The Thief’s Mentality

The woman that cheated on me more than any other was the same woman that accused me of being a cheater more often than any of the others did. The man that accused me of stealing more often than most, turned out to be the person that stole from me most often. The individuals that lied to me more often than most were often the first to accuse me of being a liar. These people know who they are, on a level they’ll never understand, and they know we’re not much better than they are, so no matter what we do or say to them, they’re not buying it, because they know who we are. It’s the thief’s mentality.

The confusing nature of that final sentence was as intentionally confusing as the confusing nature of the thief’s mentality can be. Kurt Lee introduced me to the thief’s mentality, even though I didn’t know it at the time. He taught me more about being a thief, and a real piece of work (a 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 those that would exhibit similar traits, traits that I would only later deem the thief’s mentality.

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

Those that knew Kurt Lee, on a superficial level, would envy him for the ways in which he openly defy authority figures without guilt. Those that ended up spending as much time around Kurt Lee as I did, however, witnessed that for all the charisma a POS can display, while destroying the conventions that “all the squares live by”, learned that their ways end up destroying them from the inside out.

We were on a city bus, one afternoon, when Kurt Lee decided to play with the ball on top of an elderly woman’s stocking cap. The elderly woman sat in front of him on the bus. 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 his wicked, little act hysterical.

Hindsight now 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 woman’s stocking cap? What was the difference between Kurt Lee and me? Was it about morality, or did it have more to do with common decency? My mother taught me that when a young, healthy male sees an elderly woman, they should smile at them and try to think up something nice to say. My mother taught me to hold a door for them, and she said that I should consider it a privilege to give up my seat to them, on a city bus, if no other seats were available. These were the typical conventions that good, and decent, mothers pass on to their sons.

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. It was wrong, of course, 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 three questions, but my fascination with the answers to the former three questions led me to urge him on with laughter. This was wrong too, of course, 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, elderly woman did 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, 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 his furtherance 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 this:

“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 discovered 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 the idea that a person that has stolen one thing is in no position to judge someone that steals on a regular basis.

In short bursts, and on topic, Kurt Lee could lower the most skilled debater to the ground. He was, what we called, a master debater. It was difficult 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 would ask him 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 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 the 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 the owner of a baseball card shop 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 owner of a baseball card shop.

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.

This was an invitation 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 I didn’t witness Kurt Lee steal anything, I mocked him.

“I’m beginning to think you’re chicken,” I said. “I thought you said you were going to steal something?”

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 I witnessed the fact that baseball cards lined his pockets. 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 that Kurt Lee wasted his abilities 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 need for the thief to find a utility that permits them 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 prefers to operate in the shadows, and they acquire their skill with a 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, some would argue, becomes more manageable with familiarity. When a father introduces shame to their 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 the assessment. 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 is, 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 they see 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 a stretch, but how much of our lives are spent 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 the gap between simple curiosity and badgering. This was apparent in his volatile reaction:

“You think you’re better than me?” Kurt Lee said, using the universal get out of judgment free card of moral relativism. It is a time-honored redirect. It relies on the lessons our mom taught us, that we are no better than anyone else is, 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 is, and everyone resides on the cusp of being whatever Kurt Lee is, required the inclusion of an individual that many perceive 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 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 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 could 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 reaches a point of exaggeration that can 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 the 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 a person’s worldview, there was some grain of truth to Kurt Lee’s, but he would often have to put forth a great deal of effort to support that it.

In most of these discussions, those of us in the audience are immune. We become the ‘I’m not talking about you’ party that the thief views as either an ally, or the focal point of their attempts to convince themselves that they’re not that bad. Whatever the reason behind our immunity is, it ends when our agreed upon basics begin to fracture in the course of the thief’s logical extensions. When that happens, the thief turns 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 accusation pales in comparison to the need a person with a thief’s mentality has to keep the 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, or a person 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. Some might also suggest that Kurt’s accusation was born of theory, and that if that is the case all theory is autobiography.

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 this accusation by telling Kurt Lee that other people trust them. The answer he gave, to one combatant, was so clever that I have to think 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 was 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 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 trustworthiness. 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 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 makes, but commingled in that short-term relief is the idea 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 red blood cells, but it does please them to know that you now view humanity in the same cynical, all-hope-is-lost manner they do.

If it’s true that a mere two-percent of people are self-aware, then 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 exaggerate pole of morality. They believe that they reside in the middle with the rest of us, 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 our parents and teachers taught us. 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 they will make moral decisions in life, but some take this natural state of skepticism a step further. Some thieves’ exaggerated, outward distrust for those around them ends up saying more about them than those they accuse. It’s the thief’s mentality.

(Editor’s Note: There is an old saying that goes something along the lines of, if I wanted to know what happened to my high school friends, I’d still be friends with them. There are those standouts though. Those people we think of when we read a book, or watch a movie that has a character that reminds us of them. Due to the tangential influence Kurt Lee has had on my life, I’ve always wondered what happened to the man. Attending the funeral of my friend’s mom, the subject of Kurt Lee rose, and it answered the question: Whatever Happened to Kurt Lee?)


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