Why Ladies Go A-Thieving

Winona Ryder surely didn’t need those clothes she’s accused of stealing. She could be facing three years in jail. DEBORAH VIETS reports.

What do Winona Ryder, Rex Reed and Hedy Lamarr have in common? If you said tinseltown, close but no cigar. The correct answer might be sticky fingers.

Ms. Ryder is accused of using the five-finger discount during a bizarre shopping spree last Christmas. According to Beverly Hills police, the Hollywood star cut off security tags from $4,700 (U.S.) worth of women’s clothes at Saks Fifth Avenue, then walked out of the store without paying for them.

She entered a not guilty plea in response to the charges, but the judge ruled there is enough evidence for her to stand trial. The highly publicized and long-postponed trial finally began on Tuesday. If convicted, Ms. Ryder faces a three-year prison sentence.

Mr. Reed and Ms. Lamarr’s shenanigans were less ambitious than Ms. Ryder’s. The film critic/actor was accused of leaving a Manhattan record store with three unpaid-for CDs two years ago. He denied the allegation in court. The judge ruled the charges would be dismissed if he stayed out of trouble for six months.

Ms. Lamarr was arrested for shoplifting laxatives and eyedrops from a drugstore back in 1990, but, like Mr. Reed, was ultimately let off. (Statistics show police often release people apprehended for stealing small items.)

These misdemeanours may puzzle some readers. Most celebrities can afford anything they want, so why would they be tempted to shoplift and risk losing everything? Terrence Shulman, founder of the Detroit-based Shoplifters Anonymous, told Redbook magazine that they do it for the same reasons as ordinary people: “They’re depressed or suffering from anger or grief. They’re not stealing because they need the items, they’re doing it for the temporary thrill that will make them feel better.”

Mr. Shulman is not the only one to connect theft with anger or depression. Toronto-based psychologist Will Cupchik, who has treated hundreds of middle-class shoplifters, says his otherwise honest patients steal when these emotions afflict them. He adds that when “atypical theft offenders” suffer “some unfair, personally devastating loss, they respond by causing someone else, such as a retailer, an unfair loss.” As Mr. Cupchik explains in his book, Why Honest People Shoplift and Commit Other Acts of Theft, these thefts tend to be inconsistent with their usual law-abiding behaviour, and they often steal little things they could easily afford to buy.

For example, one of his patients, the vice-president of a large company, shoplifted $4 worth of groceries from a supermarket on the day her husband left town for a business meeting, which she was convinced also gave him the opportunity to meet with an imagined lover. The previous night he had alluded to the possibility of separation after 28 years of marriage. Mr. Cupchik says most don’t realize their behaviour is driven by experiences of loss.

Shoplifting can be triggered by various types of trauma. Gillian Crawford, who runs a support group for female shoplifters at the Elizabeth Fry Society of Toronto, says that “although the reasons for shoplifting may vary for every individual, feelings of anger and loss seem to be relevant for most women. The reasons are also connected to women’s issues of “powerlessness and a sense of being controlled by others.”

According to Ms. Crawford, some women who are oppressed by domineering spouses will steal when tensions are running high between them. Shoplifting gives them a way to express their resentment. In some cases, it may even make them feel empowered: a browbeaten woman who enters a store after an argument with her husband may feel she has entered a sphere where she is now in charge: she’s the person who can dictate whether she will take something and what exactly she will take. Ms. Crawford is quick to add that this sense of power is “false and a negative way of coping with anger.”

Her group work focuses on exploring underlying feelings in the members’ lives that may precipitate a shoplifting spree. Ms. Crawford encourages participants to “tell their stories and to take ownership of their behaviour.” She says they often achieve self-knowledge through their reactions to another woman’s story because of what it triggers in themselves.

This is a far cry from the Victorian era, when there was a high incidence of middle-class female shoplifters. Light-fingered ladies were viewed as kleptomaniacs afflicted with “womb disease mania,” as author Elaine Abelson explains in When Ladies Go A-Thieving: Middle-Class Shoplifters in the Victorian Department Store. No treatment existed for their so-called disease, and they were not held accountable for it since it was believed to be a function of woman’s supposed physical and mental instability. Their lower-class counterparts, however, were classified as thieves and could be thrown into jail for filching bread.

Fortunately, we live in times that are more equitable and more enlightened about the psychological aspects of shoplifting. Although female shoplifters (non-professional ones, that is) still tend to outnumber males, both women and men of all classes have access to empathetic counselling and support groups through such non-profit organizations as the Elizabeth Fry Society (for women) and the Salvation Army.
This piece first appeared in The Globe and Mail.

It led to discussions on two CBC Radio programs about why celebrities and wealthy women shoplift, despite the fact that they can afford to buy anything they want. It is also cited in Laura Byrne Paquet’s social history of shopping, The Urge to Splurge.

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