The best thief I ever knew accused me of stealing from him so often that I began to question my integrity. I dated a woman who cheated on me, and she cheated on me so often that I’m still embarrassed that I wasn’t more aware of her infidelities. Her octopus ink was so effective that I spent most of our relationship defending myself against what she was doing the whole time. These are but a few of the greatest hits of the tactics compulsive liars used against me, so often, that I forgot to question their integrity. If their goals were to prevent me from analyzing them, they were successful. When I did analyze them, I realized their accusations said more about them, and their worldview, than they ever did me. Some might call this projection, others might call it deflection or obfuscation, but I believe the games these people play fall under a comprehensive, multi-tiered umbrella I call the thief’s mentality.
Even though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, Kurt Lee introduced me to the confusing mind of a deceptive person. The art of deception was such a key component of his personality that he was hypervigilant to the signs and signals of possible transgressions occurring in the minds of those around us. In the manner a professional saxophone player might spot nuances in the manner another player plays, Kurt Lee spotted the little things other people do to manipulate others, and he did so from the angle of appreciation. Kurt Lee spent his life so attuned to this frequency that his instincts often led him astray.
Kurt taught me more about how a deceptive person thinks, than any other person I’ve encountered, movie I’ve watched, or book I’ve read on the subject. He would serve as my prototype for those who would exhibit a wide array of similar traits, traits I would only later deem the attributes of the thief’s mentality.
The most interesting aspect about the man, a characteristic that might defy that which I will describe throughout this piece, was his charm. When it served him, Kurt Lee had the propensity to be nice, engaging, and infectious. He was also a funny guy, and a genuinely funny people disarm us, unless we stick around long enough to learn more about their sensibilities.
Those who knew Kurt Lee, on a superficial level, envied him for the ways in which he openly defied authority figures without guilt. Those who actually spent as much time around Kurt Lee as I did, however, witnessed that for all the charisma a piece of work (POS) displays, they ultimately end up destroying themselves from the inside out.
One afternoon while on a city bus, Kurt decided to play with the crocheted ball on top of the stocking cap of the elderly woman that sat in front of him. My reaction to this spectacle may be one of the things I have to answer for on Judgment Day, because I found his appalling act hysterical.
Hindsight informs me that my youthful attraction to Kurt Lee’s antics may have had something to do with learning about the mores and rules my mother taught me. Why haven’t I ever played with the ball on top of an old woman’s stocking cap? What’s the difference between Kurt Lee and me? Is it about morality, or does it have more to do with common decency? My mother taught me that when a young, healthy male sees an elderly woman sitting alone, he should smile at her and try to think up something nice to say. My mother taught me to hold the door for her, and she said that I should consider it a privilege to give up my seat to a woman like that on the city bus, if no other seats were available.
Not only did Kurt Lee ignore those typical conventions, he chose to pursue what we could term the exact opposite. He decided to violate the most vulnerable member of our culture’s sense of security by playing with her stocking cap. Of course, it was wrong, but it was also a fascinating exploration of human nature. How would this old woman react? How would a real POS counter that reaction? Why did he do it in the first place? Did he think he would get away with it? Did he even care? I would never know the answer to the latter questions, but my fascination with the answers to the former led me to urge him on with laughter. That was wrong, too, of course, but I now believe my laughter was borne of curiosity. I wanted to learn more about the moral codes by which we all abide. I hoped to learn all that by watching another solidify my rationale, with no regard for the consequences of violating them. At the time, I really didn’t have those thoughts, but I couldn’t wait to see how it would end, and I dare say that most of those who are more successful in abiding by the standards their mothers taught them would not have been able to look away either
The vulnerable, elderly woman did eventually turn on Kurt, and she did so with an angry expression. She allowed the first few flicks of the ball atop her stocking cap go, presumably taking a moment to muster up the courage to tell him off, and then she gave him that angry look. Kurt Lee appeared ready to concede to that initial, nonverbal admonition, until he spotted me laughing. Egged on by me, he did it three more times before she reached a point of absolute frustration that led her to say something along the lines of, “Stop it, you young punk!”
To that, Kurt began thrusting his hips forward in his seat, while looking at me, whispering, “She just wants unusual carnal relations!” As a teenager trying to elicit more laughter from another teen, Kurt Lee did not use that term. He selected the most vulgar term he could to describe his extrapolation of her desires.
Had Kurt Lee decided to stick his middle finger up in the face of a healthier, younger adult, it would have been just as difficult to avoid watching. The fact that he chose such a sacred cow of our culture for his rebellion, however, made his actions over-the-top hilarious. In my young, unformed mind, this was a real life equivalent to David Letterman’s man-on-the-street segments, taken up ten notches on the bold-o-meter. I would later learn that Kurt Lee was not the type to make profound statements about our societal conventions. He was more of a doer, and doers just do what they do and leave the messy interpretations of what they do to others. I would also learn, by the manner in which Kurt Lee selected his victims based on their inability to fight back, that Kurt Lee was something of a coward. At the time, though, I found his actions so bold that I couldn’t look away, and I couldn’t stop laughing.
As time wore on, I discovered a wide array of fascinating explorations of human nature, but those paled in comparison to Kurt Lee’s mentality, his philosophy, and what drove him to be so different from everyone I had ever met. To listen to him speak on the topic, there was nothing different about Kurt Lee. He simply had the courage of his convictions. He ascribed to the more conventional line of thought that we were all afraid to be like him, but he also suggested that the rest of us have had this part of our makeup denied by parents and teachers instructing us to act differently for so long that we now believe we are different. The import of his message was that this was not about me, and it was not about him. It’s about human nature and the thief’s mentality.
“If you could get away with it, you would try,” was his answer to any questions posed to him. “You mean to tell me you’ve never stolen anything? Ever? All right then, let’s talk about reality.” Kurt Lee was a thief, and like most thieves, he did not defend his position from the position of being a thief. He would substitute an exaggeration of your moral qualms regarding thievery, claiming that any person who has stolen even once is in no position to judge someone who steals on a regular basis.
In short bursts, and on topic, Kurt Lee could lower the most skilled debater to the ground. We called him a master debater, with the innuendo intended, because it was almost impossible to pin him down on specifics. It was a joy to watch. Prolonged exposure, however, opened up all these windows into his soul.
When we asked him how a guy from the sticks could afford the latest, top-of-the-line zipper pants, a pair of sunglasses that would put a fella back two weeks’ pay, and an original, signed copy of the Rolling Stones, Some Girls. He would tell us, but even his most ardent defender had a hard time believing Santa Claus would be that generous to even the nicest kids on his list.
Kurt Lee stole so often by the time I came to know him that the act of shoplifting lost much of its thrill. He decided to challenge himself as top athletes, and top news anchors do, by hiring third-party analysts to scrutinize the minutiae of their performance. He asked me to watch him steal baseball cards from a baseball card shop owner that we agreed needed to learn a lesson, because the man refused to buy our cards 99 percent of the time. On those rare occasions when he agreed to buy them, his offers were so low they were almost insulting.
I posed a theory about our transactions with this shop owner. I theorized that the intent behind his frequent refusals to buy our cards was to establish his bona fides as a resident expert of value. That way, when he informed us that any of our cards were of value, we were ready to jump at the chance, no matter what amount he offered. “By doing so,” I concluded, “he actually makes us feel more valuable, because we think we finally have something worthy of one of his offers.”
“You’re right,” Kurt Lee said. “Let’s get him.”
I felt validated for coming up with a theory that Kurt Lee accepted, but in hindsight, I think Kurt Lee would’ve used anything I said to motivate me to conspire against the owner.
“One thing,” Kurt Lee said before we entered. “I don’t know if this needs to be said, but I’m going to say it anyway. Don’t watch me, don’t talk to me, and be careful about how often you look at me. Don’t try to avoid looking at me either.” When I laughed at that, a laugh that expressed some confusion, he added, “Just don’t do anything stupid or obvious.”
It was an invitation into a world I never knew, and Kurt Lee’s provisos might have been necessary, because I was as nervous as I was excited. I considered the idea that my foreknowledge of this crime could implicate me as an accessory, but I couldn’t shake the asexual intimacy that Kurt Lee was sharing with me, with this invitation into his world.
Before we entered the shop, Kurt Lee opened his pockets, in the manner a magician might, and he asked me to confirm that he had no cards in his pockets.
Throughout the course of our hour in the shop, I didn’t witness Kurt Lee steal one thing, and I mocked him. “What happened? I thought you were going to steal something,” I said. “I’m beginning to think you’re chicken.”
He allowed me to mock him without saying a word. When I finished, he opened his jacket to show me his inner pockets. What I saw knocked me back a couple steps. I actually took a step back when I witnessed the number of baseball cards that lined his inner pockets. I would’ve been impressed if he displayed one card, and three or four would’ve shocked me, but the sheer number of cards he stole without me noticing one act of thievery, led me to believe that Kurt Lee wasted his abilities on the petty art of shoplifting. I considered telling him to try his hand at being a magician for I thought what I was witnessing were the skills of a maestro of deception. If he could hone in on those skills, I thought the possibilities were endless for Kurt Lee.
Soon after recovering from that shock, I began to wonder how one acquires such a deft hand. As with any acquired skill, there is some level of trial and error involved, and nestled within that lies the need to find a utility that permits the thief to proceed uninhibited by shame. A skilled performer in the arts or athletics delights in displaying their ability to the world, in other words, but a thief has to operate in the shadows, and they acquire their skill with a modicum of shame attached. Success as a thief, it would seem to those of us on the outside looking in, requires the potential thief to either a defeat of that sense of shame or find a way to manage it.
Shame, some argue, like other unpleasant emotions, becomes more manageable with greater familiarity. When a father introduces shame to his child, in the brutal assessments a father makes regarding the value of the child, the child becomes familiar with an intimate definition of shame before they are old enough to combat them. When such brutal assessments are then echoed by a mother’s concern that their child can’t do anything right, the combined effort can have a profound effect on a child. When those parents then console the child with a suggestion that while the child may be a bad seed, but they’re no worse than anyone else is, something gestates in the child. The moral relativism spawned from these interactions suggests that the search for the definitions of right and wrong is over, and the sooner the child accepts that, the more honest they will become. Seeing their mother scold a teacher for punishing their child for a transgression only clarifies this confusion a little more. In that relativist scolding, the child hears their mother inform the teacher that the child can do no wrong, and they see her unconditional support firsthand. Over time, the child must acknowledge that their parents will not always be there, so they will need to develop personal defense mechanisms in line with what they’re learned. The child also learns to accept these realities for what they are, for the Lee family has never had the courage necessary to commit suicide.
I hated discounting the level of individual ingenuity on Kurt Lee’s part, but he was simply too good at the various forms of deception for it to have been something he arrived at on his own. Attempting to source it might be a fool’s errand, but I wondered if I were able to sort through Kurt’s his genealogical tree, if I might find sedimentary layers of grievance, envy, frustration, and desperation that worked their way down to him. To those who consider seeking evidence of foundational layers a bit of a stretch, I ask how much of our lives do we spend rebelling against, and acquiescing to parental influence, and how many of us can say we are entirely free from it?
I was so obsessed with this, at one point, that I bridged a gap between being curious and badgering, something Kurt Lee made apparent in his volatile reaction:
“You think you’re better than me?” Kurt Lee asked, employing the universal get-out-of-judgment free card of moral relativism. This time-honored redirect relies on the lessons taught to us by our mothers, that we are no better than anyone else is, but Kurt Lee’s rant began to spiral out of control when he tried to pivot to what he believed its logical extension.
If no one is better than anyone else is and everyone resides on the cusp of whatever Kurt Lee was, the logical extension required the inclusion of an individual that many perceived to be so harmless it was almost laughable to suggest otherwise. The individual, in this case, was a kid named Pete Pestroni. If Kurt Lee’s arguments were going to hold water, the idea that Pete Pestroni was a wolf in sheep’s clothing would have to become an agreed upon fact. I’m still not sure why Kurt Lee went down the Pete Pestroni road so often, but I suspect it had something to do with the idea that if Pete was immune, in one form or another, everyone else had to be too. In Kurt’s estimation, Pete was just too weak, or too scared, to let his wolf run wild. We would laugh at the implausibility of Pete Pestroni having a Kurt Lee trapped inside, a thief dying to come out, but our intention was to laugh with Kurt Lee. He wouldn’t even smile, however, because some part of him believed that if everyone was a thief, then no one was, at least to the point of separating the thief out for comparative analysis. This was a sacred chapter in Kurt Lee’s personal bible, and an ingredient of the thief’s mentality that took me decades to grasp.
The thief’s mentality is a mindset that involves a redirect of exposing an uncomfortable truth, or a hypocrisy, in others, so that the thief might escape a level of scrutiny that could lead to an uncomfortable level of introspection. An individual with a thief’s mentality may steal, but that person is just as apt to lie and cheat. The thief’s mentality begins as a coping mechanism for dealing with the character flaws that drive them to do what they do, but it progresses from those harmless, white lies to a form of deception that requires a generational foundation.
The thief’s mentality requires deflection, by way of subterfuge, as a means to explain the carrier’s inability to trust beyond the point that they should be trusted, but some thieves’ outward distrust of others reaches a point of exaggeration that says far more about them than those they accuse. Their cynicism is their objectivity, and others’ faith in humanity is a subjective viewpoint, one that we must bear. We live in a dog-eat-dog, screw-or-be-screwed world in which those who trust anyone outside their own homes are naïve to the point of hopelessness. If the listener is to have any hope of surviving in such a world, it is incumbent upon them to see passed the façades and through the veneer, others present to the truth.
The truth, in Kurt Lee’s worldview, held that TV anchors with fourteen-inch parts, and perfect teeth, ended their days by going home to beat their wives. He didn’t believe that a person could attain wealth by honest means. He insisted that because some states convicted some Catholic priests as pedophiles that meant all Catholic priests were, and he had a particular fascination with infidelity in the White House. “You think JFK and Clinton are different? They’re just the ones that got caught is all.” There was also his contention that little old ladies who complained about having someone toy with the balls on the stocking caps just want to have unusual carnal relations. As with most tenets of a person’s worldview, there was some grain of truth in Kurt Lee’s, but he often had to put forth a great deal of effort to support it.
In most such discussions, Kurt Lee’s audience was immune. “I’m not talking about you,” he would say to the parties concerned, so they would view the subject matter from the perspective of an ally. If we began to view ourselves as an ally, we might join him in convincing our world that he’s not that bad, or the world is as bad as he is. Yet, our agreed upon immunity from his charges begins to fracture in the course of the thief’s logical extensions. When that happens, the thief turns their accusations on us. We may consider ourselves all virtuous and moral, but the thief knows everything there is to know about hidden agendas. They maintain a perpetual state of readiness for that day when we break free of the constraints of morality and loyalty to expose our evil, naked underbelly to the world. They have us all figured out, because they know those lies we tell. It’s the thief’s mentality.
Thieves may even believe their exaggerated or false accusations, regardless of all we’ve done to establish ourselves as good, honest people. The validity of their accusation, however, pales in comparison to their need to keep a subject of their accusations in a perpetual state of trustworthiness. They make this accusation to keep us in check in a manner they know we should keep them in check. The import of that line provides us a key to understanding why an individual with a thief’s mentality would make such a charge against us, and the Pete Pestronis of the world that are so honest it’s laughable to suggest otherwise. Some might call such accusations psychological projection, the inclination one has to either deny or defend their qualities while seeing them in everyone else. Others might say that it’s some sort of deflection or obfuscation on the part of the thief, but I believe it all falls under a comprehensive, multi-tiered umbrella that I call the thief’s mentality. Still others might suggest that Kurt Lee’s accusations were born of theories he had about me, the people around him, and humanity in general. If that is the case, his theories were autobiographical.
Whether it was as complex as all that on an unconscious level, or some simple measures Kurt Lee developed over the years to prevent people from calling him a POS, I witnessed some try to turn the table on the accusations by telling Kurt Lee that other people trust them.
Kurt Lee’s response to one particularly defensive combatant was so clever that I thought it beyond his years. Again, I hate to discount individual ingenuity, but it just seemed too clever for Kurt to deliver as quickly as he did when he said:
“So you think if someone trusts you that means that you’re trustworthy?” is how Kurt Lee responded. He said the word trustworthy, as if the word itself was an accusation, but that wasn’t the brilliant part of his response. As brilliance often does, his arrived in that section of an argument when the participants say whatever they can to win, regardless what those words reveal. Kurt Lee suggested, in not so many words, that those who consider themselves a beacon of trustworthiness are suffering from a psychosis of another stripe. The reason I considered this response so perfect, as it pertained to this specific argument, was that it put the onus of being trustworthy on the person who challenged Kurt Lee trustworthiness. It also put any further questions regarding Kurt Lee’s character –or what his inability to trust the people in his life said about him– on the back burner, until the questioner could determine whether the level of his own trustworthiness was a delusion that group thought led them to believe.
With all that Kurt Lee taught me about this fascinating mentality, always fresh in mind, I’ve had a number of otherwise trustworthy friends ask me how to deal with the thief in their life. They fail to understand why their beloved doesn’t trust them in even the most benign arenas of life. These worried souls said things like, “I don’t know what I did to damage our bond of trust, but they call me irredeemable.” My friends were insecure about their trustworthiness, as we all are, yet they wondered what they did to trigger the damning accusations regarding their trustworthiness.
“How do I win him back? How do I regain his trust?” they asked, with sorrow in their hearts.
“I’m sorry to say it’s not about you,” I tell them. “It’s the thief’s mentality.”
I am sorry to say this, because these concerned friends find themselves trapped in a relationship with the afflicted, one that requires them to spend long hours, days, and years with this person. I have explained the plight of the thief, to the best of my ability, via my personal experiences with Kurt Lee, and it has helped these concerned and confused souls frame the accusations with a name for what their loved one does. The idea that there might be a name for it never occurred to them, and it provides them some comfort to think that others have had similar experiences so often that someone developed a name for it. Whatever short-term relief they experience in the moment, the idea that their loved one is never going to trust them anymore than they trust themselves dispels it.
The damage that thieves, like Kurt Lee, incur is irreparable. They may not enjoy the lives they’ve created for themselves, and the idea that they can’t even trust the one person in their lives that they could, or should. On the flipside, their accusations do allow them to spread their misery around a little. It lightens their load to transfer some of their toxins to others. It also gives them a little lift to know that we are a little less trusting than we were before we met them. They must find some relief in the belief that they are not such an aberration, but this relief is temporary, as the toxins that have made them what they are as endemic to the biological chemistry as white and red blood cells. Nevertheless, it must please them to know that after our interactions with them, we now view humanity in the same cynical, all-hope-is-lost manner they do.
If it’s true that a mere 2 percent of people are self-aware, then the lack of self-awareness, at least as it pertains to what we are, and what we are to become, is as endemic to the thief’s mentality as it is in every other walk of life. Like the rest of us, thieves do not believe they live on an exaggerated pole of morality. Rather, they believe they reside in the middle, right alongside the rest of us, somewhere just north of the good side of the fuzzy dividing line. They also know that we’re all tempted to do that one thing that could place us on the south side. What separates them, to their mind, is their lack of fear, coupled with their refusal to conform to the norms their parents and other mentors taught us. They are also keenly aware that we place most of humanity on their side of the fuzzy line because we all have problems trusting those we don’t know well enough to determine whether they will make moral decisions in life. Some take this natural state of skepticism a step further. Some thieves’ exaggerated, outward distrust for those around them says far more about them than about those they condemn and accuse. It’s the thief’s mentality.