A shoplifter confesses.
In one of my earliest childhood memories I’m four or five years old, sitting on the top shelf in my wardrobe, devouring a packet of PK gum one piece at a time. The door is closed, so it’s dark, and both the sweetness and the first crunch of each piece is amplified. I am revelling in my bounty - I’ve never owned an entire pack of gum to myself before. But I’m also destroying evidence. The gum is stolen.
For as long as I can remember I have taken things that aren’t mine. We grew up in the country, where there wasn’t a lot of money to go around, but we were more broke than poor. The level of deprivation faced by my siblings and I is best summed up in the individual packets of chips and fruit rollups we coveted in our classmates' lunch boxes, the fact that none of us ever owned Barkers track pants or a Discman with mega bass, and the anxiety that accompanied a letter home about an upcoming school trip. Enough to ensure we knew better than to ask for anything in a store, but not so crippling as to justify the years of theft to come.
The look on my new friend’s faces when, from a safe distance, I began emptying my pockets, sleeves and waistband was worth the risk of being caught.
I quickly learned to distract the local dairy owner with a question so I could slip a chocolate bar into my sleeve. To reach obviously for one thing while my other hand quietly slipped a bag of lollies into my pocket. By the time I was a teenager I was an expert shoplifter, stealing makeup from pharmacies, tampons from the supermarket, colourful pens and notepads from stationery shops. I would walk into a shop, leave my old shoes on a shelf and walk out in new ones. Once I even managed to pocket a hair straightener.
With no actual capital to help secure friends and admirers, I would steal cigarettes and candy then share my bounty generously. The look on my new friend’s faces when, from a safe distance, I began emptying my pockets, sleeves and waistband was worth the risk of being caught. I became extremely proud of how good I was.
This was during a period when I was especially off the rails. Aside from the odd candy theft I had been a good kid - cheeky and stubborn, but also bright and eager to please. When I was 12, my parent’s marriage started to fall apart and with it my behaviour. Over the next five years I grew increasingly rebellious, staying out all night to drink and smoke weed, hitching rides to parties with complete strangers and hooking up with boys I didn’t really like.
Only once during this period was I caught stealing. I was leaving the supermarket before school with a palette of eyeshadow and some fake nails in my bag when I felt the dreaded hand on my shoulder. In an instant the blood drained from all of my extremities, collecting as a lead weight in the pit of my stomach. Years later I would read a news story about a woman who could only orgasm at that exact moment, after stealing, when a hand landed on her shoulder or she heard the words “excuse me, miss.” It’s such an intense feeling I could almost understand it, but I felt no joy in being caught. I couldn’t face the idea of disappointing my parents - especially my dad, to whom I was particularly close at the time.
In the staff office, I was asked to empty the contents of my bag, but having recently read about my rights in Tearaway Magazine, I informed the supervisor I was not obligated to do so without a police officer present. She sighed and made the call, and we waited.
I no longer bragged about or proudly flaunted the things I stole, but the shoplifting continued. It had become a crutch. A compulsion.
After 10 minutes a plan struck me. “If I’m going to wait here forever can I at least put my nails on?” I demanded, sulkily. I was banking on the fact that they didn’t actually know what I’d stolen, and that they wouldn’t suspect anyone of being so stupid as to bring stolen merchandise out into the open.
The supervisor shrugged. I rummaged in my bag, managing to open the eyeshadow palette and smudge a few of the colours so they looked used, stuffing the wrapper into a hole in the bottom of an inside pocket. Then I took out the nails and glued them on, right in front of her.
The police came, searched the contents of my bag, heard my objections when they pointed to the eyeshadow in question and - in the end - were unable to prosecute, though they knew something was up. I was dropped to school in a police car and for a while was shaken enough to stop, but eventually my habit returned.
At about 17 things started to turn around - I got my shit together enough to pass my exams and signed up to study Psychology at University. I no longer bragged about or proudly flaunted the things I stole, but the shoplifting continued. It had become a crutch. A compulsion. It was so easy that it was harder to stop. Besides, once I started University I suddenly had rent to pay and groceries to buy - I couldn’t justify $6 on a pen for journal writing.
I was arrested once but used my diversion to keep my record clear, afterwards performing recovery to a therapist named Tree who I couldn’t bring myself to take seriously.
Finally, when I was 22 or 23 years old - way too old to still be stealing - I received the scare I needed to stop. I was back in Wellington, working in my dream job, and I was caught trying to leave Farmers wearing shoes I hadn’t paid for. Unlike the last time, I was fingerprinted, taken to the cells and left for a few hours to stew in my mistake. I was a sobbing mess, finally broken, succumbing to flashes of humiliating newspaper headlines that were to be my future if I couldn’t figure this all out. By the time I was released, I was resolved to that part of my life being over.
My body was flooded with shame, and I couldn’t look him in the eyes - but I began to speak.
This time, my counsellor was awesome - and because I was actually ready to stop stealing, it took only a few of sessions for us to figure out what was going on. I began to share my shameful secret with my friends and family, owning up to this ugly part of myself and coming to understand that the behaviour that had become such a part of me was one I didn’t need anymore.
By the time my final session rolled around there was only one person left to tell - my Dad. A keen witness to the pain he experienced during the divorce, I had spent the past 10 years pleasing and protecting him, in many ways taking on the role of parent. It was time to let him take that role back.
So I steeled myself, and finally got up the courage to ask Dad to come with me to the garden, where we sat under the tree I had decorated with dangling paua shell candle holders for my 21st birthday. There in the sun I told him I had something to say. My body was flooded with shame, and I couldn’t look him in the eyes - but I began to speak. And as I did, the burden started to lighten.
And then I realised he was laughing.
I was shocked. I had spent so much energy considering how the moment would unfold, but I wasn’t remotely prepared for this reaction.
“What’s funny about this?” I demanded, dumbfounded.
“I’m sorry babe,” he apologised – wiping a tear from his eye, “It’s just that I got arrested for shoplifting this weekend.”
I handed the mantle of parenthood to my Dad, and he handed it straight back.
Since that day I’ve realised shoplifting, and the accompanying sense of entitlement, is something that runs in the Thomas family. My dad’s arrest was for eating a sandwich at the supermarket and trying to leave without paying for it. In retrospect, many of my childhood memories of the supermarket include following a trail of discarded pistachio shells up and down the aisles to where he stood with the cart. My grandfather is a (now reformed) taker of too many paua. My uncle once got caught shoplifting in Amsterdam and handed over his brother’s ID – who is now banned from visiting Holland. My other uncle has been known to hide chocolate-covered almonds underneath the regular almonds at organic supermarkets. My brother once ran a particularly effective scam involving taxi chits and a medical trial.
One day I was telling all of this to a friend – a Latin American guy whose laughter continued well after the story had wrapped.
Again I found myself asking, “What’s funny?”
“I’m sorry!” he said, “It’s just that in Spanish ‘Tomas’ means ‘To Take’.”
[Pedantic edit: We checked with our Barcelona correspondent Veronica Febrero, who says 'tomas' actually means 'you take', from the infinitive 'tomar' - to take.]