“I am honest. I will not steal. If I do steal I will be caught and sent to jail”


From Barnes and Noble Review:

“All money represents theft,” wrote the yippie guru Jerry Rubin. “Shoplifting gets you high. Don’t buy. Steal. If you act like it’s yours, no one will ask you to pay for it.” Like Abbie Hoffman, whose Steal This Book! argued that it was immoral not to steal from the privileged classes in America and who referred to shoplifting as “an act of revolutionary love,” Rubin saw theft as an admirable strike against the status quo—until his own apartment was robbed. “In advocating stealing as a revolutionary act,” he wrote after that, “I guess I didn’t make clear the difference between stealing from General Motors and stealing from me.”

As Rachel Shteir makes clear in The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting, not everyone who steals consumer goods is as high-minded as Rubin and Hoffman. Some people—the so-called boosters—steal for money, intending to resell the items. Others steal because they want something they cannot afford. Many can afford the items they pocket but enjoy them more if they are stolen. Some feel entitled to the objects and feel that they should not have to pay, or crave the sense of achievement derived from having pulled off a successful heist. “How will I satisfy myself?” asks “Jane,” a grandmother and repeat offender, at a shoplifting prevention session. “Cooking for [my husband]? My accomplishment is to shoplift.”

Unfortunately, stories about shoplifters—be they ordinary citizens like Jane, or high-profile personages like Winona Ryder or Claude Allen—are not, on the whole, very interesting. The Steal is more enjoyable when recounting the odd and sometimes absurd ideas that people have held in connection with kleptomania and shoplifting. The Victorian era saw such publications as Henry Allen’s “Prize Essay on Kleptomania, with a View to Determine Whether Kleptomaniacs Should Be Held Disqualified for Employments of Trust and Authority under the Crown,” in which Allen claimed, “The personal appearance of kleptomaniacs is easily recognized…. [Their eyes] are of neutral colour, which frequently changes its predominant tint: green when dejected, red when furious.”

Attempts to stem the rising tide of shoplifting, meanwhile, range from the silly to the sinister. Some retailers have tried subliminal messages:

Department stores across the country piped in sentences like “I am honest. I will not steal. If I do steal I will be caught and sent to jail” through teenybopper lyrics and Muzak. An academic named David Riccio tried to sell his version of a subliminal antishoplifting tool based on sounds. “Which is more impactful—the words ‘a baby is crying’ or ‘a baby crying’?” he asked, adding, à la The Manchurian Candidate, that he aimed to turn a store into “an environment that people are apt to not have an immoral thought in,” by interpolating church bell chimes and choirs.

“Review of The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting“, Troy Jollimore, Barnes and Noble Review