Stealing Desire

Writer in Residence Alice Butler introduces her project on kleptomania.

Alice Butler is the Freud Museum’s new Writer in Residence. Over the course of the next six months she will be researching and writing feminist approaches to ‘kleptomania’, an impulse control disorder that is defined by the recurrent urge to steal items of little value unrelated to financial gain. She will consider the history of kleptomania, how it was gendered, and its role in psychoanalysis. She will think about kleptomania as feminist art. She will write essays, case studies, letters and fragments. She will write an archive of kleptomania. This is her first blog post.

Stealing Desire

“All women… are clothes fetishists.”
Sigmund Freud, Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, 1909

“Have you ever confused a dream with life? Or stolen something when you had the cash?”
Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted, 1993


Two metres of lilac ribbon, a tiny bottle of perfume that bore her fingerprints, buttons that fell in the hand like sweets, fur that was soft to the touch, fragments of silk, maybe even a sapphire necklace. The objects of evidence: discovered inside the crevices of her crinoline, or tucked up cosy within a mink muff. Coins that twinkled like diamonds were found buried deep inside the silk-lined depths of her purse. From the proof of the crime, to proof of pathology. Eroticism, pleasure, release.

Oil painting of a young woman standing inside a shop selling ribbons and dresses.

James Tissot, The Shop Girl, 1883-1885

Picture the department store scene: Le Bon Marché in Paris, 1880. Glass technology and the newest forms of modern lighting transformed the architecture of shopping. It was like stepping into a dream, a heady trip for all kinds of senses. Silky textures draped around mannequins, free to the touch. It was only glass that separated jewelled fingers from more jewels. The space between consumer and commodity collapsed into a close atmosphere of touching desire, seducing the crowds of consumers. Ladies, mainly, of course. Adventuring out alone, flaneusing.

A knotted mess of pink ribbons sit atop the counter in James Tissot’s 1883-1885 painting The Shop Girl, their ends dangling loose all deviant, an invitation for the woman worker to tug on the fleshy tongues. And walk out buzzing with pleasure: a small rebellion against the male gaze (being the red-bearded man in a top hat, peering and leering, first through his round spectacles and then through the shop window) that markets her and her shop-girl friends. I love reading against the macho grain of nineteenth century paintings like these, like a deviant dressmaker disrespecting the cloth, like a deviant writer enjoying crossed threads. I am a fetishist too, picking up on the klepto details.

Have you ever confused a dream with life? Or stolen something when you had the cash?”Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted, 1993
When Tissot was painting, a contagion was spreading, in Paris, London and New York. They called it kleptomania.

And so before there was Winona Ryder, the girl briefly un-interrupted, stealing $5,000 worth of designer garments from Saks on Fifth Avenue, there was Leigh Perrot, the wealthy aunt of Jane Austen, slipping unpaid-for white lace into her card of black lace in 1799; there was Mary Ramsbotham, the kleptomaniac married to a physician (the ultimate revenge?), who got caught pocketing four silk handkerchiefs in a drapery shop on Baker Street in 1855; and lest we forget the glamorous Ella Castle, a wealthy American vacationing in London who was simply unable to resist the soft charms of a sable muff.


Kleptomania as a medical term wasn’t a wholly new ‘discovery’. The Swiss doctor André Matthey coined the term klopémaniè in 1816 as a means to describe the impulsive urge to steal—either useless items, or things that could be easily paid for. But as the department stores waged their war of influence on women, and criminologists began to gender the kleptomaniac crime as ‘feminine’, doctors swarmed to case study such women suffering from shoplifting fever.

Working-class women that stole, however, rarely ever received the kleptomania diagnosis—their grubby activities were deemed unlawful, petty; also necessary—while the bourgeois kleptomaniacs stole needlessly, their pilfering touch being the neurotic outcome of grubby imaginations, leaky bodies, and psychosexual disorders. In a word: hysteria.

“If a rich woman is caught shoplifting the wealthy court has a new word for her and says she is afflicted with ‘kleptomania’ and pities her.”Emma Goldman
The political activist Emma Goldman scorned this class bias during a speech given in Pittsburgh in 1896: “If a rich woman is caught shoplifting the wealthy court has a new word for her and says she is afflicted with ‘kleptomania’ and pities her.” Meanwhile, the poor are found guilty of larceny, unpardoned.

In a series of forensic case histories published in 1893, the French psychiatrist Paul Debuisson emphasised this class bias in determining the pathological diagnosis. With women firmly categorised as the weaker sex, kleptomania was a result of feeblemindedness, he said, or exhaustion, neurasthenia, morphine addition, and hysteria. Biology and physiology became strangely intermeshed in his hunt for a cause, with the suggestion that the bloody, “auto-toxic” phases of menstruation, pregnancy and menopause could also lead women to commit compulsive, neurotic acts. Dr. Grigg, one of the specialists employed to assess Ella Castle, echoed these findings, linking mania with menstruation in his verdict:

“She is intensely neurotic. The condition of things—a disease of the upper portion of the uterus—is a very common accompaniment of various forms of mania in women, such as melancholia, religious mania, nymphomania, and I have seen it in several cases of kleptomania. It is invariably coupled with much mental disturbance. The condition I discovered is quite sufficient to account for any form of mental vagaries which are so well known to affect a certain class of women (neurotic) with disordered menstruation. Her bowel condition would aggravate this.”

Blessed with a medical get-out clause, bourgeois women could claim “kleptomania!” and avoid the shame of newspaper headlines or jail-time. While in the dock, some wealthy women even wore black lace veils to protect their identities, a theatrical tease, which eroticised their hidden faces while exaggerating their madness. Ella Castle wore such a costume for her court appearance: the kleptomania masquerade.

Black and white photograph of a woman wearing black clothing and holding a cane.

Bertha Pappenheim (‘Anna O’) in 1882.

Hysterical Lace

1893 was also the year Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer published “On the Psychical Mechanism of Hysterical Phenomena: Preliminary Communication,” which introduced many of the ideas threaded throughout their Studies on Hysteria that was published two years later. Here they too linked women to fabric with the suggestion that the daydreaming incurred by needlework “render women especially prone” to the confused splitting of consciousness that defines the “hypnoid state”, a potential prelude to hysterical symptoms.

Hysterical patients such as “Anna O” were invited through the talking cure to follow the “thread of memory” that looped, crossed, and entangled itself around her illness, in the hope that she might unearth the founding yarn of her trauma. Breuer then embroidered it again, on his patient’s behalf.

Her will to ‘not speak’ got silenced by his story.

All women… are clothes fetishists.”Sigmund Freud, Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, 1909

Behind the veil of a protective pseudonym was a woman named Berthe Pappenheim, who following her failed treatment became a well-known and important social worker, feminist and Jewish activist. Secretly or not, at home she harboured a devotion to rare, antique lace. As Freud would somewhat patronisingly declare in 1909 at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society: “All women… are clothes fetishists.” Not published until 1988, this lecture is unusual in the ways it proposes a type of fetishism without castration anxiety.

Clothes become a fetish because they repress women’s desire to be seen, argues Emily Apter. However, the clothing fetishist’s desire to show herself is always “passive” according to Freud. And in this sense, he couldn’t wholly disentangle the separation that existed between “feminine pathology and male perversion.”

Silk Encounters

According to the doctors of the time, women were “diseased by their sexuality, as well as their deviant sexual desire. Autoeroticism, of a particular silky nature, was case-studied as another symptom of a woman’s physiological chaos and psychological hysteria. The French psychiatrist, Gaëtan Gatian de Clerambault, for example, wrote about one patient in 1910, when adding cases of kleptomania to his 1908 study “Women’s Erotic Passion for Fabrics”: “Only hearing the word silk pronounced, or merely thinking about it, was enough to arouse her.”

But it was the tactile qualities of fabric, over “shine, smell, and sound” that de Clerambault thought really got them going in their masturbatory encounters with stolen goods. But never would he allow them the lofty entitlement of perversion. The kleptomaniacs’ fetishistic desire “appears very minimal and schematic,” writes de Clerambault, when compared to “the complex of sensorial, aesthetic, and moral evocations which the fetish evokes in man.” Published just a year after Freud’s lecture, a similar language repeats: “The women are passive in their contact with the silk. […] Their jouissance is genital, but it is so self-sufficient that one could almost call it asexual.”

Dr Wilhelm Stekel, who got psychoanalysed by Freud, didn’t think so. In his somewhat surreal 1911 essay, “The Sexual Root of Kleptomania,” the psychoanalyst argued that “ungratified sexual instinct” fires the kleptomaniac urge, as the items that women steal become symbolic stand-ins for absent phallic pleasure. As he writes:

“An unmarried woman of twenty-six stole pencils in a shop. She was an incapable sort of person of wandering and inattentive mind. The excuse she gave was that her father kept her too strictly. This girl was also symbolically in search of a phallus (pencil).”

The girl: defined by what she does not have. A phallic pencil.

Stealing Desire Back

Photograph of a black high heel shoe on a shelf

Sophie Calle, The High Heel, 1999

From Freud, to Debuisson, to Stekel—the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was crowded with men pathologizing women’s desire to steal as hysteric, or inferior. What would it be to rewrite the kleptomaniac’s desire on her own terms? That encompasses all her angles? I’m pointing to the other reason women steal “gloves, a small note-book, pencils” and it has to do with the touch of writing. I’m stealing desire back, in swatches of writing “each one small enough to fit in your pocket, and nobody sure where anything comes from.”

“It was, she said, like a monomania of possession,” wrote Debuisson about one of his patients. Maybe that’s true. But when the home legally belonged to her husband, when her body was made an object, available on his clock, when the marketplace was designed to own her: this monomania was an outcry, a perverse mode of resourcefulness. In many ways it made perfect sense.

This blog post, “Stealing Desire,” is part of a larger project that will explore feminist approaches to kleptomania, rewriting feminine lack.

I’ve been inspired by the revisionist projects of historians such as Carole Smith-Rosenberg, who in her book Disorderly Conduct, dismantles the sexist thinking around hysteria by showing its social context; how far Victorian women were contained. Other feminist critics have looked for signs of nineteenth-century perversion, a space where the erotic complexities of female desire can speak: from Hélène Cixous giving a voice to hysteric Dora, to Emily Apter theorising a mode of “female fetishism traversing literary and psychoanalytical boundaries and defined from a woman’s point of view,” to Carol Mavor touching the fetishistic photographs of Clementina Hawarden. Writing with these texts, I’m stealing kleptomania back, within a kleptomaniac feminist writing of manic paragraphs, stolen words, pilfered documents, and possessed histories.

The nineteenth-century past gropes at the threads of our present and the decades in between. Emphasising touch, perversion, desire, and possession, I wonder if kleptomania—as narrative or as metaphor—might provide a new way of thinking about feminist art and writing.

So well as Ella Castle, could the following also be kleptomaniacs?

  • Kathy Acker
  • Dodie Bellamy
  • Louise Bourgeois
  • Sophie Calle
  • Frida Kahlo
  • Mary Kelly
  • Sharon Kivland
  • Sarah Lucas
  • Senga Nengudi
  • Faith Ringgold
  • Francesca Woodman
  • and more

As Dodie Bellamy writes in her cut-up story on shoplifting “Complicity”: “We knew we were perverts so we wallowed in it.”


Abelson, Elaine S. “The Invention of Kleptomania.” Signs 15:1 (Autumn 1989): 123-143.

Apter, Emily. Feminizing the Fetish: Psychoanalysis and Narrative in Turn-of-the-Century France. Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press.

Bellamy, Dodie. “Complicity.” In Pink Steam, 24-41. San Francisco, CA: Suspect Thoughts Press, 2004.

Camhi, Leslie. “Stealing Femininity: Department Store Kleptomania as Sexual Disorder.” differences: A Journal of Feminist Critical Studies 5:1 (1993): 26-50.

Freud, Sigmund, and Joseph Breuer. Studies in Hysteria. Translated by Nicola Luckhurst. London: Penguin Books, 2004.

O’Brien, Patricia. “The Kleptomania Diagnosis: Bourgeois Women and Theft in Late Nineteenth-Century France.” Journal of Social History 17:1 (Autumn 1983): 65-77.

Schor, Naomi. Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine. New York: Methuen Inc., 1987.

Shteir, Rachel. The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting. New York: Penguin Books, 2011.

Stekel, Wilhelm. “The Sexual Root of Kleptomania.” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 2:2 (1911): 239-246.


  • Howard Covitz
    February 7, 2019 | Permalink | Reply to this comment

    There is a related theme in Gorris’s A Question of Silence (her later film Antonia … aka Antonia’s Line … is better known) where three women, one of whom is confronted by a salesman in a store presumably for shoplifting, stomp the man, thereby killing him.

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