Shoplifting – “Why Winona Ryder Did It!”

With the recent release of the University of Florida’s annual survey showing an uptick in retail crime in 2008, much will be made of how the economy is to blame. With loss prevention staff and budgets being slashed, organized retail crime rings—which continue to grow anyway–have taken advantage of these vulnerabilities. But individual shoplifting has also increased and employee theft has only ever so slightly declined.

“This year both the dollar loss and rate of loss increased and the evidence shows that the economy and resulting cutbacks in staffing by retailers are creating an opportunistic environment for both individual shoplifters and organized retail criminals,” said Richard Hollinger, who directed the survey. “These are preliminary numbers from 2008 and do not reflect shoplifting and retail theft rates from the first part of 2009, when the recession was considered by many to be at its deepest.”

The worst may be yet to come…

So, what does this have to do with Winona Ryder? Well, despite a likely correlation between people losing jobs, homes, money in the stock market and an increase in stealing, many still find themselves perplexed by why people with “money in their pockets” resort to theft. Winona Ryder, an assumed millionaire, may be the world’s most famous shoplifter. She went to trial in 2001, was found guilty, avoided jail and was ordered into counseling. Some unofficial reports on the Internet as recent as last year indicate she may still have a problem–as may millions of other Americans who may be shoplifting or committing employee theft due less to financial fears or simple need or greed. Whenever there are turbulent times and losses, people often make poor decisions and often look to chemicals or behaviors to anchor them, distract them, soothe them.

My primary profession is to educate, treat, and rehabilitate persons who shoplift and steal whose thieving has more complex psychological and emotional roots. It’s difficult to estimate what percentage of shrink this group of people accounts for but the research that is out there tends to argue that they account for the majority of it. Therefore, traditional thinking which suggests that more security and more punishment will deter everyone is naïve. This strategy hardly deters professional thieves and may have limited impact on others, be they kleptomaniacs or “theft addicts.” We need to understand and reach “the Winonas” of the world, too.

Well, Winona was in the news again recently. No, she wasn’t arrested again but she did give an interview that might shed some light on her famous problem. Here is an excerpt from an interview with her.

Winona Ryder can’t sleep, says Simon Braud in Empire. “I come from a long line of insomniacs,” says the 37-year old actress. On most nights she’ll rattle around her home in Los Angeles; sometimes, to break the boredom, she’ll get on the phone to fellow insomniac Al Pacino. “When you find someone you have that in common with, especially an actor, it’s a great bonding experience.” To find out what was keeping her up, she once went to a neurologist in New York. “He said, ‘Look at your life. It’s so strange. People stare at you, strangers know who you are, you pretend to be other people for a living. It’s normal that you get anxious as times, that you’re an insomniac.” Being an actress, though, is only one reason for her sleeplessness. “As soon as I told him I was an insomniac, he asked me if I was of Russian Jewish descent.” Indeed, she is; Ryder is very conscious of the fact that some of her relatives died in the Holocaust. When she does fall asleep, she often has a recurring dream of being trapped in a concentration camp. “He told me that something like 90 percent of insomniacs he treats are of Russian Jewish descent. He basically said, “You people have been freaked out for so long, it’s no wonder you can’t sleep!”

So, what does this have to do with her shoplifting? Since 1997 in my professional experience counseling people with theft issues—as well as in research—there is a marked prevalence of unresolved loss or trauma issues. Sleeplessness is also very common as a precursor to manifestation of theft behavior; sleeplessness also tends to increase as one develops a pattern of stealing as well. Though there’s no mention of shoplifting in Winona’s interview, one can only hope that her doctors and therapists are exploring various links to her most perplexing problem. Or, another possible explanation remains: for Winona, like millions of others, shoplifting is like just like a drug. It’s not about lack of money or even about the thing stolen.

In related news, just a couple of months ago, a new study came out by Dr. Jon Grant of The University of Minnesota on the benefits of a drug called Naltrexone in treating shoplifters and kleptomaniacs.

The following is an excerpt of an article by Conor Shine:

A drug commonly used to treat alcoholics and drug addicts can also treat kleptomaniacs’ addiction to shoplifting, a study released Wednesday by the University of Minnesota shows. The study, conducted by researchers at the Medical School, took place over a two year period and monitored 25 men and women who spent an average of at least one hour a week shoplifting. Some participants in the study were given the drug Naltrexone, which is used to treat alcohol and drug addicts, while others received a placebo. The study found those who received Naltrexone shoplifted less than those who were given the placebo.

Similarities in behavior between kleptomaniacs and other addicts have led therapists to try different drugs to help treat kleptomania in the past. But Dr. Jon Grant , lead investigator for the study, said this is the first rigorous study examining the effectiveness of drug treatment for shoplifting addicts. Although there is some debate as to what level of shoplifting qualifies as kleptomania, Grant said a kleptomaniac can be defined as anyone who has recurrent, uncontrollable impulses to steal.

He emphasized kleptomaniacs don’t shoplift because they can’t afford what they steal; instead they steal because it gives them a rush. Naltrexone is an opiate blocker that works by dampening the pleasure or high that kleptomaniacs get from shoplifting, said Grant, who is also a psychiatry professor.

Kleptomaniacs often know they shouldn’t steal and describe feeling shamed for their actions, Grant said, but the high addicts get is too “enticing” and they are unable to stop themselves. “They try to put it off, they try to delay doing it,” he said, “but the craving is too intense and they end up doing it.”

Although the drug will not cure kleptomania, Grant said with therapy and group support, Naltrexone can be a “piece of the puzzle.” With the discovery that Naltrexone can help treat kleptomania, Grant said he hopes addicts will be more open to discussing their issues. “If you’re a kleptomaniac it means, ‘okay maybe now there’s some evidence that something could help me,’” Grant said.

In the meantime, loss prevention folks can, perhaps, assist in some small way in keeping an open mind about people who steal. One size does not fit all. People steal for different reasons. All need to face consequences. Many could benefit from specialized counseling, support group attendance, reading books on topic, and even medication.

Terrence Daryl Shulman, JD,LMSW,ACSW,CAAC,CPC is a Detroit area therapist, attorney, author, and consultant. He is the Founder and Director of The Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft and Spending and is the founder of C.A.S.A. (Cleptomaniacs And Shoplifters Anonymous) groups in Michigan and online. He is the author of “Something for Nothing: Shoplifting Addiction and Recovery,” “Biting The Hand That Feeds: The Employee Theft Epidemic… New Perspectives, New Solutions” and  “Bought Out and $pent! Recovery from Compulsive $hopping and $pending.” He organized and presented at The First International Conference on Theft Addictions and Disorders in 2005 and The Second International Conference on Compulsive Theft & Spending in 2008. He has appeared as a guest expert on Oprah, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, The Today Show, The Early Show, and Good Morning America—among others. He can be reached at or 248-358-8508. His lead website is Mr. Shulman offers counseling and consulting in person and by phone.  $

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