Light fingers and heavy hearts

Dec 26, 2001 at 12:00 am

Terrence Shulman sits in the foyer of a Southfield church the Wednesday before Christmas. He is not there to worship. Neither are the dozen or so others gathered with him. The middle-aged group is there to seek support for a shared compulsion they struggle to control: shoplifting.

Most come to the weekly meeting voluntarily. A few have been ordered to do so by judges. Shulman, who leads the group, signs court attendance forms.

After he signs one woman’s form, she agrees to stay only five minutes.

“I don’t feel good coming here,” says the dark-haired woman, who looks to be about 50 years old. “I only stole one time and I won’t do it again. I don’t need to analyze it.”

Shulman seems skeptical and asks her why she shoplifted.

“It was a full moon,” she answers flippantly.

Shulman isn’t fazed. The founder of the support group, Cleptomaniacs and Shoplifters Anonymous (CASA), has heard it all before.

Shulman, who calls himself a “recovering shoplifter,” started the weekly meeting in 1992. Similar to 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, it is one of only a handful of support groups of its kind in the country and the only one in Michigan.

Shulman says it is humiliating for people to admit they are shoplifters, much less to seek help for the problem. After almost a decade, the typical meeting draws no more than 10 to 20 participants.

Tonight, most of them are struggling with the holidays, and Shulman suggests they talk about it.

“Who’d like to begin?” he asks.

One woman says she is tempted to shoplift so that she can give family and friends the extravagant Christmas gifts she could afford in years past.

“Christmas is so hard, it’s like a trigger,” says another woman.

A man says that he has to stay home during the holidays to keep from shoplifting.

A newcomer to the group admits that she attempted suicide earlier in the week, fearful that she will go to jail for her latest shoplifting arrest. The single mom from Rochester doesn’t know who will care for her three children.

“I’m looking at five years and a $5,000 fine,” she says. “I’m in some serious trouble.”

Others, including Shulman, also have been jailed for shoplifting. He says that being arrested helped keep his compulsion in check. Shulman, who now works as an addiction counselor and social worker in Ann Arbor, Plymouth and Detroit, says the best deterrent has been the support of others who understand him. But it isn’t easy for him or other shoplifters trying to kick the habit.

Painful secret

Shulman recalls stealing a gumball at age 10, when his parents were divorcing. It was the first time; he didn’t shoplift again until he was a teenager.

“I think I had ongoing anger at my dad for drinking on and off during my life,” he says. “I had anxiety about entering high school. I also had things stolen from me in my midteens.”

He says that stealing was a way to “get back” what was taken from him physically and emotionally. Shulman lifted a couple comic books, but he soon developed a habit of stealing art supplies a few times a month. By his junior year of high school, he was shoplifting weekly, a secret he kept to himself.

Shulman says that stealing provided him relief from depression and anxiety just as some teens develop drug habits or eating disorders to deal with adolescent stresses.

When the University of Michigan accepted him in 1983, Shulman felt a sense of relief and promised himself that he would stop stealing. But in college, pressures mounted again.

“There were a series of frustrations and rejections. I felt life was screwing me,” says Shulman. There was a failed romance; his grades were disappointing. He was passed over for a position that would have paid for his college room and board. Within a year, the addiction roared back.

“I withdrew and started shoplifting,” he says.

Even while in class, Shulman was preoccupied with stealing. He felt an emotional charge just heading to the store to shoplift. When he made off with a tape cassette or magazine, he felt euphoric.

The buzz sometimes lasted hours, he says. But guilt and shame followed.

“I would have to steal again to escape the shame I felt,” says Shulman. “It was a cycle of insanity.”

In his senior year of college, an alarm went off when Shulman passed through an electronic gate. He was arrested and had to go to court, but he did not tell his family or friends. Shulman was slapped with a $200 fine, 60 hours of community service and six months’ probation. The judge also recommended that he get counseling, but Shulman didn’t follow through.

“I thought it was just a stage I was going through,” he says.

When his probation ended, Shulman immediately resumed shoplifting. Like most shoplifters, he stole things he didn’t need or want, then hoarded many of the same unwanted, unused items.

Within three years he was back at it a couple times daily, trying to maintain that adrenaline rush.

“It was very much like a crack addict needing a fix,” he says, though the highs diminished in intensity and the lows got lower.

When he was accepted to the Detroit College of Law in the spring of 1988, Shulman considered it a new beginning and cut back on his secret habit. He also developed a closer relationship to his dad, who had stopped drinking and had encouraged his son to go to law school.

But about a month after Shulman started law school, his dad had a stroke, was hospitalized and eventually had to use a wheelchair. He also returned to drinking.

Shulman helped take care of his stepmother and younger brother. He was unable to concentrate in school and began stealing every day. In March 1990, he was arrested for swiping a bottle of champagne.

He was fined $500 and given a year’s probation.

“My life was falling apart,” says Shulman, who confessed his secret to his parents a week prior to his arrest.

Seeking support

The possibility of being arrested again helped curb Shulman’s habit. But understanding his compulsion through therapy was also key. He realized that he was angry with his father for drinking. Shulman also resented having, as a boy, to take on responsibilities his dad neglected.

“I grew up too quickly and was angry because I didn’t have the luxury to be a normal, rebellious kid,” he says.

While in therapy, Shulman dramatically cut back on shoplifting. His therapist suggested that Shulman attend a support group for the problem. But none existed at the time.

So in 1992, he started a group of his own. Initially, he sent out fliers to courts and counseling offices informing them of the meeting, but did not include his name. Now a practicing attorney, he was afraid to publicly identify himself as a shoplifter.

For six weeks no one showed. Shulman realized that he had to go public to draw people to the meting. He sent out another batch of fliers and was interviewed on a local TV news show. His extended family and friends were shocked, but they supported him for disclosing his problem and addressing it, he says.

Eventually, folks trickled into the meeting. A core group of five people has faithfully attended the weekly sessions for nine years, says Shulman, who has not shoplifted in more than six years.

He says that the support group helps him know he is not alone.

“For so long I felt like a freak, thinking I was the only one in the world who did this,” Shulman says.

Being open curbs his feelings of shame and his desire to act out. He also gets advice from group members, who together devise strategies to prevent shoplifting. Some shop only to purchase a specific item. Others shop only with a friend or spouse who helps keep them in check. Others don’t shop at all.

Shulman is sometimes frustrated that the group, which has had about 500 participants during the past nine years, hasn’t grown beyond 15 to 20 members at a time.

But those gathered the other night say they benefit from the group.

Kicking the habit

Linda, who like several others asked that her last name not be used, has been shoplifting compulsively since she was a teenager. The 32-year-old mother of two has been arrested four times and spent 45 days in Macomb County Jail.

“Thank God my mom was there to help me with the kids,” she says. Linda thought she could quit stealing any time. But after the last arrest, she realized otherwise. She joined CASA more than two years ago. The Utica resident makes the 45-minute drive every week because she finds solace in talking to others who understand the urge to steal.

“It helps to know when I have these feelings and that I am not a bad person,” says Linda ,who has not shoplifted in about a year.

Rochelle started shoplifting when she 12 years old. She grew up with a heroin-addicted father who stole to support his habit. Rochelle says she shoplifted food and clothing as a girl because her parents didn’t provide for her.

“Back then I stole things I needed,” she says. “As I got older shoplifting was no longer a need, but an addiction.”

Though she was paid well as a pharmaceutical technician and had a husband who made a good living, she continued to steal. She says shoplifting gave her a rush. But after years of it, the highs didn’t last long, which drove her to steal more often.

Rochelle knew she had a problem, but was too ashamed to tell anyone or get help. Eventually, the 40-year-old mother of seven was arrested. She landed in Wayne County Jail for 60 days.

“I wasn’t thinking about my children,” she says. “You are incredibly selfish when you commit this act and I don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for me.”

The last time she was faced with jail time was this past May, but she got off on probation. Since then, Rochelle has sought therapy and joined CASA. She learned that when she is angry or feels unloved, she gets the urge to steal to distract her from her pain. Rochelle has learned to ride out her feelings rather than act them out. She has not shoplifted since May.

“My life was in turmoil,” says Sandra. The 56-year old Howell resident started shoplifting when she was 22 years old. She says that stress triggers her urge.

Sandra stole spices and other items, but as her compulsion worsened, she brought larger purses to the store to conceal bigger items.

In 1971, she was arrested for the first time and decided to see a psychiatrist. But the shoplifting was never addressed.

“It wasn’t really much help,” says Sandra. “Nothing was ever said about the stealing, but I felt I was a terrible thief.”

In 1994, she was caught stuffing her purse with CDs, and was arrested a fifth time. After that, she started seeing a therapist and started attending CASA. Since she joined the group in 1995, Sandra has had three relapses.

“Keeping it a secret is what keeps the addiction going, and the lies,” she says. “You tell one lie and tell another lie to cover up that lie and then you don’t know what lie you told who.”

Crime and punishment

Rochelle Anixt Gold is a Birmingham-based therapist who has been treating shoplifters for about 10 years. She says that there is so much shame about being a shoplifter that some keep it secret from their therapist. Anixt Gold says that stealing is often a manifestation of an emotional hunger or a sense of failure.

“It’s a way to lift out of the environment something they feel is missing in themselves,” says Anixt Gold. “They may have money or the capacity to pay, but feel shortchanged in their life.”

Anixt Gold says the therapeutic community is divided over shoplifting. “Some see it as a manifestation of an inner conflict,” she says. Other therapists view shoplifting as a behavioral problem and don’t address the underlying causes.

“Unfortunately, society does not know much about the shoplifting problem,” says Caroline Kochman, deputy director of Shoplifters Alternative, a nonprofit that provides educational programs to court systems around the country. “The perception is that shoplifters are greedy people, when it is really just a maladaptive way to cope like overeating or drinking.”

According to Shoplifters Alternative, which was founded in 1977, there are 23 million shoplifters in the United States and they are of all ages, races and economic backgrounds, says Kochman.

About 5 percent are professionals, who make money by selling stolen items or who steal to support a drug habit, says Kochman. The other 95 percent steal for a variety of reasons.

Teenagers often steal as a way to rebel, but when stealing continues into their 20s, they likely are addicted, she says. Shoplifting addicts make up about 27 percent of the 95 percent who steal, says Kochman. Some courts require chronic shoplifters to enroll in the Shoplifters Alternative program. It includes a workbook and CDs that help shoplifters understand why they steal and how it affects others. Though there is generally little awareness and sympathy for shoplifters, several local judges have a good understanding of the problem and attempt to get addicts the help they need.

Judge Marla Parker of 47th District Court, who presides over misdemeanor cases in Farmington Hills and Farmington, says she regularly refers people to Shulman’s group.

“I wouldn’t say as soon as I see a shoplifter this is what I do,” says Parker. “First I refer them to the probation department for an assessment, and with them we can address the particular needs of the person.”

She doesn’t have statistics on how many people she sent to the group or how effective it is. But Parker says that the anecdotal feedback from the probation department has been positive.

“We go by what the person who goes to the meetings tells us,” says Jackie Jones, 47th District Court probation director. No studies have been done on this population, she says.

But Jones and the other officers do an in-depth interview of each shoplifter about their employment, family history, education and other areas before sending them to the group.

“If they abuse drugs or alcohol, Shoplifters Anonymous would not be for them,” says Jones. “If they enjoy stealing or get a high from it, those people we send there.”

Judge Stephen Cooper of 46th District Court in Southfield also refers people to Shulman’s group. But Cooper says that he makes sure that every shoplifter, regardless of their motivations, pays for their crime.

“There are two aspects of this: the psychological and behavior, and I don’t have any reluctance to punish the behavior,” he says. “While the 12-step programs and therapy might be of assistance, there also has to be sanctions.”

Judge William Leo Cahalan agrees. Cahalan presides over the drug court for nonviolent offenders at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, which is part of the Wayne County Circuit Court system and handles thousands of cases a year.

“When I look at a person and see a long record of shoplifting, I always say, ‘What’s your drug, cocaine or heroin?’” says Cahalan. “Sometimes, not often, the person will say neither.”

Those are the ones who likely are compulsive shoplifters, he says.

“Sometimes we put them in jail to get their attention and then get them therapy,” says Cahalan. “I don’t just send them to Shoplifters Anonymous.”

Shoplifters have a “a big impact economically on the community” and need to be held accountable, he says.

According to the Michigan Retailers Association, about $300 million of merchandise is stolen from Michigan stores annually.

“It is a big problem and amounts to a hidden tax to all consumers because retailers’ costs increase and security costs increase,” says Tom Scott, association spokesman.

Scott says that most retailers deal with shoplifters by increasing security. Michigan’s tough anti-theft laws also are necessary, he says. But groups like Shulman’s are also helpful, says Scott.

“I think it makes a great impact by trying to increase awareness of the problem and provide counseling so we don’t have repeat offenders,” he says.

After a few shoplifters died during scuffles with store security in metro Detroit, Shulman tried to get the media to focus on shoplifting as an addiction. But he didn’t have much luck.

“The focus was on the poor security and other issues,” he says. “What was left out of the conversation is why do people shoplift and how to prevent it?”

Shulman hopes that a book he recently wrote, Something for Nothing: Memoirs of a Recovering Shoplifter, will help educate the public. But, so far, he has had trouble getting it published.

“There is a dearth of literature on the subject,” says Shulman, who hopes his book can help others get help and know that they are not alone.

For information about Cleptomaniacs and Shoplifters Anonymous call 248-358-8508 or go to For information on Shoplifters Alternative call 800-848-9595.

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times’ staff writer. She can be reached at [email protected] or