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


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