True Stories: An Ordinary Thief

Melissa Morgan is a suburban mom and policeman’s wife, who lives in a four-bedroom home. She is also a compulsive shoplifter.

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True Stories: An Ordinary Thief

Melissa Morgan, a 44-year-old suburban mother with brown hair past her shoulders and rectangular glasses, is giving me a tour of her home in a medium-sized Canadian city.

"This wine cabinet was stolen," she says, pointing to a piece almost three metres high, which she snagged by simply balancing it on her shopping cart and, when no one was looking, walking through an empty checkout lane and out of the Walmart.

She goes to the cabinet, pulls out a crystal martini glass and gestures at the rest, a set of six. "These, too."

One of the glasses still has a price tag on it. "You've never used them?" I ask. "No," she laughs, "Probably not." Down the hall, her guest bathroom is straight out of a home décor magazine: four plush hand towels, as well as a matching garbage can, soap dish, liquid dispenser, canisters and a tray. "Everything in here was stolen," she says. "Is this the bathroom set you told me about earlier?" "No. This is one of them," she says nervously.

According to the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, there were close to 100,000 incidents of shoplifting in Canada in 2009. For most shoplifters, thieving is short-lived: a few CDs or a pair of jeans pinched, perhaps, during high-school trips to the mall. But for addicts such as Melissa, stealing is a serious high.

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Last February, Ottawa Mountie Suzanne Martel made headlines when she was relieved of her post at the Vancouver Olympics after being charged with shoplifting while off-duty. Why would a staff sergeant, making at least $99,000 a year, gamble her career and reputation stealing goods she could easily afford? It's the kind of question psychologists have struggled to answer since the Victorian era. In her 1992 book, When Ladies Go A-Thieving, historian Elaine Abelson wrote that 19th-century American society accepted kleptomania, a new diagnosis, as one credible explanation for why "respectable" middle-class women were stealing from department stores.

At the time, doctors believed it to be caused by "uterine irregularity"; today, psychologists categorize kleptomania as an impulse-control disorder (ICD) - defined as "the failure to resist an impulse, drive or temptation to perform an act that is harmful to one's self or others." Compulsive gambling and pyromania are other ICDs.

In 2006 University of Minnesota psychiatrist Jon Grant, who heads one of the biggest ICD clinics in North America, became the first to study brain images of kleptomaniacs. Most people have a brake mechanism in the frontal lobe, which balances the desire for reward with the risks of bad behaviour. Grant's study found that this circuitry appears to be impaired in the brains of chronic shoplifters.

Grant bolstered his theory in 2009 by giving one group of kleptomaniacs a placebo and the other Naltrexone, an opiate blocker that has proven effective at treating alcohol and cocaine addiction by temporarily taking the brain's endorphin system out of commission. Two thirds of the test subjects taking Naltrexone reduced their stealing, compared with less than ten percent of those not on the drug.

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Shoplifting addicts, according to Grant, have a hyperactive reward circuitry in their brains: When they get a rush of pleasure from stealing, they want to repeat the act. For kleptomaniacs, shoplifting can be as addictive as heroin.

Melissa started shoplifting in her early teens, following an unstable childhood during which she never stayed at any one school for more than a year. But it wasn't a compulsion, she says - not yet. By 19, Melissa was pregnant with her first child and married to Connor*, a police officer. The couple had accrued a certain amount of debt building a house and couldn't afford everything on their wish list (cute baby clothes, a thick housecoat for Connor). So Melissa swiped them.

Two years later, in 1988, she took a part-time job at a jewellery store, where her addiction came into full swing. She stole valuable engagement rings and costume jewellery from her employer, enough to fill a dresser drawer. Eventually, fearing she might get caught, Melissa confessed. The store owner had her charged with theft under $5,000. No one expected a first-time offender to go to jail, but the judge decided to make an example of a cop's wife. He sentenced Melissa to 90 days.

In prison, Melissa watched as most inmates, from a drug dealer to a drunk driver who had killed a pedestrian, received counselling. Aside from one visit from a minister, no one offered to help Melissa with her problem.

For the most part, that's still the case today: When a psychological disorder leads to criminal behaviour, says Grant, people have a lot less sympathy for the culprit.

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Read Hayes, director of the U.S.-based Loss Prevention Research Council, doesn't have much compassion for thieves. While he acknowledges that kleptomania exists, he thinks the number of shoplifters who are true kleptomaniacs is probably below five percent - most thieves really know better, he says.

"It's also a myth that no one gets hurt when you shoplift," says Hayes, a 34-year veteran of the industry. "Every day I see reports of shoplifters getting violent because they don't want to be apprehended. I've seen stores close down in heavily shoplifted areas. And ultimately, the cost of theft prevention is always passed on to the consumer." And what a cost: Canadian retailers lose an estimated $3.6 billion a year to theft and its related expenses.

For Melissa, spending 90 days in prison and seeing her marriage almost destroyed convinced her not to steal again. At least not for another 15 years.

"This is where it gets interesting," she says, leading me upstairs to her bedroom. This is the first time she has shown anyone the full range of what she has stolen. Like many compulsive shoplifters, she kept her habit a secret, living a cycle of seemingly irresistible highs and guilt-ridden lows punctuated by the occasional arrest. She's too embarrassed and scared to disclose everything to her husband. And if she gave away all the stolen items at once (which she is doing slowly, as part of her present course of therapy), it would look as if their house had been robbed.

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She moves to the bathroom and picks up a diamond tennis bracelet lying on the counter.

"I stole this bracelet at the airport," she says, then shows me nine bottles of cologne, luxurious designer towels and countless hues of nail polish, none of which she uses - all stolen.

Toronto psychologist Will Cupchik has treated nearly 1,000 shoplifters over the last 37 years. He says Melissa's story appears to share key similarities with the profile of an "atypical theft offender" (ATO), a term he prefers to "kleptomaniac." Most ATOs are basically ethical, honest people, argues Cupchik. They have often experienced a traumatic loss or upset in childhood - whether it's divorce, frequent moves or the death of a family member. They perceive the loss as unfair, which leads to an emptiness, like a hole in the middle of the gut. And out of that springs a well of resentment and anger.

"Resentment is a huge component of an ATO," says Cupchik. "And I'd say in 97 percent of the cases I've treated, ATOs have major issues with their partners. They tend not to deal with these issues and don't confront their partners appropriately."

According to Cupchik, it's also common for ATOs to lash out at their partners by getting arrested for stealing - especially humiliating if they happen to be married to authority figures such as lawyers, police officers or judges. "It's a way to embarrass them," says Cupchik. But, he says, the ATOs are never conscious of the reason why they're stealing - that only comes out after, in therapy.

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By 2004 Melissa and Connor had relocated to a northern community with their three kids. As her husband moved up the ranks of the police force, Melissa landed an $80,000-a-year job in social services. In spite of the family's financial stability, Melissa started to shoplift again - this time to distract from problems in her marriage. On the brink of divorce, the couple decided to move back south and start over. But without a university degree, Melissa couldn't find another high-paying position.

Her shoplifting excursions became structured expeditions, complete with lists of what she would steal. She usually paid for an item or two, to assuage her guilt and to keep security guards at bay. Reusable shopping bags were a godsend. She'd head to the grocery store and pack her bags with a cartful of food. Nearing the cash, her heart beat fast. At the earliest opportunity, she'd walk coolly past an empty checkout - sick with panic - and out to the parking lot. It wasn't until she got home and unpacked her purchases that the high kicked in. She loved counting up how much she had stolen.

Melissa's five-year run came to an end at a grocery store in October 2009. She was visiting her sister, Jeanette, who was cooking dinner for a hot date that night. Melissa decided to help her out.

Inside Melissa's shopping bag the security guard found four candles, butter, salt and pepper, barbecue sauce, a rack of ribs, a box of crackers and four bottles of perfume. The total: $320. Melissa had talked her way out of a couple of close calls over the years, but this time the dumb-housewife act didn't work.

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She called her husband. "Connor, I'm in trouble. I was shopping and I got picked up."

"Okay, we'll figure this out," he said. And then, "This sucks. You're an idiot."

"I know."

"You have a problem," said her husband, who had battled his own addiction with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous. "You need to get help. I'm here to support you, but you have to do this yourself."

For Melissa, hope came when she found the website of The Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft and Spending. Addictions counsellor Terrence Shulman, its founder, opened the Detroit-based centre in 2004 after struggling to find a doctor who would specifically treat his shoplifting addiction. (There is only a handful of such specialists in North America.) Shulman gets shoplifters to see themselves from a new perspective - specifically, that they are not alone, that they are compulsive addicts and that they have to examine the root of their problem to move past it. He's developed a 12-step program loosely based on the AA model.

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After several telephone sessions with Shulman, Connor and Melissa travelled to Detroit for three days of intensive therapy. In Michigan, Melissa also attended a self-help-group meeting for shoplifters, where she had a revelation: "The lies I had told, the members of the group had all told. It was quite an amazing awareness," says Melissa. Realizing that she had a disorder motivated her to fight it. Since then she has learned to ask her husband for support. Her marriage is now the strongest it's ever been, she says.

With Connor's help, Melissa successfully fought her shoplifting charge. She decided to share her story with me as part of her therapy, to let others know they're not alone.

"I've been clean for a year," Melissa told me when I called her in March. When she goes shopping, she takes only her debit card, or the tiny purse Connor bought her, which has room only for a wallet. She tries not to shop alone.

"I want to do a little dance with my receipt in front of the store surveillance camera, proving I purchased all the items," she says. "I want to say to the world, 'I didn't steal anything. These are mine, and I paid for them!'"