In the case of Winona Ryder, convicted last week of grand theft and vandalism for walking out of a Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, Calif., with $5,560 of swank swag, there are plenty of easy answers. Just look at her screen roles, which range from the disturbed (Beetlejuice and Girl, Interrupted) to the homicidal (Heathers and The Crucible). Or consider her loopy childhood in a Northern California commune with parents who smoked a lot of pot and chose Timothy Leary to be her godfather.
But behavior like this is never simple, and even Ryder may not know why she stole repeatedly, according to prosecutors, and so flagrantly that Saks decided it had to put a stop to it.
One thing is clear: she has plenty of company. Shoplifting in the U.S. costs retailers more than $10 billion a year. The FBI reports that there were nearly a million arrests in 2001. But that statistic does not begin to capture the full extent of the crime. Apprehension rates for shoplifting are low, and store owners turn over only 24% of the perpetrators they catch, according to a 2001 University of Florida survey sponsored by the retail industry. Teens, who constitute about a quarter of shoplifters, often steal on a dare or in groups. Adults are more likely to steal alone and for more complex reasons. For them, shoplifting can become a habit they find increasingly difficult to break.
Nineteenth century psychiatrists coined a term for the irresistible impulse to swipe: they called it kleptomania, from the Greek kleptein, to steal. It was applied after the fact to Jane Austen's aunt, who was tried in 1800 for pocketing fancy white lace. By the 1920s Freudian psychologists, always attuned to underlying sexual drives, were comparing the rush from a successful filch to the pleasure of an orgasm. Experts today are more inclined to compare recreational larceny to thrill-seeking behaviors like bungee jumping or to addictions like drug abuse or compulsive gambling.
Textbook kleptomaniacs will steal an item and immediately throw it away. It is the act, not the object, that satisfies their impulse. "Kleptomaniacs might have started stealing on a dare as kids," says Dr. Jon Grant, a director of the Impulse Control Disorder clinic at the University of Minnesota Medical School, "but it becomes so pleasurable that the addiction takes over their actions."
Women tend to steal for pleasure more than men, but that gender disparity might reflect a reporting bias: women are more likely to be perceived as unbalanced. Kleptomaniacs also tend to suffer from other mental disorders, such as anxiety or depression. As a rule, they steal regularly on a weekly, and sometimes daily, basis. And most important, they are well aware that what they are doing is wrong; they tend to experience intense regret after the deed is done.
Ryder, who pleaded innocent, donned a FREE WINONA T shirt for the cover of W magazine last June. She also spoofed her predicament on Saturday Night Live. In any case, she fits the profile of a kleptomaniac. In 1990 she checked herself in to a psychiatric ward because she was having anxiety attacks. Transcripts released after the trial suggest she is a habitual offender. And she hardly needed the items she took. "If you look at what Ryder was doing to those clothes cutting holes in them to get the tags off do you think she was going to wear them?" says Dr. Marcus Goldman, author of Kleptomania: The Compulsion to Steal What Can Be Done? "They probably would have ended up in a heap in her closet."
Ryder obviously needs help, and there are plenty of therapies that work. "For most shoplifters, getting something for nothing is like giving themselves a reward that they feel they deserve," says Peter Berlin, who runs Shoplifters Alternative, a New York based rehabilitation program. Psychotherapy may help break the habit, as may drugs such as naltrexone, used to treat alcoholics, or antidepressants like Prozac. But the best therapy may be what Ryder got. When 112 repeat shoplifters were asked in a telephone survey what would deter them, their top choice was "prosecution."