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Picture this scenario: A man – a retired emeritus professor in his late 70s – strolls into a local supermarket. When a clerk tells him they don’t carry the particular brand of salad dressing he’s looking for, he walks over to investigate for himself.
Lo’ and behold, he finds it in stock.
After a pause, he picks it up, puts it in his coat pocket and leaves the store without so much as a second glance.
Before you call him a petty thief, think about it for a second: This guy can certainly afford a couple bucks’ worth of dressing.
By the American Psychiatric Association‘s definition, all signs are pointing toward kleptomania.
The only problem is that, according to the man’s psychologist, Dr. Will Cupchik, he isn’t a kleptomaniac at all.
Per the APA, there are five characteristics an individual must meet in order to fit the bill: They impulsively steal stuff they can afford/don’t need; they get a thrill doing it; they feel badly afterward; there are no other mental issues to blame; and, lastly, they don’t steal out of anger or vengeance.
It’s the last part about being angry that Dr. Cupchik, author of Why Honest People Shoplift or Commit Other Acts of Theft, finds troubling.
“The definition, as far as I’m concerned, basically eliminates virtually all cases of what I call ‘atypical theft behaviour,'” he said in a recent telephone interview. “Kleptomania virtually doesn’t exist.”
In the three decades he’s spent studying and writing on the subject, he claims he can barely come up with a handful of his 700+ patients who have qualified as true kleptomaniacs. Nearly all of them were acting, in part, based on some type of anger or need for vengeance.
Let’s revisit Prof. Salad Dressing’s case:
If you asked him how he felt during the theft, as Dr. Cupchik did, he’d tell you he wasn’t upset or angry at all. He stole the dressing on impulse and felt horribly guilty afterward.
But dig a bit deeper and you’d find out the last time he was at that store, he’d been called by a neighbour to pick up his ailing wife the week before. She’d been wandering around, dazed and sobbing, after undergoing a rather intense chemotherapy treatment at a hospital. At the time, he was furious that no one who worked in the store had offered to help her.
“I’d like to suggest that that this professor stole this jar of dressing not by chance, but because he was so angry,” Dr. Cupchik said. “And because he was angry, you cannot call him a kleptomaniac.”
So, what do you call the millions of Americans who can’t shake the urge to steal for no good reason?
For now, Atypical Theft Offenders will have to do, at least until the APA can figure out whether it’s going to change its definition or not. Dr. Cupchik said that those wheels are already turning and the change could come as soon as 2013.
But that’s not the complete answer. The worry now is that once psychologists stop having to ask whether ATOs were acting out of anger before they stole, it’s possible that what’s actually triggering the theft won’t ever be found.
“What’s going on in their mind is (a cognitive distortion) and the next question is, ‘What was going on in your life just prior to your act of stealing’?” he said.
“For a lot of these people, there’s been early abuse, early sexual abuse, physical abuse. It’s really important to find the source, and until you do, they’ll be at risk for doing it again.”
If you’ve shown signs of kleptomania, seek help via the APA’s psychologist finder.
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