At the beginning of The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting (Penguin), DePaul University professor Rachel Shteir discusses England's Shoplifting Act, which made the crime punishable by hanging. Progressive parliamentarian Sir Samuel Romilly spent eight years, from 1810 to 1818, trying to get the act repealed; he "met strong and unique opposition," Shteir writes, though he could offer "anecdotes and statistics showing that hanging shoplifters did not deter stealing."
A couple hundred years later, attitudes have shifted Romilly's way, but shoplifting is still common. The National Retail Security Survey for 2009 reported that it cost American merchants $11.7 billion that year and accounted for 35 percent of "shrink," or goods lost to theft and error. Shteir details not only the history of the five-finger discount, but its psychology, its status in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the types of shoplifters, and current practices among "loss prevention agents." The material could easily become dry, but Shteir imbues even a security videotape of a woman boosting clothes with suspense—we ultimately learn that the woman is Winona Ryder.
Whether or not shoplifting is a disease, Shteir's evidence strongly suggests that it's not curable. In case after case, the perps she documents go back to their old habits after treatment or incarceration, sometimes on the way home from jail. At a group therapy session held by the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, a grandmother with a penchant for stealing grocery items reflects on the difficulty of stopping. "How will I satisfy myself?" Shteir quotes her saying. "My accomplishment is to shoplift." Wed 10/12, 7:30 PM, Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark, 773-769-9299, womenandchildrenfirst.com. F