Hold It Right There!
Our Kleptomaniac Culture
Kleptomania has always been for the relatively well-off; the poor merely steal. Although stealing for pleasure dates as far back as St. Augustine, who purloined pears simply for the thrill of it, shoplifting is essentially a middle-class activity. No wonder that in the 1970s, when members of the radical Youth International Party (the Yippies) extolled shoplifting as a way to shock the bourgeoisie, manifestos became best-sellers and even mainstream publications celebrated the five-finger discount.
Émile Zola was one of the first writers to connect the dots between objectification, commodification and stealing for pleasure. In Zola’s Ladies’ Paradise, shoplifting is payback. Au Bonheur des Dames, Zola’s fictional department store, robs its female shoppers of autonomy and self-esteem; in exchange, the disempowered women steal whatever they can.
Zola was hardly the last to argue petty theft can be justified as karmic compensation. In the 1970s, shoplifting again took on political dimensions when it was championed by counterculture icon Jerry Rubin, who argued that shoplifting was a euphoria-inducing revolutionary gesture. But Rubin’s fellow Yippie and Chicago Seven codefendant, Abbie Hoffman, was the most outspoken proponent of “liberating” goods from the “Pig Empire.” In Steal This Book, Hoffman took the Zola critique to new heights by excusing shoplifting not only as a logical outgrowth of consumer culture but, further, as a necessary political act.
As for morality and the Ten Commandments, Hoffman had this to say: “To not steal from the institutions that are the pillars of the Pig Empire is immoral.”
Madame de Boves, a character in Émile Zola’s Ladies’ Paradise and one of the first literary kleptomaniacs, unravels as a result of her husband’s adulterous affair. Her thwarted desires manifest in a yearlong odyssey into shoplifting and sublimation. Filching from a department store quickly becomes an addiction as de Boves experiences “sensual joy” from the risk of stealing what she doesn’t need. Ultimately she’s caught by the store detective, and her private shame turns to the public humiliation of a bourgeois lady who seemed to have everything.
The trope of a sad woman with all the material advantages who tries to fill a void with a surfeit of consumer products is an enduring one. Kleptomaniacs have perplexed analysts ever since the term was coined in 1838, the same year Aristide Boucicaut opened his first shop in Paris. (That store eventually grew into Le Bon Marché, which Zola fictionalized in The Ladies’ Paradise.) The media was similarly nonplussed when actor Winona Ryder was caught stealing some $5,000 worth of merchandise from Saks Fifth Avenue in 2001.
Au Bonheur des Dames, the fictional department store in Émile Zola’s Ladies’ Paradise, was modeled after Le Bon Marché, a Left Bank institution preeminent among les grands magasins—“great department stores.” Its roots were modest. Starting out as a retail shop opened by Aristide Boucicaut in 1838, it soon morphed into a multifaceted emporium. In 1869 it expanded into a massive complex and began to lay waste to its small neighboring competitors by tempting female patrons with luxe apparel and cosmetics, unprecedented choice and widely publicized events called “sales,” at which goods were offered at deep discounts for a limited time.
Historians cite Le Bon Marché as the first modern department store. It retailed luxury to an emerging middle class, and its highly successful model was emulated and adapted by Whiteleys in London, Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia and Gimbel Brothers in Milwaukee. Gimbels became one of the most profitable of these new “universal provider” stores and developed into a chain. After the company went public in 1922, it bought out its competitor, Saks & Co., and later opened Saks Fifth Avenue, one of the best-known retailers of all time.
More than a decade later, film star Winona Ryder’s shoplifting debacle still has the power to flabbergast. On December 12, 2001, Ryder was arrested for walking out of Saks Fifth Avenue with somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,000 worth of designer goods. Her escapade was hardly a professional heist—security footage shows her nervous, clumsy escape out the front door, as she hoists a garment bag over her shoulder and hightails it for the parking lot. As it happened, Ryder’s story seemed to signal a return to normalcy, whatever that would come to mean, as her botched caper was one of the first bits of celebrity gossip to distract news broadcasters and the public from coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Ryder also became the all-time most famous celebrity shoplifter, eclipsing Farrah Fawcett, Jennifer Capriati and even Hedy Lamarr. The actor remains a poster child for bourgeois addiction to shoplifting, prompting a nation to ask why people with no material needs should feel such a pressing urge to help themselves to a five-finger discount.
Abbie Hoffman could hardly be blamed for American “shrinkage,” or the theft of retail products, which was already on the rise a decade before he published Steal This Book. In 1965 the FBI reported that shoplifting had jumped 93 percent in the previous five years and had become part of the cultural fabric. It signified repression—in movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964)—and playful rebelliousness, as in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), in which the characters Holly Golightly and Paul Varjak steal cat and dog masks and run home. No, Hoffman simply identified a trend, made it into a political statement and delivered a manifesto on how (with a partner and baggy clothes) and why (it gives you a rush, and stolen food tastes better!) to liberate goods. Yippies (members of the Youth International Party) helped turn shoplifting from a regular pastime for bored youth into something that wound up costing the country $16 billion a year in shrinkage by the end of the 1970s. Ironically, Steal This Book was not a victim of shrinkage. In bookstores it was chained to the counter so people would be forced to buy it. The strategy worked and the book sold 100,000 copies.
Although department stores were pioneers in manipulating consumers with mazelike layouts of visually appealing impulse goods designed to overwhelm women until they experience spontaneous desire, they are not the worst victims of shrinkage. A 2002 study determined that department stores on average experience a six percent annual loss as a result of shrinkage, which includes shoplifting, damaged and spoiled goods, administrative errors and—more than any other category—employee theft. Supermarkets and drugstores top the shrinkage rates at more than 10 percent.
But department stores are still plagued by shrinkage year in, year out. Shareholder reports contain detailed accounts of efforts to contain the problem, which is generally considered a dirty little industry secret, since it indicates unrest among employees and could potentially encourage shoplifters to target certain chains. One such was the Herald Square Gimbels, Saks Fifth Avenue’s parent company’s New York flagship, which, when it closed in 1986, had the highest rate of shrinkage in the world, thought to be a consequence of its many exits leading directly into the subway system.
Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book influenced more than just the late boomers who came of age around the time it went on sale. Even before the book, the Yippies’ countercultural movement was notorious for its antiwar stance, its “guerrilla theater” tactics and, ultimately, the disruption of the Democratic National Convention in 1968 (for which the group’s leaders, including Hoffman, were tried for conspiracy to riot). At the trial, other aspects of the group’s activities were examined, including members’ drug use. To that end, acid guru Timothy Leary was called to testify.
The group was ultimately found not guilty, and the trial ended on an absurdist note: Hoffman counseled the judge to try LSD for himself. Many Yippies continued to study the use of consciousness-expanding drugs like LSD, including Hoffman and Leary’s mutual associate, Michael Horowitz, who became an author and archivist of the largest cache of drug literature in the world. One of the many books in the library was Steal This Book, which presumably his daughter, Winona Ryder (née Horowitz), had access to. Especially when her godfather, Leary, was in charge of bedtime reading.