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CNN AMERICAN MORNING WITH PAULA ZAHN

Former Shoplifter Writes About Why People Steal

Aired July 8, 2002 - 07:48   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Actress Winona Ryder has been the butt of countless jokes since being arrested for shoplifting back in December, and Ryder, herself, has made light of the charges against her. She has pleaded not guilty to stealing almost $5,000 worth of merchandise from a Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills. While Ryder's trial has put shoplifting in the news, millions of Americans are said to be addicted to stealing.

In the current issue of "Good Housekeeping" magazine, a former shoplifter, Terrence Shulman, writes about why people steal. Shulman is the founder of Cleptomaniacs and Shoplifters Anonymous. He joins us now from Detroit -- good morning -- nice to have you with us.

TERRENCE SHULMAN, FOUNDER, CASA: Good morning -- thank you for having me.

ZAHN: Also with us this morning, Joanne Kaufman, contributing editor of "Good Housekeeping" -- good morning to you as well.

JOANNE KAUFMAN, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, "GOOD HOUSEKEEPING": Good morning.

ZAHN: Terrence, what did you used to steal?

SHULMAN: Well, I stole, or shoplifted rather, a lot of small items, cassette tapes, magazines, toiletry items. It really wasn't about the value of the item. It really was about trying to escape my life and a lot of painful feelings, and I got hooked into his behavior, and it was more about the act and the adrenaline rush of the stealing than really what was actually shoplifted.

ZAHN: How many times did you get caught?

SHULMAN: I have been arrested twice in my life. The first time was 1986, when I was 21, and the second and last time was 1990, when I was 25.

ZAHN: And is that the last time you stole anything?

SHULMAN: It's not the last time I shoplifted anything, though it has been at least about five, six, seven years since I last had a relapse. But in the last 10 years, there have only been a couple of times. I consider myself to be in recovery, much as an alcoholic or a drug addict or a gambling addict might consider him or herself in recovery.

ZAHN: Now, we should explain in the interim, you have gone off to law school, you have become a lawyer, and then you formed this club. And you still consider yourself in recovery, not cured.

SHULMAN: That's correct. The conventional wisdom is that if you have an addictive behavior that essentially you will be in recovery for much of your life. And that's not a bad thing. If you were diabetic, you are probably in recovery from that. And that's OK. But it was a behavior that I did for enough years that it imprinted itself in me, and it's a behavior that I could go back to at times of stress.

ZAHN: Well, Joanne, let's talk for a moment about how common this is in America.

KAUFMAN: OK.

ZAHN: I think your story basically says 1 in 11 Americans has done that at some point in their life. And the statistics are pretty staggering when you see that there has been a 13 percent increase...

KAUFMAN: Yes.

ZAHN: ... between 1984 and 1999. What kind of profile are we looking at here?

KAUFMAN: You know...

ZAHN: I mean, Terrence is a very smart guy. He knew what he was doing.

KAUFMAN: Well, you know, the thing is, men, women, young, old, rich, poor -- one of the people I talked to actually said that, he had called it pre-shoplifting, which at the time, I thought was startling. And then, I thought after what has been in the news lately, I thought this was somebody just trying to do the grand slam of the Ten Commandments.

So the fact is there is not a single person you could point to and think, oh, that person couldn't possibly do it, because anybody could. The thing is there are a lot of reasons that might propel somebody to do it.

One of the court-appointed counselors I talked to referred to errors in judgment or errors in thinking that cause people to do this. That a woman could be -- she has had a bad boss day, a bad hair day. She could somehow go -- she could go into a store and think, gee, this is the store that overcharged me last month. Or darn it, why do I have to wait so long at the cash register? Or that clerk was rude to me. Or they've got a lot of these shorts. They're not going to miss one of them. So any of these...

ZAHN: But there's a constant rationalization they go through.

KAUFMAN: Well, there's always a rationalization that sort of greases the behavior, and frankly, as one woman said to me, "any excuse will do." A woman who shopped at Wal-Mart a lot said, "I come here a lot, they sort of owe me a present." So she took some videos.

ZAHN: But you also say it's not more prevalent among women than men.

KAUFMAN: No.

ZAHN: It's pretty evenly divided. So when men go and shoplift, what's motivating them? Is it much like Terrence, they are making up for something that was missing in their childhood, or some sort of grievance?

KAUFMAN: It could be. I think that to do this, people will work out whatever rationalization they want to, and I think rationalization is not particularly a sex-based attitude.

ZAHN: And, Terrence, the bottom line, though, is that retailers lose some -- what is it -- $25 million a day to shoplifting. How do you make people understand that when they steal something that, in fact, is adding to the increased costs of what they are going to end up buying the next time around?

SHULMAN: Well, we don't make any excuses for our behavior. I started one of the few support groups in the whole country 10 years ago here in the Detroit area. We have a Web page at www.shopliftersanonymous.com. And first and foremost, any addict feels very bad about what they do, believe it or not. We have a lot of guilt and shame. I felt that. People come in feeling horrible about themselves.

But primarily what we focus on is building up the person's self- esteem again, and trying to separate out the fact that they have an addictive behavior that is hurting others from the fact that they are also a very good person who is crying for help. So over time, people do stop their behavior, which helps society in general.

But we tend to focus more on people's lives rather than who we are hurting. We are hurting people, but the addict doesn't tend to think about other people. That's the nature of addiction. They are lost in their own drama, their own pain. And it isn't usually appropriate to focus necessarily only on how they are hurting others. Then, they tend to take that and make themselves feel even worse about it and continue the behavior.

So we have to do a long process in the ongoing support group about getting to the core of it, altering our behaviors, staying out of stores, finding different ways to fill the void...

ZAHN: OK.

SHULMAN: ... how to cope with anger. And we have been very successful.

There is also very little literature about this subject. I am writing a book, which is due out at the end of the month, hopefully self-published, but if there is a publisher out there -- because there is very little literature. So we have a topic that is very misunderstood, very shameful, and we have very few groups. My hope is that by having this program, we'll have more people say, wow, you mean there is a group for that? Maybe we ought to start one.

We have an e-mail support group, and again, there's only a handful of groups in the whole country, not because there is not a need, because 1 out of 11 people shoplifts. But I think we're on the cutting edge here only beginning to recognize...

ZAHN: All right.

SHULMAN: ... that this behavior is out of control.

ZAHN: We are going to have to leave it there this morning, Terrence Shulman, Joanne Kaufman. And you had another interesting statistic in there. About 70 percent of non-professional shoplifters really don't think about their thefts in advance, contrary to what, you know, some of the folks told you about in the pre-interviews that you'll find really fascinating.

KAUFMAN: Yes. It is.

ZAHN: Thanks for bringing it to our attention, "Good Housekeeping."

KAUFMAN: Sure.

ZAHN: Appreciate both of your time.

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