The Thief’s Mentality

I’ve never been accused of cheating on a girl more than I was by the girl that cheated on me the most, I’ve never been accused of stealing more than I was by the guy that stole the most from me, and I’ve never been accused of lying more than I was by the person that lied to me more than anyone else. These people know who they are, on some level they’ll never understand, and they know we’re not much better than them, so no matter what we do or say to them, they’re not buying it, because they know what we are. It’s the thief’s mentality.

An individual, named Kurt Lee, taught me more about being a thief, and a real piece of work (POS), than any other person I’ve encountered, movie I’ve watched, or book that I’ve read on the subject. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but Kurt Lee would serve as a prototype for all of the people I would meet that would exhibit traits I would later call the thief’s mentality.  

The most interesting aspect about the man, and that which might defy all that I will describe in this piece, is that he was charming individual. When it suited his goals, Kurt Lee could be nice, engaging, infectious, and humorous. When he wanted to be, Kurt Lee could create a climate in which his audience would find it difficult not to be to his sensibilities, and epistemology, in a manner that is difficult to describe to one that’s never met anyone like him.

We would envy Kurt Lee for the ways in which he openly defy authority figures without guilt, but those that spent as much time around Kurt Lee as I did, witnessed the fact that for all the personality a charismatic POS can display, while destroying the conventions that “all the squares live by”, their ways end up destroying them from the inside out.


I was on a city bus on an afternoon when Kurt Lee decided to play with the ball on top of an elderly woman’s stocking cap that sat in front of him. My reaction to this spectacle may be one of the things that I have to answer for when I reach Judgment Day, but I found this wicked deed hysterical.

Hindsight informs me that my attraction to Kurt Lee’s antics may have had something to do with learning about the mores and rules my mother taught me. Why hadn’t I ever played with the ball on top of an old lady’s stocking cap? What was the difference between Kurt Lee and me? Was it all about morality, or did it have more to do with common decency? My mother taught me that when a young, healthy male sees an old lady, they should smile at them and try to think up something nice to say. I was taught to hold a door for them, and that it should be considered a privilege to give up my seat to them, on a city bus, if no other seats were available. These could be called typical conventions that mothers pass on to sons however.

Not only did Kurt Lee ignore these conventions, he did the exact opposite. He played with the most vulnerable member of our culture’s stocking cap. He violated her sense of security. Was this wrong? Of course it was, but it was also a fascinating exploration of human nature? How would she 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 three questions, but I was so fascinated by the answers to the former three questions that I inadvertently urged him on with my laughter. Was this wrong? Of course it was, but I now believe I did so because I was fascinated to learn more about the moral codes for which we all abide, by watching another solidify my rationale without regard for the consequences of violating them. I didn’t have any of these thoughts at the time, of course, but I did know that I couldn’t wait to see how this would end, and I dare say that most of those that are more successful in abiding by the standards their mother taught them, would not have been able to look away either.

This vulnerable, old lady did turn on Kurt, and she did so with an angry expression. She had allowed the first few flicks of the ball atop her stocking cap go, as she presumably went about trying to muster up the courage to tell him off. Kurt Lee appeared ready to concede to that initial, nonverbal admonition, until he spotted me laughing. I encouraged him onward with that laughter. 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 this, Kurt began thrusting his hips forward in his seat, looking at me, whispering, “She just wants it up the ass!”

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 act of 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 a coward that selected his victims based on their inability to fight back, as opposed to making a profound statement about our societal conventions, but at the time I found his actions so bold that I couldn’t look away, and I couldn’t stop laughing.

As time wore on, I would be introduced to a wide array of fascinating explorations of human nature, but they would pale 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 Kurt Lee speak on this subject, there was nothing different about him. 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 for so long, by parents and teachers instructing us to act different, that we now believe we are. It’s not about him, you see, it’s not about you. It’s about human nature, and the thief’s mentality.

“If you could get away with it, you would try,” was his answer to those that posed questions 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 would not defend his position from the position of being a thief. He would substitute an exaggeration of your moral qualms of thievery with this idea that a person that has stolen one thing is in no position to judge someone that steals on a regular basis.

In short time frames, and on topic, Kurt Lee could lower the most skilled debater to the ground. He was, what we called, a master debater. He could never be pinned down on specifics. It was a joy to watch. Prolonged exposure, however, opened up all these windows into his soul. When we would ask him, for example, how a guy from the sticks could afford the latest, top of the line zipper pants, or a pair of sunglasses that would put a fella our age back two weeks’ pay, and an original, signed copy of the Rolling Stones album, Some Girls, he would tell us, but even his most ardent defender had a hard time believing Santa Claus could be that generous.

Kurt Lee stole so often by the time I came to know him that the act of shoplifting had lost its thrill. He decided to challenge himself in a manner top athletes, and top news anchors, will by hiring outside analysts to scrutinize the minutiae of their performance. Kurt Lee asked me to watch him steal baseball cards from a baseball card shop owner that we all agreed was in need of a good lesson. This owner refused to buy our cards ninety-nine percent of the time, and on those rare occasions when he would, the amount he offered was so low that we thought he was taking advantage of us. 

I posed a theory about the transactions we had with this shop owner. I said I thought he refused to buy our cards so often to establish his bona fides as a resident expert of value, so that when he informed us that we had a card of some value, we would jump at the chance, no matter what he offered. In doing so, I said, he made us feel more valuable for finally offering him a card he considered of value. 

“You’re right,” Kurt Lee said. “Let’s get him.” I felt validated for coming up with a theory that Kurt believed explained the man, but in hindsight, I think I could’ve said anything at that moment and Kurt Lee would’ve used it to motivate me to conspire against the baseball card shop owner.

Kurt Lee did have one proviso, before we entered, and that was that I had to be careful how I watched Kurt Lee. I couldn’t be so obvious that the owner would know what we were doing. 

I was being invited into a world I had never known. I was as nervous as I was excited. I considered the idea that I might be implicated in this incident with my knowledge of what he was about to do, 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 baseball card shop, Kurt Lee opened up his pockets, in the manner a magician might, and he asked me to confirm that he had no cards in his pockets.

When our hour at the baseball card shop concluded, and Kurt Lee had decided not to steal anything, I mocked him.

“I thought you said you were going to steal something?” I said.

He opened up his jacket and showed me his inner pockets. It knocked me back a couple steps. I actually took a step back when it was revealed to me that his pockets were lined with baseball cards. Had he displayed one card, I would have been impressed, three or four may have shocked me, but the sheer number of cards he stole without me noticing one act of thievery, led me to believe Kurt Lee’s abilities were wasted in shoplifting. I thought he should’ve tried his hand at magic. I considered him a maestro of shoplifting.

Soon after recovering from that awe, I began to wonder how one acquires such a deft hand. As with any acquired skill, trial and error is involved, but nestled within the trial and error process of being a thief, lies a utility that permits the thief in-training to proceed uninhibited by shame. A skilled performer in the arts, or athletics, delights in showcasing their ability to the world, in other words, but a thief prefers to operate in the shadows, and their skill is acquired with some modicum of shame attached. Their success, it would seem to those of us on the outside looking in, requires them to either defeat that sense of shame, or find some way to manage it.

Shame, it could be argued, becomes more manageable with familiarity. When a father introduces child to shame, 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 such assessments. When these brutal assessments are then echoed by a mother’s concern that their child can do nothing right, the combined effort can damage a child to lasting effect. When those parents then console the child with a suggestion that while the child may be bad, they’re no worse than anyone else, something gestates in the child. Some kind of moral relativism that suggests that the search for the definitions of right and wrong is over, and the sooner they accept that, the more honest they will become. Watching their mother scold the child’s teacher for punishing her child for a transgression, clarifies this confusion a little more. In this relativist scolding, the child hears their mother inform the teacher that the child can do no wrong, and he sees her unconditional support firsthand. They also learn, over time, that their parents will not always be there for them, and that they will need to develop their own defense mechanisms. 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 to discount 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. It had to be the result of parental influence that had a transgenerational foundation composed of sedimentary layers of grievance, envy, frustration, and desperation. Some may consider that a bit of an overreach, but how much of our lives are spent rebelling against, and acquiescing to parental guidance, and how many of us can say we are entirely free of their influence?

I was so obsessed with this, at one point, that I bridged the gap between simple curiosity and badgering. This was apparent in his volatile reaction:

“You think you’re better than me?” he said, using the universal get out of judgment free card of moral relativism. It is a time-honored redirect, because it is reinforced by the lessons our mom taught us that we are no better than anyone else, but Kurt Lee’s rant would begin to pivot out of control when he would follow the rationale to what he believed its logical extension. This logical extension, if no one is better than anyone else, and everyone resides on the cusp of being whatever Kurt Lee was, required the inclusion of an individual that is perceived to be so-harmless-it’s-almost-laughable to suggest otherwise. The individual, in this case, was a kid named Pete Pestroni, and if Kurt Lee’s argument was going to hold water, Pete Pestroni would have to be declared a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I don’t know why Kurt Lee went down this Pete Pestroni road so often, but I suspect that it had something to do with the idea that if Pete was immune, in one form or another, then everyone had to be. Pete was just too weak, or too scared, to let his wolf run wild, in Kurt Lee’s worldview. We would laugh at the implausibility of Pete Pestroni having a Kurt Lee trapped inside, dying to come out, and our intention was to laugh with Kurt Lee, but he wouldn’t even smile. 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 might lead to some level of introspection. An individual with a thief’s mentality may steal, but they are 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 is deflection, by way of subterfuge, to explain the carrier’s inability to trust beyond that point that they should be trusted, but some thieves’ outward distrust of others is so exaggerated that it can only say more about them than those they accuse. Their cynicism is their objectivity, and your faith in humanity is a subjective viewpoint that you must bear. We live in a dog eat dog, “screw or be screwed” world that suggests that those that trust anyone outside their own home are so naïve as to be hopeless. It’s incumbent on the listener, if they hope to survive in this version of world, to see past the façades, and through the veneers that others present to you, to the truth.

The truth, in Kurt Lee’s worldview, had it that TV anchors with fourteen inch parts, and perfect teeth, end their day by going home to beat their wives. No one attains wealth in an honest manner, Catholic priests are all pedophiles, and all presidents have engaged in acts of infidelity in the White House, “You think JFK and Clinton are different? They just got caught is all,” and little old ladies that complain about having the balls on the stocking caps played with, just want it up the ass. As with most tenets of Kurt Lee’s worldview, there was some grain of truth to some of it, but he would often have to put forth a great deal of effort to support that it.

At some point in these discussions, after the agreed upon basics of human nature begin to fracture in what a thief believes are logical extensions, they turn their accusations on us. We may think that we’re all virtuous and moral, but they know 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.

They may even believe what they’re saying in their accusations, regardless what we’ve done to establish ourselves as an honest person, but the validity of their argument pales in comparison to a need they have to keep the subject of their accusations in a perpetual state of trustworthiness, in a manner that they know they should be kept in check.

I’ve witnessed some try to turn the table on a real POS, like Kurt Lee, by telling him that other people trust them. The answer he gave, to one combatant, was so clever that it was 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. 

“So you think if someone trusts you that makes you trustworthy?” is how Kurt Lee responded. He said the word trustworthy, as if it were an accusation, but that wasn’t the brilliant, beyond-his-years response. That would arrive, as it often does, in the course of the argument that followed in which both participants say whatever they think they have to say to win an argument, regardless what those words reveal. What Kurt Lee said was something about how those that consider themselves a beacon of trustworthiness are, in fact, 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 that challenged Kurt Lee honesty. It also put any further questions regarding Kurt Lee’s character –or what his inability to trust people said about him– on the back burner, until the questioner could determine whether the level of his own trustworthiness was based on a delusion that group thought had led him to believe.

With the precedent of Kurt Lee always fresh in my mind, I’ve had a number of otherwise trustworthy friends ask me how to deal with the thief in their life. They don’t understand why their beloved doesn’t trust them in even the most banal arenas of life. These worried friends state that they can’t remember what they did to damage that trust that their beloved declares irretrievable. My friends were insecure about their trustworthiness in the manner we all are, but they can’t remember the specific incident that brought about the damning accusations regarding their trustworthiness. They come to me with grief and sorrow on their hearts: 

“How do I win him back? How do I regain his trust?”

“I’m sorry to say that it’s not about you,” I tell them. “It’s the thief’s mentality.” 

I am sorry to say this, because these concerned friends have consigned themselves to some sort of relationship with the afflicted that requires them to spend long hours, days, and years with this person. I have explained what I mean to these people, via my personal experiences with Kurt Lee, and it has helped these concerned and confused souls frame the accusations their thief may make, but that relief is dispelled by the fact that their loved one is never going to trust them anymore than they trust themselves.

Thieves, like Kurt Lee, are damaged in irreparable and relative ways. They may not enjoy the lives they’ve created for themselves, where they can’t even trust the one person in their lives that they could, or should, but it does help them spread their misery a little to accuse. It does lighten their load to transfer some of their toxins to others. It also gives them a little lift to know that you are a little less trusting than you were before you met them. It helps them believe that they’re not such an aberration, but this relief is temporary, as the toxins that have made them what they are, are as endemic to the biological chemistry as white and blood red cells, but it does please them to know that you now view humanity in the same cynical, all-hope-is-lost manner they do.

The lack of self-awareness, 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. They believe, as the rest of us do, that they do not live on an exaggerated pole of morality. They believe that they reside with the rest of us in the middle, somewhere on the good side of this fuzzy dividing line, and that we’re all tempted to do that one thing that could place us on the other side. The difference being that their lack of fear separates them, coupled with their refusal to conform to what they’ve been taught. They also know that we place most of humanity on their side of the fuzzy line, because we all have problems trusting those that we don’t know well enough to know whether or not they will make moral decisions in life, but some take this natural state of skepticism a step further. Some thieves’ outward distrust for those around them is so exaggerated that it ends up saying more about them than those they accuse. It’s the thief’s mentality.

[Editor’s Note: Those that have been asking for further exploration of this topic might be interested to know that we have now created a new article related to this topic: The Thief’s Mentality II: What Ever Happened to Kurt Lee.]

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