What Trinkets Gets Wrong & Right About Shoplifting Addiction

Cory Stieg

A new Netflix series, called Trinkets, drops today and follows a group of teenage friends who bond over an unlikely shared interest: shoplifting. This certainly isn't the first time shoplifting is portrayed in pop culture. But unlike the campy 2013 movie Bling Ring, Trinkets focuses on the darker, psychological reasons why people shoplift.

The friends at the center of the series, Elodie Davis (Brianna Hildebrand), Moe Truax (Kiana Madeira), and Tabitha Foster (Quintessa Swindell), turn to shoplifting as a way to cope with hardships in their adolescent lives — from losing a parent to having an abusive partner. They meet at a Shoplifters Anonymous support group.

The author of the novel upon which the series is based, Kristen "Kiwi" Smith, told Teen Vogue that she thinks the idea of shoplifting is particularly appealing to audiences that might be grappling with similar issues. "A lot of young women are perhaps drawn to it because they don't have enough control and power so it's a way to seize it even if it's misguided. It's a way to fill some holes that you have inside with possessions," Smith said. "I really wanted to get into what are the things that make you susceptible to this addiction. It's a real thing. We wanted to explore all of these things in a way as earnest and true as possible."

This is indeed one of the many reasons why people shoplift, according to Terry Shulman, LMSW, a recovering shoplifter, founder of Kleptomaniacs and Shoplifters Anonymous, and author of Something for Nothing: Shoplifting Addiction and Recovery. "Some start after a loss, trauma, betrayal, or some difficult transition in their life," he says. While there's a buffet of maladaptive coping mechanisms people may gravitate towards during troubling times, such as substance abuse or gambling, shoplifting provides a specific type of thrill, he says.

The motivation to shoplift is often not about having the actual items, but regaining a sense of control. For example, some people will steal nonsensical things that they'll never use, such as clothing that doesn't fit or hundreds of pens, because the act helps them de-escalate feelings of anxiety. Shulman recalls feeling a "bit of charge or momentary satisfaction" when he used to shoplift. "I was making life right by taking something life had taken from me," he adds. "I didn’t know that at the time, but that was very powerful in a way. It was symbolic and through repetition it got to be a real habit."

Over time, many people start chasing opportunities to shoplift, and it can become like an addiction, Shulman says. Technically, "kleptomania" is defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as an impulse-control disorder, not an addiction, and is characterized by a "repeated failure to resist impulses to steal objects that have no immediate use or intrinsic value to the individual, accompanied by feelings of increased tension before committing the theft and either pleasure or relief during the act." Kleptomania is also often referred to as "addictive compulsive stealing." Both terms refer to people taking something, and feeling temporary relief, fulfillment, satisfaction, and momentary empowerment, he says.

As the show suggests, many people seek treatment through support groups and counseling to stop stealing. Shulman hopes that people who see Trinkets and are also struggling with shoplifting might be compelled to find support. And, although there's always a risk that fictional portrayals will glamorize a serious mental health issue, he's also optimistic that this show will spread awareness about people with kleptomania. "I'm delighted because it brings it to the forefront and people get to learn a little bit," he says.

If you are struggling with obsessive compulsive disorder and are in need of information and support, please call the National Alliance on Mental Illness at 1-800-950-6264. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NAMI” to 741741.

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