A closer look at compulsive shoplifters 

Taking things, literally

click to enlarge COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo

In a Beverly Hills coffee shop, Terry Shulman is pouring his heart out about his life-changing battle with a dangerous compulsion.

The topic is very difficult to discuss. It haunted him in his youth, and set him on a course to establish a practice to help with those who suffer from it. Even his closest clients demand almost total secrecy, and building the trust just to discuss their problem can take weeks.

It's not alcoholism. It's not sex addiction. People don't come to him after losing their house to compulsive casino gambling or facing arrest for indecent exposure.

It's misunderstood, difficult to treat, under-researched by the experts, frowned on by the general public, and considered a crime in almost all jurisdictions.

It is compulsive shoplifting.

It's a compulsion that Shulman discovered as a child growing up in Detroit's University District in the 1960s. The child of a needy mother and alcoholic father who divorced when he was 10, Shulman started by stealing a single gumball. The compulsion later began to take hold, and turned into a problem that baffled him so completely, he finally went into therapy as an adult — at least until a psychologist told him he was addicted to shoplifting and refused to treat him anymore.

"It was both a horrible and beautiful realization," Shulman says. "All of a sudden it made sense. I thought, 'Oh, my God. I'm probably more like my dad than I thought.'"

His ongoing battle with compulsive shoplifting led him to write a book on the subject, Something for Nothing, and to found the Shulman Center, becoming a lawyer-therapist specializing in hoarding, compulsive shopping, and shoplifting addiction. Such clients need help not just navigating a personal compulsion but the justice system, and Shulman knows how to assist them with both.

As specialists in kleptomania go, the Franklin-based advisor-attorney is as high profile as they come, having been featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, CNN, and Nightline. He's regularly sought out by potential clients, often people facing prosecution. Given the level of self-interest that could drive a criminal to seek a light sentence, doesn't Shulman have to do some screening?

"Very rarely," he says. "There's a self-screening process. By the time people are more interested in having a conversation, in following up, they're pretty motivated. They're suffering. People are so resistant to seeking help with this, by the time they make a phone call, they generally do want help."

In the early 1990s, unable to find a support group for Kleptomaniacs, he finally found a support group for alcohol addiction and came forward to the group as a compulsive shoplifter. "It got a few odd stares," he says, but the group was willing to work with him. The experience inspired Shulman to found his own weekly support group for shoplifting addiction, which celebrated 25 years last September.

Shulman's group uses some of the attitude and terminology of 12-step programs, describing every day as a new chance to tackle the problem. "One term that we're developing is 'addictive-compulsive shoplifting,' which I think is a better model," Shulman says, "because then you incorporate some of the literature we already have about addiction, and support groups, and one day at a time, and 'it's a "we" program,' and a whole lot of other things that people can relate to."

But Shulman picks and chooses from the concept. "Our group is a hybrid," he says. "We don't rigorously enforce the 12 steps. We don't have sponsors. We're really light on the higher power."

Shulman offers clients a two-month program, including 10 or 11 sessions, a book, and membership in an email support group 300 strong. "I'm not offended that they also are hoping that I'll write a good letter that will get them leniency," Shulman says. "There's nothing wrong with that. I went through therapy hoping for the same thing."

His typical clients might be the last people you'd expect. They're often middle aged and female. Many are middle-class. Shulman says that true kleptomania, which he says is a pretty rare condition, reportedly afflicts women four times as much as men. In his own experience, he sees compulsive shoplifting as disproportionately affecting people who've been marginalized, especially women and African Americans.

"People shoplift for different reasons," Shulman says. "As far as I can tell, there's not a lot of hard research, but I think 50 percent of the people shoplifting might be professional thieves, common thieves, or people addicted to drugs, alcohol, or gambling who are trying to support an underlying addiction, kids doing it on a dare, and people who are really impoverished who steal to put food on the table. I call about half of the people who steal 'head-scratcher cases,' because they're basically honest people, intelligent, caring, often very giving."

Shulman has become adept at identifying people who have the compulsion. People who steal things they won't use, even though they have the money to pay for them, might be one indicator. The clues may be in childhood, involving unfair upbringings, unresolved loss, or compulsive behaviors in parents or guardians. As Shulman writes in his book, "The simplistic notion that shoplifting and stealing are merely legal or moral issues is wrong." And he has developed a particular talent for explaining the compulsion to often shocked or outraged family members or spouses, detailing the misunderstandings people are prone to in our materialistic society.

"I think a common misperception is that shoplifters will take from anybody," Shulman says. "Like, 'Oh, you're a thief.' ... A lot of people will think, 'Are you crazy? Who are you? Do you have a split personality? Are you a sociopath? Are you living a double life? Are you a chronic liar?' Often when family or a loved one find out, they often feel like, 'I don't know you anymore.' Particularly if they find out this has been going on for a while."

But Shulman says that, with some exceptions, most compulsive shoplifters aren't only typical in most other respects, but "extremely honest."

"And this is the bizarre thing, and this was true of me, if you dropped your wallet, if you left a credit card, if a purse was left, I'd give it to you," he says. "Even people who are out of control with the shoplifting often draw lines on what they won't do. For instance, most people who shoplifted didn't steal from work in any way."

"A lot of times, people think it's just for cheap thrills. A lot of times people think shoplifters are greedy, they're dishonest, they just don't want to play by the rules, but I often think of it as a cry for help."

That's a phrase Shulman says he often uses with his clients. "I've found that shoplifting is a distress signal," he says. "It's a sign something's going on, and we've got to figure out what's going on. Then we can start talking about it and piecing things together."

Shulman says the dynamic makes treatment tricky. Allowing a patient to make disclosures in the absence of judgment is vital. A good percentage of Shulman's clients have just been through an emotional wringer. Not only have many been arrested and fingerprinted, they've had to deal with blowback from incredulous relatives, arguments with spouses, or shame in their community. It sounds like just about the worst time for a therapist to encourage sharing, and it's understandable many of Shulman's patients would be reluctant to elaborate on how far back their problem goes.

Shulman clarifies: "I'm not saying shoplifters shouldn't feel shame. There is such a thing as healthy shame. But most of the people who come to me have toxic shame. Meaning, 'I am the most horrible person in the world.' And I say, 'You know what? I've felt the same way. And what you're feeling is really common. On the one hand, I'm glad that you're feeling bad about what you did. However, let's just have a little conversation here. There are two concepts: guilt and shame. Guilt is feeling awful about what you've done. Shame is feeling awful about who you are. And we want to see if we can move it over to guilt a little bit.' It takes time, but if people get trapped in that toxic shame, it's just my judgment ... I worry about them."

It's early evening in spring when the group Cleptomaniacs and Shoplifters Anonymous (CASA) meets at a church in Southfield. The unusual spelling of kleptomania is Shulman's touch, to make the group sound homier.

The group meets every Wednesday, drawing a core of about a half-dozen regular attendees. Tonight's meeting draws more than a dozen people.

But tonight's group is smaller than otherwise for a notable reason: Three regular attendees have dropped out of the meeting because a journalist is attending. Promises were made that the reporter will not use real names and is only there to convey what goes on at a meeting. It quickly becomes obvious that the stigma of shoplifting is so great, the fear of being exposed so significant, that normally sharing participants will not attend. In fact, several leave shortly after learning what's up. What's more, not a single participant will agree to an interview afterward.

For the most part, the meeting is uneventful. The participants are mostly female, a mix of white and black, and even one hijab-clad woman. Many of the women have a prosperous look, with attractive clothing or carefully done hair. If you hadn't been told this was a CASA group, you might mistake it for a PTA meeting in a well-integrated middle-class neighborhood.

For those familiar with the 12-step process, it's fairly familiar stuff. The participants check in with their emotions, tell how they've fared fighting their compulsion, what tactics they've used to keep it at bay. Some of the talk is so frank and dispassionate, you can see where the wrong person would misunderstand the tone, taking it for a lack of remorse instead of an examination of one's actions.

That all changes when one new participant, fresh from the ordeal of being caught, has a story to share. Like many compulsive shoplifters, this person has made it through most of life without ever having been detected. This person is, in fact, on a track toward a career that will help many people who need assistance.

But recently, with a major professional examination looming, and under intense pressure to do well, the participant fell victim to a pattern Shulman recognizes: The compulsion to shoplift often spikes during personal crises. As the participant confesses, the shoplifting arrest now poses a double whammy, with legal and professional consequences that could destroy a career years in the making.

Our confessor is still obviously reeling from all this, trembling and weeping, telling the story in speech halted by sobs. The people seated in a circle nod in sympathy, likely remembering their lowest points in their struggle against the compulsion. Shulman's argument begins to make a kind of sense: These people aren't criminals; in fact, they seem almost like overachievers.

And yet, given the stigma associated with shoplifting in our materialistic society, how will these people ever get the help they need?

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