tireless volunteer for charities. She describes her typical day: "I would drop my son off in the morning, then go to Starbucks and take a bag of coffee and perhaps a few other things and put them in my purse. I'd throw them in the trunk of my car, or maybe give them to some homeless person in the street—I don't like coffee. After exercising at the gym, I'd go to this boutique and take a pair of pants and a shirt, then maybe I'd find a Hallmark store and take a candle or two, and then I'd go to a bookstore and fill up a bag with books." Though she felt she had no control, she was not entirely unwitting. "I wouldn't go to, say, a Wal-Mart or a Target. I'd pick places with no security." Later on in the day she might stop at the grocery store, where she would actually buy food. "But I wouldn't leave without a few items in my purse. I'd calculate that if the groceries cost $100, I was getting a 10 percent discount because I had ten bucks' worth of stuff tucked away." On an active day, Samson would end up with $300 worth of loot.
Right before each foray, she would be as tense as a smoker with a three-pack-a-day habit on a cross-country airplane flight. During the shoplifting, she would experience what she says was like a chemical high: fast heart rate, heavy breathing, sweating. "Some psychologists have described it as sexual—it's not at all. It's more like this feeling of triumph while running a marathon. But it doesn't last very long." When she was done for the day—and often that was only when she had to pick up one of her kids from school—she says, "I'd be completely exhausted. And I'd be so disgusted with myself, with this car trunk full of stuff, that I'd either quickly give it away to friends or find someplace to dump it in the trash." During her 15 years of shoplifting, she only stopped for two or three days at a time—never more.
Over those years, Samson was caught six times and, for the most part, let go with a warning. Once she was sentenced to two weeks of counseling, but since there was no special program in her area for kleptomaniacs, she was placed in an alcohol rehabilitation clinic. "They took us all on a 'field trip' to Kmart," Samson recalls. "I walked out with a jacket." On another occasion she was nabbed stealing food from an all-night grocery at 3 in the morning on Mother's Day. "They just thought I was crazy," she says. "And, I don't know, Mother's Day...there isn't always symbolism behind this stuff, but maybe that day wasn't a coincidence."
As she describes these events, one can sense Samson's bafflement, her continuing struggle to understand what she calls this beast of an illness. "Why would someone with so much to lose do something like that?" she adds, sadly.
Next: Her lowest moment
One particularly painful moment came several years ago when her habit kept her from accepting an award. After working with patients at her hospital—young boys who'd been shot on the street—she had started a program to fight gangs with $10,000 of her own money. The police department wanted to recognize her for her efforts. "They were giving me a badge," Samson says, her eyes filling with tears, "but I couldn't enjoy receiving this honor because I was terrified some policeman would recognize me from my court case that was going on in another county. I wanted to spare myself any more embarrassment and shame than I already had."
Samson had known for a long time that she needed help. Two years after she started stealing, she'd gone in for counseling. "But there were no programs available for this problem at the time," she says, "and when I told therapists about it, they were more amused and interested in how I got away with it than in actually helping me stop. I tried Narcotics Anonymous because I could identify with the craving—but was laughed out of the room and basically told not to return." Samson found Shulman's group on the Internet at the beginning of this year. Everything he said about shoplifters—the depression, the sense of deprivation, the need to "even the score" with a world that had held back so much—spoke to her.
While most mainstream researchers still look at kleptomania as a psychological problem, there's mounting evidence to suggest that the disorder, like other addictive illnesses, involves some kind of chemical imbalance in the brain.
Brown University's Grant believes that behavioral therapy for kleptomania—which might include taking the patient to a store and talking her through her impulse to steal—is helpful, but in most cases doesn't work without medication to reduce the craving. "Although we still don't understand it well," he says, "we think the brain chemistry of addicts—whether they're addicted to alcohol, gambling, stealing, or anything else—is similar. Why we choose one addiction over the other isn't clear." Grant supplements his patients' behavioral therapy with Naltrexone, a drug that attaches to opiate-receptor sites in the brain and is used to treat heroin and alcohol abuse. "Naltrexone does not usually get rid of the urge entirely, but most patients say they no longer feel they're a slave to it," says Grant.
Samson, who takes antidepressants, has not yet considered Grant's approach. But through shopliftersanonymous.com, she has had regular phone-counseling sessions with Shulman and attends the online support group he moderates. For the first time in 15 years, Samson stopped stealing for more than a few days. In fact, since May 2, she has stolen nothing. Well, next to nothing.
"I am still hanging in, but it ain't always a cakewalk," she says, adding only half-jokingly, "Why couldn't I just be a closet alcoholic, like a normal person?"
There are days—many days—when she still feels shaky, as if she won't make it to evening unless she gets in her car and fills up that trunk. And strangely, her food bingeing, which disappeared when she began stealing, is starting to make a comeback.
Even Shulman has had an occasional slipup. Two years ago, blindsided by the stress of having just gotten married and furnishing a home, he pocketed a light-fixture part to fix a lamp. He confessed to his wife, which put a crimp in her trust of him for a while, and told his weekly group. "But relapse is always a possibility, even for those of us who live and breathe recovery every day," he says. "One is never cured."
To a greater or lesser degree, Samson may always struggle with the craving. But she can learn to overcome the stealing. "I think that if I can just make sense of it all," she says, "I'll have a little bit of free will."