Shoplifters may be the only criminals for whom the nightmare of getting caught ends with a blush. The anxiety isn’t that shoplifting is illegal, exactly. It’s that it is not illegal enough. “Stealing household trinkets remains too shameful for words,” writes Rachel Shteir in The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting (Penguin, $26). Authorities place the number of American shoplifters at about 30 million. And yet, with the exception of celebrity offenders, we never hear about them.
Shteir has interviewed scores of shoplifters, with habits ranging from the occasional to the ruinously chronic, and scads of those whose trade it is to nab them. She has attended meetings for shoplifting addicts, and been a witness to their mantras. She has trailed mall cops on the prowl, and been a witness to their malaise. She even went to London to confer with the eminent psychoanalyst Adam Phillips.
In a book filled with the writings of anarchists and amateurs, the truly far-out sentences remain the spoken ones. “The idea, one shoplifter said, was to assert the individual’s rights over those of mass culture by making the peas unbuyable.”
“Today we see all three interpretations of shoplifting: crime, disease, protest,” Shteir writes. Historically, shoplifters have been categorized as criminals, kleptomaniacs, political radicals or some overlapping hybrid of the three. Societies have tended to respond unsympathetically to their crimes, by executing, incarcerating, banishing, maiming or shaming them. It is a more or less complete thesaurus, and it reflects, among other things, the anxiety that none fits the crime. “Is it a serious crime worthy of criminal prosecution,” asks Shteir, “or an impulsive, unpredictable act, childish, but deserving of forgiveness?”
Shoplifting is low-stakes theft, a form of lawbreaking that is also a form of amateurism. The most shoplifted item in the world is the Gillette Mach 3 razor; trailing it, but not by far, are toothbrushes, DVDs, batteries, underwear and raw steak.
There are also few things that have tangled so ingloriously with culture of celebrity. Lindsay Lohan doesn’t come up in The Steal, but Hedy Lamarr, Bess Myerson and Winona Ryder do. Shoplifting is always imprudent, an expression of vanity over need, but when famous people do it, it represents a kind of supernova of common sense. Multimillion-dollar careers have been wrecked for socks.
Shteir claims that the mysteries of the Ryder case were what spurred her to write The Steal: “I wondered why a Hollywood star would shoplift.” Although it minutely recapitulates the crime, The Steal does not attempt to explain why Ryder did it. Nor does it attempt to explain why anybody does it. Shteir repeats the ideas of others, but doesn’t take the further step of rating those ideas, let alone proposing a few of her own.
There are many pleasures to be had in reading about the bizarre particulars of a subculture, but they are limited pleasures. One looks forward to the emergence of a pattern in which the heap of data comes together to illustrate some unexpected, deeper truth. In The Steal, that unexpected truth never arrives.