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. The fleur de mal looks embarrassingly like a daisy. “Stealing household trinkets remains too shameful for words […],” writes Rachel Shteir in The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting (Penguin Press HC, 272 pages, $25.95). “The silent epidemic grows in a medium of silence” . Authorities place the number of American shoplifters at around 30 million, which makes them roughly as pervasive as American depressives. And yet, with the exception of celebrity offenders, we never hear about them. Shoplifting is the epidemic that dares not speak its name.
That is one way of putting it. Yet it is misleading. The epidemic may be silent, but it would be inaccurate to put this down to the reticence of its culprits. “I met shoplifters by placing ads on Craigslist […],” Ms. Shteir writes. “Some shoplifters I literally met at dinner parties or while interviewing people at Starbucks.” It turns out that all you have to do is ask. The problem isn’t that shoplifters have been too inhibited to speak. It’s that, until now, no one could be bothered to listen.
The Steal is the fruit of Ms. Shteir’s unprecedented willingness to be bothered. She 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—those whose “pay,” as she memorably puts it, “was based on apprehension.” 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 has touched down on two coasts; she has traveled the country; she has sought answers in Brooklyn and Des Moines. She has even popped over to London, England, to confer with the eminent psychoanalyst Adam Phillips. And yet, though she has seen much, Ms. Shteir has not seen it all. “I have yet to see anyone catch a shoplifter,” she admits. The red-handed perp is her white whale.
Ms. Shteir has also done her reading, canonical and otherwise. In 1722, Daniel Defoe conjured the perils of petty theft in Moll Flanders, and in 1971 Abbie Hoffman crowed of its pleasures in Steal This Book. Now people write about it annually, in Global Retail Theft Barometer. Ms. Shteir has read all of this, and what feels like every iota of arcana in between. NietzsChe Guevara’s Days of War, Nights of Love: Crimethink for Beginners (2001) has never received a more honorable mention.
Still, 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.’” “I have a close, personal relationship with shoplifting,” another former shoplifter told Ms. Schteir. “That sounds glib, but it’s true.” What it actually sounds is evangelical. “Filling voids made me feel better,” said another. “I can’t figure me out,” confessed a fourth.
Words heaved into the void of self-incomprehension are one definition of good copy, and when you invite shoplifters to talk about themselves you get them in volume. “How will I satisfy myself? Cooking for him?” asked one shoplifting housewife, referring to her husband. “My accomplishment is to shoplift.” This same woman “didn’t even put gas in the car for fear that she would become too confident, and shoplift.” Laughable, but horrible. For all its moments of comedy, The Steal is not a comedy; the mirth dies away in a deeper queasiness. The epidemic that dares not speak its name is also a farce that we are unsure we are supposed to be laughing at.
“Today we see all three interpretations of shoplifting: crime, disease, protest,” Ms. 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 Ms. Shteir, “or … an impulsive, unpredictable act, childish, but deserving of forgiveness?”
Shoplifting is unskilled, low-stakes theft, a form of lawbreaking that is also a form of amateurism. It is trifling by definition. Since stores began keeping track of it, shoplifting has cost the taxpayer around $450 annually, an objectively small sum that is just big enough to gall. 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. Socially, what marks shoplifting is tackiness. Almost by definition, shoplifting isn’t worth it. “In reality, your life is not worth a pair of pants, or a steak,” said one loss prevention (LP) agent interviewed by Ms. Shteir.
Most are not so droll. “To those in the field,” Ms. Shteir writes, “shoplifting is a battleground, LP is a spy vs. spy world, and LP agents are soldiers who, though winning the battle, lose the war.” Shoplifting may look like the stuff of Raymond Carver, but it feels, for many, like the stuff of John Le Carré. Some consider themselves the scions of a more august tradition. “Eve was the first shoplifter, a security expert once quipped.” And God was the mall cop in the food court of Good and Evil. Indeed: “‘God is a loss prevention agent,’ I was told in 2005,” Ms. Shteir writes. Few things in modern life are so nakedly bathetic.
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. When Ms. Ryder got caught stealing clothing from Saks Fifth Avenue in 2001, the store already had an imprint of her credit card on file. They had taken it earlier that day.
Ms. Shteir claims that the mysteries of the Ryder case were what spurred her to write The Steal. “Along with millions of Americans,” she says, “I wondered why a Hollywood star would shoplift.” If this was the impulse from which the book was born, it must have ebbed as the book grew up. Although it minutely recapitulates the crime, The Steal does not attempt to explain why Ms. Ryder did it. Nor, generally, does it attempt to explain why anybody does it. Ms. 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. Her diligence as a gatherer of evidence is matched by her reticence as an analyst of it. “It is no accident that Defoe, the first modern writer to make a living from his craft, chose a shoplifter as his heroine,” she writes. “Then, as now, no one knows exactly what happens when a shoplifter steals or why she is doing it … the details have to be imagined.”
It is one of the most memorable observations in the book. Still, you feel that Ms. Shteir may have misinterpreted it. She has left imagination to the novelists. The result is a work of history that is less than the sum of its parts. There are many pleasures to be had in reading about the bizarre particulars of a subculture, but they are limited pleasures. One looks forward, always, to the emergence of a larger design—a pattern in which the heap of data comes together to illustrate some unexpected, deeper truth. In The Steal, that unexpected truth never arrives. The heap is just a heap. Ms. Shteir concludes the book’s last full chapter by describing shoplifting as a “species of creepy conduct.” Coming from a woman who has spent years studying the subject, the broadness of the epithet may be telling. The anthropologist has not gone native. She still knows what to call a savage.