Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D.

Chicago Sun-Times
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Are shopaholics for real?
June 3, 2001
BY MARK SKERTIC STAFF REPORTER

When Elizabeth Roach hit the departments stores with her credit card in hand, she wasn't having a good time.

According to one of the doctors who examined her, even when she was buying the newest dresses and shoes, "she knew perfectly well she was destroying her life."

Dr. Robert Galatzer-Levy, a psychiatrist, testified on Roach's behalf that she was "very bright, very able" and that she suffers from a severe mental disorder--depression--that fueled her need to shop.

Roach was convicted last month in Chicago of stealing nearly $250,000 from her employer to pay for her buying sprees. But because U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly apparently bought the argument that she is more sick than bad--a mentally disturbed compulsive shopper--he let her off easy.

Instead of sending her to prison, Kennelly sentenced Roach to probation, home confinement and six weeks of work-release. The judge said he didn't want prison to interfere with her therapy to control her spending.

But is "compulsive shopping" a real addiction? Or is it the latest in the nobody's-to-blame medicalization of aberrant behavior?

The judge's decision was "pure nonsense," said Jeffrey Schaler, a professor at the school of public affairs at American University in Washington, D.C. "You've got this whole mixture of psychiatry and law, where psychiatry has become an extension of the law, and it's growing all the time," said Schaler, author of Addiction is a Choice, who has argued that insanity defenses should be abolished. "If those who break the law go unpunished, those who obey the law are cheated."

But those who study mental illness say compulsive shopping is an illness, much like addictions to alcohol, sex or gambling. Work is under way at Stanford University on a drug that might decrease the compulsion to shop for those whose lives are controlled by it.

Studies show about 3 percent of the population suffers from an unreasonable need to buy things, said Thomas C. O'Guinn, a University of Illinois professor who studies consumer behavior. A pioneering study he and University of Minnesota researcher Ronald Faber did in the late 1980s was the first to attempt to quantify the problem.

"The thing we found was they don't do anything with the stuff they buy, but they love purchasing," Faber said. "They like the social gratification, the talking to clerks. They get to know the UPS drivers by name."

Roach's case gained notoriety because she got caught stealing. Most compulsive shoppers manage to avoid the spotlight.

In the early 1990s, Chicago attorney Michael Silbert agreed to do some estate planning for a new client. When she died a short time later, he went to her condominium to inventory her belongings.

When he got there, he couldn't even push the door open: The one-bedroom apartment was packed 4-feet deep with bags and boxes of purchases the woman had made. Some had sat, unopened, for more than two decades.

"There were 200 sets of sheets still in the packages, 50 to 60 sets of pots and pans still in the boxes, 200 pairs of shoes, mostly not worn and all high-end," recalled Silbert's wife, Teresa, who cleaned out and inventoried the items.

The bathtub was filled was packages, and the bed was mostly covered except for a corner someone could squeeze onto, she said, adding, "It took six weeks of cleaning just to find the silver in the bedroom."

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ARE YOU AN ADDICT?

There's a difference between a shopaholic and someone who just likes to buy things. Addicted shoppers display certain traits, author Carolyn Wesson wrote in her 1990 book, Women Who Shop Too Much; Overcoming the Urge to Splurge:* Routinely shop and spend to avoid--or try to change--their feelings.

* Begin shopping expeditions with excitement, only to have them end in regret, self-recrimination and depression.

* Increase the frequency of their spending without reason.

* May incur substantial debt.

* Often, they never even use the things they buy.

Mark Skertic

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Lincoln's widow took purchasing to extreme

Shopping binges landed Abraham Lincoln's widow in an insane asylum.

Mary Todd Lincoln's son, Robert, had his mother committed because of her irrational behavior, which included buying sprees and fear of being alone. She was in a sanitarium for a year before a Chicago lawyer won her release.

While historians disagree about whether she was insane, there is evidence she found solace in shopping.

According to the 1992 book Lincoln: An Illustrated Biography, a niece recalled that Mary Todd Lincoln "bought 300 gloves at one time and two dozen shawls."

Her buying sprees might have been exaggerated by her son to help his quest to have his mother committed, said historian Jean Harvey Baker, a history professor at Baltimore's Goucher College and author of the 1987 book Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography.

There is also evidence that Mary Lincoln wasn't much different from many women at her level in society during the Gilded Age. Baker said many of them spent their time shopping at that new destination in the big cities--the department store.

Lincoln buried her husband and three sons during her lifetime, events that unnerved her.

"Buying represented a kind of material presence that may have been denied her," Baker said. "I'm one of her defenders. I hate to see her presented as some kind of psychotic.

"Shopping became something, I believe, that helped her. She had lost so many members of her family, and people cope in different ways."

Mark Skertic

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CELEBRITIES FAMOUS FOR BUYING SPREES, TOO

Some of the world's most famous people have tried to answer the age-old question: Just how many suits and shoes does one person need? The rest of us, meanwhile, have to try to figure out whether they're "compulsive shoppers" or just rich and shallow. A few notable examples:

* Pop superstar Elton John's spending habits--including nearly half a million dollars for flowers--left his finances in shambles and prompted a break with his longtime business manager last year.

In recent years, Sir Elton has raised more than $615,000 for his AIDS foundation by selling some of the 15,000 suits, shoes, hats and other items that once filled his closets.

* It has been 15 years since she and her husband fled the Philippines, but former first lady Imelda Marcos' extravagances have earned her a permanent spot on the roster of big-time shoppers.

She left behind 200 girdles, 1,500 handbags, 1,000 panties, 500 black bras--one of them bulletproof--2,000 ball gowns and, most famously, more than 1,500 pairs of shoes.

* Michael Jackson has a lifestyle so costly he spends between $10,000 and $15,000 a day to maintain it, the New York Post recently reported. In addition to buying makeup, running his Neverland Valley ranch, caring for his animals and his own security, he also has to shell out for his extensive wardrobe.

Mark Skertic

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