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KLEPTO AND OTHER MANIACS
by Martin "Marty" Crenshaw

In dressing rooms of major department stores, there are signs posted. They are large and bold signs. Their red letters proclaim: SHOPLIFTERS WILL BE PROSECUTED and there is no doubt they mean it. As far back as when I was in the business, there were suggestions of cameras and peepholes, but only overtly -- privacy laws prohibit such an invasion where customers are in a state of undress. Since shoplifting costs the retail industry millions of dollars annually, which you, by the way, pay for in terms of the price of the item you buy, it is no wonder they stand behind their posted warnings and prosecute.

Despite all the deterrents, I am still shocked when people are actually caught in the act and arrested. More amazingly is when the rich and famous are "caught in the act," as well. Interestingly enough, I am old enough to recall only three arrests of star-studded shoplifters: Hedy Lamarr, Bess Myerson, and now Winona Ryder, who is alleged to have taken $5,000 worth of clothes and hair products from Saks Fifth Avenue in the Rodeo Drive section of Beverly Hills.

"It's all a mistake," her lawyer said. True, she did take the tags off the items as she went from department to department, but her lawyer adds: "Once they get all the facts, they'll see she didn't take anything. She has receipts for everything in her bag."

For me, I wonder why she didn't produce them at the scene instead of facing felony charges, which could mean prison time for her.

I am old enough to remember the 1988 scandal of Bess Myerson, Miss America 1945. She was the first Jewish Miss America and she spent decades being famous just for being famous and eventually became New York City's cultural affairs commissioner. At the time of her arrest for shoplifting, outside a shopping mall, she was also facing charges for bribery and conspiracy coming from hiring a judge's daughter, presumably to influence the judge to rule favorably toward Myerson's lover in his divorce case.

I only mention the stressful trial in Bess Myerson's life because it may be an indicator of kleptomania in her case. Kleptomaniacs are not sticky-fingered people lifting everything they touch. No, they don't steal all the time and they don't steal everything. They often go years between episodes. There are thieves who take things because they need them or because they're worth money or because they're useful. Kleptomaniacs, on the other hand, take things that might be useless to them. They steal on impulse, not planning ahead. They feel increased tension right before the theft, and, they feel pleasure or relief at the time of the theft. They may even set themselves up during a high stress event in their lives to increase stress further in order to feel the pleasure later. Does that make sense? Anyway. That's what a doctor friend of mine explained to me.

Arrested for shoplifting was another notary, Hedy Lamarr. She had stolen $21.48 worth of goods from a drugstore in Florida in August 1991. "I forgot to put them in my cart," the once famous actress said at the time. Her daughter said calls and cards came from all over the country in her support and added, "She is not down and out and doesn't need help." But, it happened again and after her second incident she told a radio interviewer "I'm sick and tired of being in the limelight."

According to the McLeod Health Information Library report, "Some people with kleptomania keep the objects they take secret. Others may feel guilty and will try to return the stolen items."

True kleptomania is rare; most people who steal do not have kleptomania. However, shoplifting is common, often a rebellious lark in the teen years, perhaps done on a dare. In the general population, people who shoplift know what they're doing and take things they want. According to the McLeod report, fewer than five percent of shoplifters have kleptomania. Of the three mentioned here, Winona, Bess and Hedy (and these alleged shoplifters fit the syndrome) not one of them needed the items, nor, if they did, couldn't afford to pay for them.

Just when the world thought they had it all, these people lost their way and got caught stealing. Or did they have it all, or was the common denominator having an obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorder? Unless someone's lighting fires (pyromaniacs) or pulling out their hair (trichotillomaniacs) or blurting out profanities (Tourette's Syndrome) we're not likely to notice this mental illness.

And, legally, we don't allow for it. Unlike murder, where the legal system has degrees: pre-meditated; temporarily insane; self-defense, etc., the legal penalty for stealing remains the same, regardless of the cause. Any theft worth more than $500 is a felony. Winona Ryder, the Oscar nominated actress and star of "Girl, Interrupted," is in a real life drama we'll watch unfold. Did she do the crime? And, if so, will she do the time?