Every so often I come across a passage in a book where I read it and think, “yes, that’s exactly it!” (“It” being some element or motivation of human behavior that I’ve been thinking about and/or researching.) The following is one of these passages, from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. It hits many of the right notes when it comes to illustrating how we enable ourselves to act dishonestly.
It began in the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Sasha was adjusting her yellow eye shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vaultlike door of a toilet stall. Inside the rim of the bag, barely visible, was a wallet made of pale green leather. It was easy for Sasha to recognize, looking back, that the peeing woman’s blind trust had provoked her. We live in a city where people will steal the hair off your head if you give them half a chance, but you leave your stuff lying in plain sight and expect it to be waiting for you when you come back? It made her want to teach the woman a lesson. But this wish only camouflaged the deeper feeling Sasha always had: that fat, tender wallet, offering itself to her hand—it seemed so dull, so life-as-usual to just leave it there rather than seize the moment, accept the challenge, take the leap, fly the coop, throw caution to the wind, live dangerously (“I get it,” Coz, her therapist, said), and take the fucking thing.
“You mean steal it.”
He was trying to get Sasha to use that word, which was harder to avoid in the case of a wallet than with a lot of the things she’d lifted over the past year, when her condition (as Coz referred to it) had begun to accelerate: five sets of keys, fourteen pairs of sunglasses, a child’s striped scarf, binoculars, a cheese grater, a pocketknife, twenty-eight bars of soap, and eighty-five pens…
First we have Sasha’s rationalization—the owner of the purse is so silly and naïve that she deserves to have her belongings taken. Sasha isn’t just stealing money, she’s teaching the woman how to be more careful. How thoughtful!
On top of this, Sasha offers herself the excuse that stealing the wallet is exciting rather than immoral, similar to the way we can glamorize mobsters and mafia in the movies. We also see, through her discussion with her therapist, that she—at least up until that point—had not considered using the word “steal” for what she’d been doing. It’s easier to lie, cheat, and steal if we call it something else (improvising, exaggerating, borrowing, for instance).
Her avoidance of the proper term (“stealing”), in turn, is enabled by the fact that she’d stolen items that were not themselves monetary (how much is a cheese grater worth anyway). This is the same loophole that allows people not to consider taking office supplies from work stealing the way they would taking some money out of an office cash box. We see the therapist, consequently, trying to get her to accept the term stealing for her actions—in this way, he can nullify some of the rationalizations Sasha puts forth.