David Altshuler, M.S.
(305) 978-8917 | [email protected]

“Res ipsa loquitur” means “the thing speaks for itself.” A Miami woman buys knock off pocketbooks and returns them to a designer store. She keeps the real pocketbooks in her closet. This thing speaks for itself. But I don’t know what it is trying to say.

The fake pocketbooks are indistinguishable from the real ones. Does this woman hoard the real ones? Does she sell them? Does she know that the law enforcement officials were only able to distinguish the knock off pocketbooks from the actual ones by marking the real ones with ultraviolet ink?

According to the complaint, the woman bought real Valentino, Gucci and Fendi bags. But she then returned counterfeit bags to T. J. Max. After having attached T. J. Max tags to the fake bags. So she got to keep the real purses. Until the authorities busted her. The UPS guy was a federal agent. Who knew?

Apparently, this woman lives in a $1.7 million dollar house and goes to high tone Miami social events. Perhaps some accounts are so empty that they can never be filled up. (Maybe you can figure out what she was thinking by reading more about her arrest.)

My gentle readers might think that my point this week is to wonder how this wealthy woman got to the point where she finds it necessary to steal handbags. Was she economically disadvantaged as a child? Did she grow up in a neighborhood without designer handbags? Or my question this week might concern how to decrease the odds that our own children grow up to be pocketbook scammers. Is this woman missing something? A sense of honor, any sense at all?

Instead, my interest is in the near perfect analogy to the college admissions scandal. Parents “improved” their children–or invented children out of whole cloth–to increase the likelihood that said children would be admitted to “name” schools. Similarly this woman is concerned with the authenticity of the bags. She feels that only the name on the handbag matters. That the real and the phony bags are completely and utterly indistinguishable makes no difference.

Parents obsessing over children attending Amherst College rather than Colby College may find themselves in a similar situation. Meaning no disrespect to Amherst College (Go, Mammoths!) it may be pointed out that there are 1849 undergraduates at Amherst College, that Massachusetts is chilly in the winter, and that 14% of Amherst College applicants were admitted whereas at Colby College (Go, Mules!) there are 1879 students, that Maine is chilly in the winter, and that 19% of Colby College applicants were admitted.

I am certainly not going to be the person to write in invisible ink on either an Amherst College student nor a Colby college student. And in fairness, there may be something to be said about Amherst College not having a core curriculum or distribution requirements. On the other hand, Colby College has a Four-day Outdoor Orientation Trip and provides funding for off-campus internships. The Amherst men’s lacrosse team did beat Colby 24-6 last year. But the Colby men’s soccer team won 3-1 against Amherst. To be fair, neither Amherst College nor Colby College were mentioned in the admissions scandal. To my knowledge, neither the lacrosse nor the soccer teams used handbags of any kind–real or knockoff–in any of their scrimmages. I can not speak to the use of handbags in the playoffs.

I have visited and placed students on both The Amherst and Colby College campuses. There may be significant differences between Amherst College and Colby College. It’s just that after 30-something years as an independent college admissions counselor, I can’t think of any.

The parents in the admissions scandal (do I still have to say “allegedly” now that they have pled guilty in droves?) paid Brazillions of dollars so that their kids could be admitted to this college rather than that one. Did the parents even know anything about the designer schools that they sold their assets and their integrity to facilitate? Or were they just making distinctions without differences? Might these parents have been better off helping their children obtain the reality rather than just the appearance of ability? Could these parents have read a book or gone on a hike with their kids rather than focusing on faking their children’s transcripts?

Or were they just treating their children as if they were handbags?



7 thoughts on “Bag Lady

  1. John

    I have found this scandal fascinating, to the extent that I think I read everything about it during the first week that the story broke.

    I’m reminded of a story from two years ago. The daughter of a friend was headed to FSU after not being accepted to her first choice, that need not be named. He said “this was the first time in her life that she didn’t get what she wanted.” Grew up in a nice house with a supportive family, went to private school and had a car on her 16th birthday. But she did not get into her first choice.

    Aside from traditional “college snobbery,” I thin the scandal represents the first time that the students and their parents, more importantly, realized that for the first time in their lives, the kids wouldn’t get what they (and the parents wanted. They didn’t have the fortitude to deal with it for its teaching power. For the first time, They couldn’t have what they wanted — or could they???

  2. Jon Reider

    David, this is brilliant, one of your best in a competitive selection. I particularly liked the Amherst/Colby comparison. And yes, they revtreating their kids as commodities, (See Marx on “commodity fetishism” in Das Kapital.) Marx makes the point that the branded item (USC) takes on magical qualities, like a primitive religious fetish. So the handbag is a fetish too, which is why only the initiated believer can perceive the difference between real and authentic. While you’re at it, tell me which religion is more authentic. I have no clue, but a lot of devout people are very sure. I have no solution, of course, but I think it is our obligation as counselors, school-based or independent, NOT to collaborate with the magical thinking. By the way, look up the etymology of “prestige.”

  3. Dodge Johnson

    Of course there is a significant differences between Amherst and Colby. After all, Amherst starts with an A, so it is always first in the alphabetical ranking – and of course Mammoth comes before Mule. If only Colby were named Arggh and its mascot were the aarvark, just think how much heartache all of Amherst wannabes would have been spared when they were admitted to Colby. Nice piece, David.

  4. Chere

    Seems that many have forgotten, or never knew, about moving with the Universal flow, staying aligned with purpose and integrity. So unfotunate to dismiss the value of Karma and wonder later why there’s no inner joy to tap into.

  5. Martin

    For some reason I am not sure of, the concept of “mimetic desire” came into my mind this afternoon. The anthropologist Rene Girard wrote about the concept, which points out that most people in any society do not know what they want until they see what other people want. Then they want that.

    (Now I remember: I was working in the garden and my next-door neighbor came out onto his porch to tell me that he and his wife would be going on vacation tomorrow instead of today. We’d agreed to take care of their cats while they are away, so we have a day of respite. My neighbor had a cup of coffee in his hand, which put me in the mind of wanting to make myself a cup of coffee. So it goes.)

    It is puzzling that handbags (and colleges) can be made so similar that even experts have difficulty telling the “real” and therefore “superior” from the “inferior”. I particularly like your example of Amhearst and Colby because from this distance, I absolutely could not tell which is “better” although Maine has a reputation for being further away.

    I am consistently puzzled by the concept of “branding” as a means of establishing value. but of course that is because most people have so little sense of what the real, qualitative differences are: so many choices and so much ignorance. There are so many examples of “distinctions without differences”–something has to be better than something else, we have no way of knowing which, and are afraid that someone else may know and so shame us for making the wrong choice. Adidas, Nike, NewBalance? We can’t choose based on how our feet feel after running 10 miles. So we buy the brand. Amherst or Colby? Talk to me after you’ve been there a while. I’m sure the difference will depend strongly on whether you’ve made friends and found studies that give satisfaction. But the brand? Who knows? Without mimetic desire we might just have to go on living in the world.

    A handbag is not for carrying stuff. It’s for showing off to people who care about brands. So it has to be “authentic” just as a Picasso lithograph has to be authentic. But since both can be mass-produced, both have to be authenticated by experts, even though Picasso himself said he made a lot of fakes.

    So prove to me that Colby is better. Because I don’t know the difference. And that’s your point. Don’t sweat it, and don’t make yourself and your kid crazy about it.

  6. Sallie Clark

    Very thought provoking article. Here, I will lay my confession: I always enjoy almost all of your ‘musings’, and I almost always learn something new if not from your article, from my own research brought on by your stories!!

  7. David H. Craig

    Hey, actually, you can tell fakes from the real thing over time. (Probably true of purses, scholars, and crew members.) My wife had a “Prada” purse she was very proud of till the “Prada” fell off. I myself have a Rolex watch (also bought on the streets of New York). It was indistinguishable from the real thing–till the minute hand fell off. Actually, it’s still there–just loose inside the crystal. It’s still a nice looking watch if you don’t look at it too closely and don’t care what time it is.

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