A Strange Case of Unconscious Shoplifting

Sometimes a psychological problem has its day in court. Last year, I was contacted by a middle-aged woman from Pennsylvania, who had been arrested by the local police for having shoplifted in a supermarket. Now here is the interesting thing: she claimed to have no memory of having shoplifted (and I still believe her). But the supermarket had video tapes of her having stolen food and other items, on at least three separate occasions.

Ellen (I’ve created that name to protect her identity) certainly didn’t fit the profile of a typical shoplifter. She was neither an indigent person in search of her next meal, nor a rich, but neurotic, Hollywood movie star afflicted with kleptomania. On the contrary, she was the image of middleclass respectability. More specifically, she was the principal of a Christian-based high school in Pennsylvania.

In her position as principal, Ellen certainly earned enough money. Obviously, there was little practical reason for her to have stolen, on each occasion, a handful of food items, flowers, etc. It was apparent that something deeper was going on with her.

Ellen feared that if her employer, the high school, found out about her arrest she could lose her job as principal. Certainly, it would tarnish her reputation in her local community. I mention that fact because she really had dual motives for seeking my assistance. She wanted to be cured of her malady. More importantly, though, she hoped that seeing a psychotherapist about her shoplifting might inspire the local district attorney to convince the supermarket to drop the case against her. At least that was the strategy of her lawyer. The fact that I am not a psychotherapist, but a philosophical counselor — who insists on delving into the deeper meaning of life’s problems — was of little concern to Ellen and her lawyer, who requested that I write a letter on Ellen’s behalf.

Attention Deficit?

The day after meeting with Ellen, her lawyer telephoned me to offer instructions regarding the letter. Over the years, I’ve known some modest lawyers, but far more who were arrogant. Alas, Ellen’s lawyer clearly belonged to the latter category. Rather than asking to hear my diagnosis, he immediately told me that he had diagnosed her.

“And what have you concluded?” I inquired. He then told me that it was a clear case of Attention Deficit Disorder. I started laughing, for Attention Deficit Disorder has become the psychological flavor of the month, used to explain and to justify a multitude of sins. In other words, according to the lawyer, Ellen had become so distracted by her problems that she had simply forgotten to go to the cash register, prior to leaving the supermarket, on at least three separate occasions.

I told Ellen’s lawyer that his diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder was very dubious. I then offered him my own diagnosis, which he in turn found to be dubious. It was clear that I was dealing with a well-meaning but narrow-minded and psychologically provincial person who had absolutely no understanding of the symbolic dimension of human desires and actions, nor was he interested in acquiring any understanding. I asked him to at least to consider it, but he said: “Well, I know the DA and he would never believe in such an explanation.” In any case, here is what I believe to be the key to the mystery of Ellen and her shoplifting…

What the Supermarket Symbolized

Now here was a real mystery. Ellen didn’t dispute that she had shoplifted, for she had seen the store’s video, but she insisted that she had no memory of having done so. Was Ellen telling the truth? It appeared to me that she was telling the truth for, on a rational level, it would have been insane for her to have jeopardized her career and reputation by engaging in petty larceny. Whatever were Ellen’s motivations, they would therefore have had to be unconscious. But what could they have been?

Let us consider her background for clues. To begin with, she has been emotionally overwrought for over a year. In addition to the quotidian pressures, concerns and anxieties endemic to being a principle at a Christian-based high school, she has been caring for her sister and her best friend, both of whom are dying of cancer. Ellen has had no one to turn to for support in these matters. Her parents  are deceased and she is unmarried.

Might it be that life’s pressures had caused Ellen to undergo psychological regression episodes? Exhausted from her role as caretaker — for her friends and siblings, as well as for the students and teachers at her school — she has been psychologically longing to assume the reverse role, i.e., to be taken care of by someone else. Although it may sound strange, I believe that Ellen had, in essence, projected the role of nurturing mother on to the supermarket. The friendly and pleasant atmosphere of that particular supermarket invites that sort of projection. There are no guards standing by the doors nor other evidence of store security in view. When you arrive on the checkout line with a bag of bagels (or muffins), the cashier doesn’t look inside the bag, but simply asks you how many bagels you have. The pleasant staff and friendly store announcements augment those maternal vibes.

The mother, archetypally speaking, gives freely, without expecting anything in return. Therefore, it wouldn’t make any sense to pay the mother. Rationally, all this is absurd. But we are not rational beings, especially when under some real psychological stress.

It, therefore, makes sense that Ellen would have no awareness of having shoplifted on those occasions, for she was not in the mode of awareness of being a responsible adult, a citizen who is required to engage in fair and honest monetary transactions with other citizens. On the contrary, being in that supermarket invited a regression to that mode of awareness in which she was a child being fed by her nurturing mother. It is important to understand that none of Ellen’s thinking or actions, in this regard, occurred on a conscious level.

I never saw Ellen again, after the initial intake session. I didn’t think that I would, based on the expression that on her face upon hearing my analysis of her malady. The popular expression is “deer in the headlights look.” Yes, the look was one of complete incomprehensibility.

That was a disappointment, for I had thought that since she was educated in the humanities she would be open to the possibility that a persons’ everyday life has a symbolic overlay. But, if we are dark to anything, it is to our own psyche and educated people are no exception.

Bookmark and Share

2 People have left comments on this post

» apiascik said: { Jul 12, 2010 - 11:07:56 }

I hate to say it, but perhaps her obtuseness was connected to the fact that she was a Christian (so we can assume from the fact that she is principal of a Christian High School). Among Christians, there’s an unwillingness to entertain the possibility that profound insights about the human condition are to be found outside of Christianity, or that there’s anything that other faiths might be able to teach Christians. Among evangelicals and fundamentalists especially, if it’s not in the Bible, it’s of negligible value. This arises, I think, from a fear that doing so will relativize their faith.

Jung’s theory of archetypes is a perfect example. I once read an article on a Christian website that drew the conclusion that “Philemon”, the “spirit guide” that Jung encountered in when he did his experiments in guided imagery while trying to resolve a profound midlife crisis, was actually a demon. The conclusion to be drawn, of course, is that Jung’s idea’s are satanic. The article can be found here:


By rejecting the theory of archetypes, unfortunately, Christians miss out on being able to see the Bible in it’s profound symbolic dimension, which leads to arguing over Creationism, and the tiresome task of proving how every single event in the Bible is historically true, impoverishing the faith in the process.

» mdillof said: { Jul 12, 2010 - 11:07:10 }

You have correctly named the elephant in the center of the consulting room. Yes, she feared the potential relativizing of her belief system by virtue of encountering new paradigms.

Of course, Ellen’s lawyer is the embodiment of another common type, the person who uses business, professionalism, and worldliness as talismans to protect them from life’s depths. They suffer from what Kierkegaard called the despair of having attained the finite, but lost the infinite. Heidegger called it Das Man. Berdyaev called it slavery to the Bourgeoise spirit.

You must be logged in to post a comment.