My aversion to dolls is not a product of my adult, feminist mind. Nor can I confidently link it to the creepiest Twilight Zone episode ever in which Telly Savalas repeatedly tries to dismember his step-daughter’s doll, Talky Tina, only to have the doll survive and eventually murder him…. "Hi! I’m Talky Tina, and I’m going to KILL you.” No, my distaste for their molded plastic bodies, their vacant eyes, their unmanageable synthetic hair dates back to the day my mother brought my sister home from the hospital.
Mom got a new baby. A living, breathing, screaming thing that redirected her attention away from me. And I got a doll. A stiff, inanimate, indifferent thing meant to turn me into a nurturer. Mommy’s little helper. I was all of 19 months, and not yet keen to take up a parenting role. By my mother’s own report, when she returned from the hospital, I tossed off a bitchy, “Who dat?” in her direction and then didn’t speak a word to her for a week. She finally bribed me out of my silence with coffee ice cream.
The doll suffered from neglect from day one, and later, abuse. I took away her clothes. I chopped off her hair so one tuft protruded from the top of her head. I banished her from my bed, where my treasured stuffed animals comfortably slumbered, and hid her away from view. I don’t think I even gave her a name.
My sister, who was very much like a living doll herself, skinny with a big head covered in curls, adored dolls. In later years, Barbie was her favorite. I would delight in grabbing her Barbies away, flicking off their heads with my thumb while saying, “Mama had a baby and her head popped off.” This never failed to trigger her protective maternal instinct, and like a lioness, she would charge me, roaring and scratching.
Eventually I kept to verbal abuse. It proved to be my forte. I delighted in generating withering insults attacking their character, their physical appearance, their intellect (or lack thereof). And like the vacuous creatures they were, they still invited me to their birthday parties.
When I was pregnant, I might have been uncertain as to whether I would have a boy or a girl, but I was sure I would have a doll-free house. I fantasized about having a house where I could pass freely from room to room without fearing their steady, reproachful gaze. But give birth to a girl, and they come marching in. A little plastic army, ready to do battle and win the affections of my daughter. The first seemed harmless enough; she was made of cloth and rattled when you shook her. Sophie named her “Baby.” In the morning, I knew Sophia was a wake when I heard her slamming Baby around in her crib. Baby went everywhere with Sophie, and fearing that it had become her transitional object, I ran out and purchased an identical replacement. We did, briefly loose Baby, and so I produced Baby II, to whom Sophie (who recognized it as a replacement) gave the name Baby MmmMmm. Sophie easily transferred her affections to this doll. And when Baby resurfaced, we took to calling her Original Baby, as Sophie fickly went back and forth between the two.
When we finally did receive Sophie’s first official Stepford doll, I quickly and silently regifted it. (Yes, I’m sorry gifter and recipient, I did!) But then, on Sophia’s first Hanukkah, my sister (finally exacting her revenge) gave my daughter her first “real” doll. She had blond hair and blue eyes. Kevin and I jokingly referred to her as, “The Arian.” And Sophie, mishearing us, called her “Karen.”
During her first year in residence, Karen was relatively in obtrusive. She joined the masses that flanked the side of Sophie’s crib…the nameless entourage that swallowed her up each evening.
But, overnight, Karen rose from relative obscurity into the number two position, second only to Snakey-Pie (now the official transitional object). Sophie took her down to breakfast. “Karen wants breakfast too.”
Was Karen grinning at me?
Begrudgingly I gave Karen a plastic pink bowl and spoon. “No! She needs cereal.”
“It’s in there. Pretend cereal. That’s what Karen eats.”
“Oh,” replied Sophie, buying it, and spooning pretend cereal up to Karen’s frozen pout.
Then Karen spoke. Her voice was creepier than I could have imagined, a high pitched, scratchy sound, “I like cereal, ma-ma!” Not sweet and angelic. More like the voice of an old crone.
“Sophia, a little less for Karen, a little more for you, please.” I redirected her back to her breakfast.
It was only the beginning. Snakey-pie might still be at the top of the heap while she slept, but during the day, Sophie belonged to Karen. There was no place the doll was unwelcome. Karen was soon accompanying us to the grocery store, the babysitters, the bath. Sophie would insist on holding her over the toilet and wiping Karen’s butt before going to the bathroom herself.
And then Karen began to make demands. “Karen wants a high chair for my birthday,” Sophie told me. “And a crib.” Though I resented the fact that Karen was going to be the ultimate recipient of the birthday present, it was what Sophie wanted, so I acquiesced. On November 15th, Karen came downstairs to find a swing, a stroller, a high chair and a cradle with matching pink-checked upholstery waiting for her in front of the fire place. Sophia was charmed and immediately set to feeding and caring for her baby.
That night, putting Karen to sleep in the cradle alongside her own her own bed Sophia told me, “I do all the mommy things, and she does all the baby things.”
Then, suddenly I got it; the evidence was everywhere:
Like on the morning, weary from combat, I was sprawled out on my bed, waiting for Sophia to calm down so I could go in for round two in the Fight to Get Her Dressed. Sophia emerged, contrite and half-naked, holding out her shirt. “Can you help me put this on?” she asked in a tiny voice.
“Sure,” I said, pulling it down over her head.” Sophie disappeared into her room, and returned with a naked Karen in tow.
“Sometimes Karen has a fuss and doesn’t want to get dressed.” She told me.
“What do you do when Karen doesn’t want to get dressed?” I asked.
“I put her clothes on, because she needs to listen when I tell her to do something.” Sophia replied, matter-of-factly.
“That’s true.” I said, “You are her mommy.” Sophia nodded.
“And I know that you don’t want Karen to be cold and you want her to be ready to go out and enjoy the day.”
“Yeah,” said Sophie. “I’m a good mommy.”
I glanced down at the undressed Karen. Was she winking at me?