The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting, by Rachel Shteir
Given that an estimated 30 million Americans shoplift and shoplifting cost American retailers an estimated $11.7 billion in 2009, you would think that it is a common topic for books and research.
Sadly, it is not. Those interested in treating people who chronically shoplift have great difficulty securing funding for research, and there have been only a handful of books published on the subject. One of the biggest reasons for this has been reluctance on the part of the larger psychiatric community to acknowledge that people could be addicted to anything other than substances. Eventually, as research on dopamine and neurology continue to show evidence that people can experience a physiological and psychological addiction to things such as gambling, stealing, eating, sex and other activities, this may change. But change has been slow to come.
Enter The Steal. In it, Shteir attempts to trace the cultural history of shoplifting, delineate types of people who steal, describe people who chronically shoplift (and people who try to help them), and finally offer an overview of remedies for the problem.
Reading this book was unsatisfying at best, frustrating at worst. As co-director of a Bay Area treatment program that helps people with compulsive stealing, I wish that I could say that Shteir felt some empathy for her subjects – or, in fact, that she feels anything but distain. As a psychologist, I wished that she had gone more into depth with the subject matter – spent less time on unnecessary, negative detail (describing a woman who shoplifts compulsively as “rail-thin” and “whispering” her question “at dusk one summer day”), and more time helping the reader to understand deeply about the issue. Frustratingly, she speaks to many who are working and researching in the field, but seems to spend as much time drawing them into caricatures as she does on the work they are doing.
If there is a silver lining in the book, it is the first part: Shoplifting in History. Shteir has clearly researched the cultural history of shoplifting, and the result is interesting and, at times, engaging. Perhaps if she had stuck with this subject matter and expanded it, she would have created a book that added something valuable to a subject which desperately needs it.