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Thursday, December 27, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Famous and unlikely thieves: the thrill of kleptomania

Los Angeles Times

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Any 13-year-old can explain how a candy bar might slip from a shelf straight into his or her pocket: There's the desire to show off; the thunder-and-lightning thrill of walking past the cashier and the desperate longing to be, well, adolescent.

Likewise, it's easy to see how some overpriced cosmetic or contact-lens product might "accidentally" tumble into a college student's pack, especially if Dad is late with the monthly check.

Yet when a celebrity like Winona Ryder gets busted on suspicion of shoplifting a bagful of clothing and hair accessories, the usual rationalizations fail. Memories of famous shady shoppers such as former Miss America Bess Myerson (department-store items, 1988) and movie star-polymath Hedy Lamarr (drug-store sundries, 1991) come to mind. And the imagination collapses around one thrilling word — kleptomania.

The details of Ryder's Dec. 12 arrest are not clear as yet; lawyers for the actor say no theft was intended and there was a misunderstanding. She is out on bail, and no charges have been filed, said a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles District Attorney's office.

According to Will Cupchick, a Toronto psychologist who has studied and treated what he calls "atypical theft offenders" for almost 30 years, about 15 percent of shoplifting cases have no clear motive.

"These are honest people, church- or synagogue- or mosque-going people, who shoplift things they can easily afford, often don't need and sometimes don't even want."

He said only about 5 percent of that group — a tiny fraction of the general population — have what experts would consider primary kleptomania, which is described in textbooks as "the recurrent failure to resist impulses to steal, even though items are not needed for personal use or for their monetary value." Kleptomania is not well understood, even by doctors, mental-health researchers say.

There's no such thing as a typical kleptomaniac. The behavior may show up in bus drivers and soccer moms, even in Army brass. All mental-health researchers say for certain is that the compulsion can develop at almost any time of life, seems to occur more often in women than in men, and may last for 10 years or more.

Sometimes it resolves as mysteriously as it started. In other cases, people learn to limit their shopping, or enter stores only when accompanied by a friend or family member who knows about the problem.

In a study scheduled to be released in the spring, researchers at the University of Minnesota report that a medication often used to treat alcoholism, naltrexone, reduced both the urge to steal and the thrill in 13 kleptomaniacs. According to Dr. John Grant, the study's lead author, it's the only study to date of drug treatment for the condition.

When trolling along aisles of especially alluring merchandise, active sufferers report feeling ripples of tension and often an exhilarating release, when they duck out of the store with the goods. "It's not related to anger, aggression or revenge," said Dr. Maurice Rappaport, a psychiatrist in San Jose, Calif. "You can't identify a definitive motive."

Nor can the light-fingered ladies and gentlemen themselves. "They come up with all kinds of excuses: 'It made me feel better'; 'It relieved my mood'; 'I felt good, and I was celebrating,' " said Dr. Donald Black, a psychiatrist at the University of Iowa College of Medicine in Iowa City, who treats and studies compulsive shoppers, gamblers and shoplifters.

Black has one patient, a woman in her early 80s, who has been nabbing cheap jewelry, key chains and other trinkets without apparent motive for 60 years. "Every once in a while she's caught, her name gets in the papers, and she's terribly embarrassed; this is a small town," Black said. "When I ask why, she simply says, 'Oh, I can't explain it, Dr. Black. I just have to take things.' "

Black believes that kleptomania is related to compulsive shopping, habitual gambling and other so-called impulse-control disorders. In an ongoing study comparing 30 problem gamblers with 30 nongamblers of similar age and education, he's finding evidence that impulse problems often run in families. "I expect to find kleptomania is more common in this group as well," he said. "My own view is that there's a tendency toward impulsive behavior that is inherited and expresses in different ways; one of those may be kleptomania."

In 27 years of practice, Cupchick said he has treated about 400 unlikely shoplifters, and all but two of them broke the law in response to some personal crisis.

"Most often what we found is that these people had experienced some unfair, personally devastating loss, and they responded by causing someone else an unfair loss — like a retail store," he said.

In two studies, including in-depth interviews with 70 people who'd been stealing for no apparent reason, Cupchick found that almost three-quarters of the cases could be linked to a personal crisis, such as a cancer diagnosis or the death of a loved one.

Cupchick said the kleptomania label should be applied only after all motives — apparent and hidden — have been ruled out.

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