Serial Killing Lessons From My Mother’s Purse

By Jessi Carr

After my mother was incarcerated, I inherited her purse — along with most of her other possessions — and I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. You see, my mother and I couldn’t be more different. I spent my post-college years digging wells in Ghana with the Peace Corps; she studied abroad in London and partied her way through Europe.

I ride my bike wherever I can to try to reduce my carbon footprint; she drove her Range Rover down the block to chat with the neighbors. When I turned 15, I became a staunch vegetarian out of respect for all lives; my mother is currently serving consecutive life sentences for the murder and/or disappearance of more than 30 women between the ages of 35 and 60. High society types.

The purse itself is simple — a classic black Chanel 2.55. Pricey, yes, but commonplace and quite subtle next to more ostentatious handbags like a Hermès Birkin, and certainly less gaudy than anything with a Louis Vuitton monogram. The quilted black calfskin and gold accents are versatile — demure enough to bring to the office, yet chic enough for a cocktail party. And its iconic metal-and-leather chain? Perfect for stealthily strangling an unsuspecting victim and leaving a distinct calling-card pattern. It’s said to be inspired by the uniforms of the nuns who raised Coco.

***

I remember playing with her purse when I was a young girl, horribly bored at whatever social function I’d been dragged along to. Back then, I adored imitating her, snatching the purse away whenever I could, usually to her chagrin. Although she didn’t seem to mind when I’d fling her tampons across the room, I can still remember the flashes of fear on her pale face whenever I’d unearth her pair of latex gloves in front of her friends and her hurried excuses for why she might be carrying them. But even so, playing with the purse was a special treat she allowed me as her sole daughter; my mother always stressed the power that a purse could hold.

Meanwhile my father always told my brothers that any respectable gentleman would never touch a woman’s purse, a lesson passed down from his own father. It not only instilled the sanctity of a woman’s personal space and autonomy in my brothers, but also saved my father from at least 13 years in a state prison as an accomplice.

Although the purse’s diminutive size prohibited her from ever carrying too much, she always made sure to include her three necessities — a tube of her signature very red lipstick, an emergency pair of pearl earrings, and a gold comb.

Although she was never one to leave the house looking unkempt in the first place, she always stressed the importance of keeping the necessities on hand for emergency primping, like a last-minute invitation to coffee with a frenemy, or taking a mugshot that would be repeatedly broadcast on television networks nationwide.

Through these small, but potent objects she taught me I should always put my best face forward for the world, even if only in a metaphorical sense.

For my mother, the purse also designated success. She was born during the baby boom — a time when women were expected to embrace the opportunities and independence of second-wave feminism, but were simultaneously shackled by the domestic expectations of their parents’ generation.

Accordingly, she purchased the purse with her own money after landing her first job as an associate in a well-respected criminal defense firm, a job in a career path that helped her hide her own misgivings for years on end, and she frequently turned down better, newer ones as a source of pride later on.

The stress of juggling a high-power career and managing a family life has proven difficult for many women born in this time. It’s no secret that a significant number were driven into the depths of a wine-and-Xanax addiction, and others into internal torment that can only be soothed by occasionally extinguishing the lives of those who they view as their social nemeses.

I still remember the last time I saw my mother with her purse. I was in the courtroom, observing her trial, when they brought out the bag as evidence. Although she had to remain behind the defendant’s table and could only watch as the prosecutor delicately looped the purse’s strap around the neck of a mannequin to demonstrate the manner in which she strangled her victims, just the mere presence of the purse made her complete again.

She sat up straighter, her eyes grew brighter — I even saw the faint hints of a smile beginning to form, despite the fact that she knew she would never see the outside of a jail cell again. Even in her orange jumpsuit, she was radiant, and I finally understood just what this purse meant to her, and how much it had truly become a part of her identity.

***

Some might see me choosing to wear this purse out as a form of sacrilege, blatantly spitting in the face of the friends, family, and memory of her victims scattered all across the Atlantic Seaboard. But I choose to see it differently. When I don this purse, I do it not to glorify the woman who the press has affectionately dubbed “The Chanel Choker,” but to honor the memory of my mother, a woman who is no less a victim to the cruelties of society than her victims were to her.

***

Illustration by Katie Tandy

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