what possesses someone to steal very personal items?

paigectJanuary 16, 2007

Any psychologists in our midst? Just wondering why someone would steal items of a highly personal nature, which are not of any monetary value but do have significant personal value to others (not to the thief). I'm talking about things like a childhood book enscribed by a person's deceased mother, whom the thief did not even know, and an inexpensive ring passed on by someone's family member to whom the thief was not related. Some of these things had great meaning to their owners, and they simply disappeared, to be discovered hidden in the home of the thief upon her death.

The childhood book was actually shown to others before she died, with no sense of remorse or guilt that she had taken it, but rather a sense of "one-upmanship" over the person to whom it belonged.

I'm trying to make sense of this. I've searched all around on the internet and I guess I'm not using the correct search terms because I'm not finding anything. This behavior does not fit the definition of kleptomania, because she didn't steal things that were useless to her, per se. She stole things that were meaningful to other people. Any thoughts?

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post this on the conversation forum

    Bookmark   January 16, 2007 at 9:01AM
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sorry paigect, I'm home sick and I'm delusional. This IS the conversation forum, I'm so embarrassed!

    Bookmark   January 16, 2007 at 9:06AM
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I'm not sure why you are so surprised by this, or look for a clinical diagnosis. Its an interesting case, that you describe, and a very very sad one for all concerned but it sounds perfectly normal, to me. Because as you describe it it is not, in fact, the case that the items in question had only a sentimental value for their rightful owner. They had a (negative) sentimental value for the thief, as well.

Many, if not most, objects that an individual can collect have, at bottom, a sentimental or emotional value--and that is true even for such things that are easily replaced such as tvs or radios. One thing those things can symbolize is ownership itself, home, comfort, recreation, stability. Many years ago I read a book called "uncoupling" which was a (to my mind not very good) sociological study of divorcing couples. One thing the sociologist found was that people fought very hard over the disposition of even such massproduced, easily replacable, and often totally-worthless from a resale point of view mechanical objects like stereos. People routinely fight over particular copies of books that they could easily afford to replace just as they fight over the disposition of pets and children which can not be replaced or valued.

The thief in your story valued something that is inherently non monetary--power and control (however illusory) over her friend/relative. She excercised that control secretly, like a wealthy collector who buys a stolen item that he can never show and gloats over it privately. To her it reset a social or emotional balance with the rightful owner. I've seen this kind of emotional theft and violence a million times in my life--its no different from someone reaching over and taking a bite of food off your plate without asking. Its as much a violation of your privacy and your personal space, its as much a hostile act, just using the medium of these "trivial" things--but no ring or signed book can ever be truly trivial. Don't we all save things for sentimental reasons that have no economic value? I saved a cheap alarm clock that my grandmother gave me because it was the last thing she gave me before she died. If someone had stolen it and held on to it to hurt me I wouldn't be surprised, but I'd have the last laugh because the theft of a cheap alarm clock doesn't alter my relationship with my grandmother at all.

I don't mean to dismiss your concern, I just don't think this is a clinical case--its not kleptomania (it doesn't sound like) because its not random, impulsive, or compulsive. Its very targeted. It sounds like ordinary spite, taken to extra-ordinary levels.


    Bookmark   January 16, 2007 at 9:26AM
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I think you answered you own question - The childhood book was actually shown to others before she died, with no sense of remorse or guilt that she had taken it, but rather a sense of "one-upmanship" over the person to whom it belonged.

Sadly, it's probably jealousy or envy - no great diagnosis, just basic bad behavior.

    Bookmark   January 16, 2007 at 11:21AM
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Thanks. I wasn't necessarily looking for a diagnosis, just an explanation. I can understand that jealousy may have caused some of it, but some of the things found belonged to people she was fond of and had no great reasons to be jealous of. I guess we'll never really know.

    Bookmark   January 17, 2007 at 7:27AM
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paige, I can understand your wanting to find some kind of explanation, specially when it's not quite logical.

    Bookmark   January 17, 2007 at 11:15AM
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she may also have wanted that "sense of connection" for herself.

    Bookmark   January 17, 2007 at 5:20PM
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How sad... Twisted and interesting, but ultimately, sad...

Using 'you' to represent the person from whom the items were taken, and 'she' to represent the thief, the thoughts that come to my mind are -

- The items were given to you by someone who loved you, and she wanted, symbolically, to take that love from you and keep it for herself. That she felt under-loved herself, was jealous of the love the giver felt for you, and coveted that love for herself. By stealing the 'token' of that love, maybe in her own sick way, she was gaining the love.

- A psychological 'stab in the back' using an ultimate expression of passive-aggression. Like saying that because you no longer had the 'love token', that the giver didn't really love you. Kind of like the theory above, only instead of wanting the love herself, she was only taking it away from you. Or maybe she thought you didn't deserve that love?

- A desparate attempt for closeness with you. Like stealing your underwear without the sexual-kink element.

I'm curious - Was it only or mainly one 'giver'? And only or mainly one 'recipient' who was targeted? And was the thief twisted in other ways? Loved by the rest of the family?

    Bookmark   January 18, 2007 at 5:04PM
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Thanks for understanding, Mitch!

Talleysue, I think you're on to something. Maybe that's just what I want to hear, though.

Sweeby, I'm glad you chimed in. This is a close relative of mine. She was abused as a child by an uncle - - I wonder if that plays a part here. She could be very kind and generous with her time but she was also known to be on the narcissistic side, and she raised a child who is classic npd. Not all of the things taken were gifts - - some were symbols of achievement, such as medals. The item she had that belonged to me was something that was a memento of my baby sister, who died when I was a child. It had been missing these thirty years. That was the really shocking part of it.

I want to believe that she didn't take, or keep, this item to be hurtful. But when someone dies I guess it makes sense to come to peace with who they really were and what your relationship was, rather than idealizing. That way we learn from the past rather than playing out the same dynamics with other people, right? So that's why I posted.

What do you think?

    Bookmark   January 19, 2007 at 7:54AM
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What a disturbing story paigect.

But you are very lucky that these things came to light. My own mother, remembering the horror of having the duty of cleaning out my grandparents house (and she loved them, its just a huge task) is madly cleaning out and throwing out things so we won't be "burdened" with the task. When my other grandparents, equally beloved, died my (utterly kooky) uncle and aunt were "in charge" and forbade us to come and help clear out the house. They took care of the important/valuable things very diligently but they ended up throwing out a lot of things that I knew were there of great sentimental value, things like the index cards my grandfather typed up his notes on that contained poems or love notes to my grandmother, or my grandmother's ancient prayer book because the cover had fallen off and not been replaced.

The question of what you may find when a relative (or a friend) dies and you go through their things to clean up can be frightening. When I had children I threw out anything that, if my children or anyoen else were to stumble on it, raise questions about what kind of person I was. My mother has asked me to destroy, unread, her lifelong journals. She doesn't want me to get my feelings hurt retroactively by anything she may have said about her own life, or mine, or any other family members after she is gone.

In your family's case its wonderful that you got these things back, even at the price of having to re-evaluate your your relationship to this person. Its really, really, sad and pretty creepy. If you can come to terms with it in a good way I salute you. Maybe her very peripheralness (word?) to your life will help.


    Bookmark   January 20, 2007 at 7:34AM
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