Features editor Kiera Toffelmire investigates the mind of a compulsive stealer
A tall, stoic-looking security guard dumps the contents of a blue knapsack onto a metal table. There are two textbooks, a handful of pens, a red bra, a knitted sweater and a collection of keychains. All of the items, including the knapsack, are stolen.
Across the table sits 21-year-old *Brittney Matheson, staring wide-eyed at the items she has stolen. Matheson, a psychology student at Ryerson is quiet while the security guard begins listing consequences of having a criminal record. Among them, the most detrimental to Matheson’s plans of becoming an international photographer, she will no longer be able to leave the country.
After more than 20 minutes of scrutiny, the guard announces he will let Matheson off without notifying police; that she seems like a good kid, and that his lenience is partially because it’s her first time stealing.
I’ve probably stolen about $6,000 worth of merchandise— Brittney Matheson Tears of relief carve a silent path down Matheson’s face. She’s off the hook because the guard had been wrong. This was not her first time stealing, it was the first time she had been caught.
What started as an occasional habit of pocketing trinkets from dollar stores sprouted into what Matheson calls a stealing addiction. In a three year span, Matheson estimates she has stolen approximately $6, 000 of merchandise, a dollar value that — had she been caught — may have led to a legal punishment of up to 10 years imprisonment.
While Matheson says her compulsive stealing may have been caused by stress, since she had just began university around the time she started shoplifting, she is still unsure of what sparked it.
In hopes of ending her growing addiction, Matheson confided in a few close friends, some of whom suggested she research the symptoms of kleptomania.
A term first used in 1838 to describe kings who stole worthless items, kleptomania is the inability to resist urges to steal, according to the Canadian Psychological Association. Often kleptomaniacs steal things that are not needed for personal use nor for its monetary value.
True kleptomania is a rare condition. Fewer than 5 per cent of shoplifters are kleptomaniacs, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
Dr. William Cupchick, a clinical psychologist in Toronto’s north-end, has researched stealing habits for 36 years. He says many health professionals are quick to confuse compulsive shoplifters with kleptomaniacs.
“These days if somebody reports stealing that they have trouble controlling, many professionals will say ‘you’re a kleptomaniac’ and prescribe them antidepressants” says Cupchick. “Kleptomania is very good business for the pharmaceutical companies.”
In Cupchick’s experiences, only once, out of around 800 case studies, has he come across a patient who seemed to be a kleptomaniac.
Almost all of the patients Cupchick sees who are compulsive stealers have suffered loss or grievance, though they may not be aware of it, and their thieving habits are rooted in emotion. One of the main criteria for kleptomania is that the act is not carried out in anger or vengeance.
Matheson says initially, her shoplifting was a display of anger against major corporations like Walmart, where she stole make-up, art supplies and jewelry. She promised herself she would never steal from small businesses. But less than a year after making that promise, she broke it. And her habit soured into addiction, to the point where Matheson could no longer leave a store unless she had managed to steal something.
“As soon as I made it out of the store I’d feel bad. But that didn’t stop me from stealing again. It was becoming an unhealthy habit. More than an anti-corporation movement, or whatever I was trying to justify it as,” says Matheson, “The scary part was that I couldn’t stop, and I had no idea why.”
Matheson grew up in middle-class suburbia. Her parents both held steady jobs and funded her post-secondary education. She was vice-president of student council at the Catholic highschool she attended. Teachers praised her on the charity fundraisers she organized and fellow students were charmed by her gregarious nature. Matheson, both a model student and socialite, doesn’t live up to the stereotypical description of a shoplifter.
“It’s often the most unsuspecting people who we catch stealing,” says SiminRazavi, a security guard for Warren Protective Services. Razavi, who has been stationed at the Yonge and Dundas H&M says in the past two months she has only been able to catch one person stealing, although she suspects there have been many other incidences, many of which are performed by students.
Cupchick agrees that the most unlikely characters are often the most avid shoplifters. He refers to them as Atypical Theft Offenders (ATOs), shoplifters who are usually law-abiding, honest, contributing members of society. ATO stealing is compulsive although the individual may be ashamed of their actions and want to stop stealing. Their behaviour is normally followed by feelings of being out of control, although they are aware of what they are doing.
Cupchick says while he does see many student ATOs, middle-age doctors and nurses are the most common patients he sees.
“These people are good, honest citizens who positively contribute to society,” says Cupchick, who recommends talk-therapy for people who cannot control their stealing habits.
This past summer at a house party, Matheson’s jacket was stolen. Inside the coat pocket was her iPod, cell-phone, wallet and a bracelet her grandmother had given her.
“I thought, who the hell would take someone’s coat? And then I paused for a second and realized…I would,” says Matheson. “That was kind of a scary moment.”
It was that evening, standing in the backyard of a student house, an array of rambunctious party-goers surrounding her, that she acknowledged how serious her problem was, and that she needed to get help.
It has been three months since Matheson last stole something. Every time she’s shopping, a familiar wave of temptation creeps up on her which she must resist, making her exit with both a lighter conscience and a lighter knapsack.
* Name has been changed for students privacy
Photo: Marta Iwanek