A 31-year-old mom confronts an uncomfortable possibility after her third arrest. Maybe, says author Benoit Denizet-Lewis, some crimes really can be blamed on a bad childhood.

Kate’s 3-year-old son, Patrick, stands upright in the massive Costco shopping cart, his little arms reaching for toys and CDs and whatever else he absolutely needs. “I want it! I want that! Gimme that!” he whines as his mother pushes bravely along, trying to focus on her shopping list. “Please, Mommy? I want that!”

Patrick nearly leaps out of the cart when he spots a DVD of Dora the Explorer, the Nickelodeon show about Dora and her entourage of animal friends. “Oh, Mommy, please? Please? I want that!”

Kate stops the cart. Getting him the DVD would be rewarding his whining, but at this point she doesn’t care. She grabs the DVD and looks at the price. What a rip-off. She tears the shrink-wrap, takes the DVD container out of its cardboard box, and places it in the cart. Patrick jumps up and down with excitement. Kate throws the shrink-wrap and the cardboard box in a wastebasket at the end of the aisle.

She resumes her shopping—she still needs soda, paper plates, and barbecue sauce for an upcoming cookout. When she reaches the last aisle, she looks around to make sure no one is watching. Then she takes the Dora the Explorer DVD, lifts her fleece pullover, and stuffs it in her waistband. She doesn’t feel scared. She doesn’t feel anything.

Kate pushes the cart toward the register, but before she can get there, a security guard approaches her. “I’m going to need that back,” he tells her. Kate feels sick—her throat closes up, her mouth goes dry, and she’s afraid she might vomit right there. The manager tells Kate to leave the cart where it is.

“Can I buy what’s in it?” she asks him.

“We’ll see,” he says.

Kate scoops up Patrick from the cart and follows the manager to a back office, where he picks up a phone and calls the police. Then he asks Kate a question she doesn’t know how to answer:

“Ma’am, why did you try to steal this?”

Long before actress Winona Ryder’s famous 2001 shoplifting spree at a Beverly Hills Saks Fifth Avenue, people have been trying to understand why otherwise law-abiding citizens would risk humiliation and incarceration to shoplift something they have the money to pay for.

One of the first shoplifters to gain unwanted notoriety was the wealthy aunt of the novelist Jane Austen. In 1799, Aunt Jane was arrested and stood trial for pocketing a piece of lace. Almost a century later, newspapers routinely reported the “shocking” shoplifting arrests of respected middle- and upper-class Victorian women.

In When Ladies Go A-Thieving, a 1992 book, historian Elaine Abelson argues that shoplifting first permeated the nation’s consciousness with the introduction of the department store in the second half of the 19th century. Women were expected to venture out into a novel setting that not only presented commodities in polished form, but also celebrated the shopping experience and enticed women with temptation and sensory stimulation. “It is not that our requirements are so increased,” one Victorian-era woman said at the time, “but we are not able to stand against the overwhelming temptations to buy which besiege us at every turn.” A 1901 French study titled Les Voleuses des Grand Magasins, or The Department Store Thieves, likened the department store to a sexual experience in which women could act out fantasies that were otherwise unobtainable in their daily lives.

Today’s retailers lose about $13 billion a year to shoplifters (and an additional $19 billion to employee theft). Some shoplifters are professional thieves or drug addicts who sell the stolen goods for money. Others are thrill seekers or occasional shoplifters who usually grow out of it or quit for good if they’re caught. But many are compulsive and longtime shoplifters who can’t seem to help themselves. About two-thirds of this group are women, says Terry Shulman, a therapist and recovering shoplifter.

Shulman, who in 1992 founded an organization called Cleptomaniacs and Shoplifters Anonymous (CASA), actually favors the prosecution of shoplifting addicts because he believes it helps them confront their addiction. But he has no doubt that “addiction” is the right term for their problem.

“An addiction is something a person has difficulty stopping on his or her own, one where there’s an escalation of the out-of-control behavior, and where there are feelings of withdrawal or preoccupation when not engaging in it,” he says. “That fits drug addicts, and it fits thousands of shoplifting addicts I’ve talked to.”

Shulman says that the common denominator among shoplifting addicts is a sense of victimization, of having been unfairly taken from in their lives. Shoplifting from a store is their attempt to regain lost power, to get even for a lifetime of unjust deprivation. Shulman has found a handful of commonly held beliefs among the thousands of compulsive shoplifters he has met or counseled over the years: “Life is unfair.” “The world is an unsafe place.” “I’m entitled to something extra for my suffering.” “Nice people finish last.”

So what about Kate?

When I first met the 31-year-old small-town West Coast mom (Kate is not her real name), she was not at all convinced that her problem was an addiction. Thinking that way felt to Kate like a copout. At the same time, she couldn’t deny that she had shoplifted several times a week for most of her life, that she’d tried hundreds of times to stop on her own, and that she’d never been able to stop for long. What’s more, she’d never told her husband about her problem.

Kate has shoplifted for herself, for her friends, for her relatives, for her husband, and for her son. She’s switched tags on clothing, slipped toys in her pocket, stuffed picture frames in her son’s stroller, and marched out of JCPenney with a comforter. And she’s never really needed any of it. Kate and her husband aren’t rich, but they aren’t poor, either. Yet the consequence of continuing the habit—arrest, humiliation, probation, jail—haven’t prevented her. She’s been arrested three times; she’s been caught and let go another eight times.

While many compulsive shoplifters report a feeling of excitement and adrenaline as they’re stealing (some describe it as similar to a sexual rush), Kate says she doesn’t feel that kind of high. She doesn’t consciously feel anything while she shoplifts, but once she’s made it safely home, she usually feels some relief.

“Temporary happiness,” is how she puts it. “But that’s usually followed right away with the usual beating myself up. I’ll think to myself, I can’t believe I just did that again. I don’t need this. Why did I do that? Why am I so stupid?”

Not long after her Costco arrest, though, Kate started wondering if her problem really was stupidity. She’d read every book she could find about shoplifting and had joined an online shoplifting recovery community organized by CASA’s Terry Shulman. She also started seeing two therapists.

For a while, she was adamant that she wasn’t going to “blame” anyone for her problem. “I’m not here to blame my parents,” she said. “Yes, I had a crappy childhood. But I just don’t see how that’s connected to my shoplifting.”

I had been studying addicts of all kinds. Kate’s attitude struck me as a ploy that many addicts use to avoid confronting painful memories. After all, if the trauma in Kate’s past has little or no relevance to her adult dysfunction, then she has a perfect rationale for never having to face it.

“I don’t like talking about what happened,” she said. “I don’t see how it’s going to change what happened, nor am I convinced that it will help me stop shoplifting.”

Kate did have one advantage over many addicts in early recovery, though: She didn’t deny her childhood was a nightmare. In fact, as Kate opened up about it, I pictured her in a kind of domestic war zone, alone in combat on a seemingly endless tour of duty.

Kate didn’t initially reveal this to her psychologist, but it eventually came out that a relative of Kate’s began sexually abusing her when she was in third grade. He first exposed himself to her when they were alone, then progressed to sliding his fingers into the front of her bathing suit at the local public swimming pool. Eventually, he began paying her $50, and later, offering her alcohol, in exchange for sex acts.

Kate never told anyone about the abuse. Her father had left before she was born. Her mother, who Kate said was cruel and physically abusive, seemed more concerned with her own romantic relationships than with raising her kids. “I knew from experience that she wouldn’t believe me,” Kate says.

Around the time the sexual abuse began, Kate was caught shoplifting for the first time.

It was just weeks before her sentencing in the Costco case that Kate finally told her husband about her problem—about her arrest, and about all the times she had shoplifted during their marriage. “Eric” had suspected that something was amiss, but he couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“Honestly, when she told me, I wasn’t sure our marriage could survive this,” he said. “I don’t do lies. I don’t do deception.”

Eric insisted that she go to counseling, and they even saw a therapist together for a while. One psychologist put her on the antidepressant medication Wellbutrin. It all seemed to be working. “For most of our marriage, she was reclusive, and she would have these severe depressions and mood swings,” Eric told me. “But when she started the counseling and the Wellbutrin and pretty much stopped the shoplifting, her moods got better, and the little things that used to set her off didn’t so much.”

Still, Kate was often listless and emotionally withdrawn. Her therapist urged her to face and begin healing from her childhood abuse, which she suspected would help Kate stop shoplifting. Intellectually, Kate said she understood that her shoplifting might be a symptom of unresolved trauma. But changing a lifelong pattern of blaming herself—“and pretending her childhood didn’t happen,” according to Eric—wasn’t proving to be easy.

She was beginning to open up, though, to other shoplifters in her new online community. Recently, she had posted the following message:

I have not been keeping count of my shoplifting-free days (maybe 2 or 3 weeks); however yesterday I had to make 3 store stops and I resisted temptation.

The reason I post today is to let y’all know this: For whatever reason the feeling of forgetting something was not as strong as in previous non-stealing store stops. In the beginning I noticed each time I made the decision not to shoplift, I would experience a feeling of loss or of “forgetting something” when I left the store with only my purchases. Perhaps this is a good sign.

My psycho ladies (I see one for therapy & one for counseling + meds) are working with me on the whole stealing issue. Also, they want to go back into my growing up years to resolve some destructive issues I have not dealt with in my 31 years of life. They suggest that somehow the two are connected.

Heck, I’m willing to try anything at this point to stop the habit for good.

From the book America Anonymous by Benoit Denizet-Lewis. ©2009 by Benoit Denizet-Lewis. Used with permission of Simon & Schuster Inc. All rights reserved.