Wednesday, September 14, 2011

(don't) steal this book

Rachel Shteir opens her bizarrely compelling yet uneven book, The Steal, with the infamous Winona Ryder shoplifting case of 2001 (remember that?). There was a frisson of schadenfreude when Ryder was arrested, but the sympathy pendulum seemed to swing in her favor after her trial, which quickly turned into a public lashing. Ryder received a much harsher sentence than similar offenders. She seems to have been forgiven, telling Vogue in 2007 that she didn't feel a tremendous sense of guilt, since she hadn't harmed anyone, and blaming the whole episode on an overuse of painkillers. Her career appears to have mended itself, with roles in Black Swan, Star Trek, and a handful of upcoming films (including one with Burton and a rumored Heathers sequel).

Should Ryder have felt a tremendous sense of guilt? Shteir presents reasons that support both yes and no, although she ultimately leaves the decision up to the reader.

In The Steal, Shtier argues that Ryder's case was not only compelling because of its celebrity (plenty other famous and not-so-famous people have been nabbed purloining things) but because Ryder fit the profile of the 'typical shoplifer' so well: a woman, stealing things she probably could have afforded if she wanted to pay for them, and filching luxury goods instead of anything essential.

But is this the typical shoplifter? The Steal is full of interesting little statistical pieces, such as pointing out that while shoplifting is thought of as something more women do, more men than women actually steal. Women tend to steal clothes, jewelry, and cosmetics; men tend to steal books, tools, and other gadgets.

Part one of The Steal looks at the history of shoplifting, from the first codified laws against it in the Book of Hammurabi, where stealing from the rich is punished more harshly than stealing from the poor. Hammurabi was apparently a conservative. Plato also takes on stealing in The Republic, musing about what stealing means to a society, and who can forget Saint Augustine's famous pears? The scale of Augustine's theft is laughably small, but his horror at his transgression - not so much the stealing, but stealing and then throwing away, not even eating his spoils - is palpable.

It wasn't until Elizabethan England that shoplifting, not just regular garden-variety theft, became a big problem. The rise of the city, with its attendant shops and the newly available luxury goods, led to an explosion in shoplifting. However, England's attitude towards thieves was a weird mix of hero-worship and condemnation. England passed extremely strict punishments for stealing in 1699, the so-called "Bloody Code," that included capital punishment for petty crimes. After seeing more than one impoverished mother hanged for stealing food, the public attitude towards shoplifting turned, aided by books and songs that celebrated notorious thieves like Moll Flanders.

However, by the 1800s, the rise of psychoanalytic theory changed the attitude towards shoplifters considerably. The 1806 "Treatise on Insanity" included an entry on kleptomania. A century later, Freud would solidify the modern conception of kleptomania as a woman's disease, blaming it on "female sexual repression," - although according to Freud, I could probably blame my habit of eating a dozen eggs a week and chewing my hangnails on female sexual repression. Still, an earnest effort to reform so-named kleptomaniacs began, which I personally believe is preferable to hanging them.

In chapter three, Shtier looks at stealing as a form of protest, spurred by Abbie Hoffman's famous work, Steal This Book, that urged readers to steal from large corporations as a way to protest..well, corporations, I think? Shtier takes a distasteful tone towards Hoffman and his ilk, and she includes an interview with a Dumpster-diving freegan that finds her more bewildered than enlightened by his philosophy.

Shtier circles back around to the celebrity shoplifter theme with the arrest of Hedy Lamarr in 1965 and 1991, both for ridiculously miniscule amounts. Shtier looks at the lady thief motif in Hollywood, from Breakfast at Tiffany's Holly Golightly to Remember the Night's Lee Leander.

The Steal loses its light, witty tone at the end, when Shtier shifts the focus to counter-theft measures, from the invention of alarm tags to profiling.

It's a little unclear exactly what Shtier's main thesis is, but she asserts that in the advent of the bad-behavior era of reality television (which, has anyone else noticed, has become a shorthand for generally crass and boorish behavior?), shoplifting remains the "last species of creepy conduct," although her inclusion of quotes hailing the dashing shoplifter undercut her argument. There seems to be a split here, between the Robin Hood or Jean Valjean figure, stealing for a cause, to the bored housewife or skulking thief. Of course, in neither of those archetypes figure the boosters who make actual money stealing things in bulk and reselling them.

The Steal, despite its scattered argument, is a very interesting read about a particular source of shame in a society that seems to be losing the ability to feel that emotion. Shtier's skill at research and interviewing is evident in The Steal, and the historical anecdotes are fascinating. Theft, not prostitution, may be the oldest trade in the world.

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