Peeling Dolls

Dolls are creepy. Dolls are very creepy indeed. I’m not scared of them, though – I’m just deeply cautious around them. I never let them get out of my sight, I never allow them behind my back.

I was born into a deeply conservative family, and was the eldest of three, with two younger brothers. Right through our childhoods, my brothers got the good stuff. Their presents would include metal meccano sets, pedal-cars, scalextric tracks and cars, and painting sets. I’d get granny-style underwear (the only stuff I was allowed to wear until I got a job and could afford to buy my own clothes), school uniform bits, and dolls.

I hated Christmas. I hated birthdays. Birthdays were a minus equation: people I’d much rather left me alone would actually notice me – never a good thing. And on my sixteenth I was given two glasses of white wine with dinner (which on birthdays was invariably takeaway Chinese and invariably the same dish: chicken-and-almonds on fried rice). I discovered how horrible it felt to be intoxicated. I’ve loathed drinking ever since, and only drank briefly for a few weeks during a rocky relationship with an addict when I was trying to shock the hell out of them by pretending to catch their addictions.

I hated birthdays. I hated Christmas. The only thing good about Christmas was that in the years before quarantine and customs tightened up, my German grandmother used to send boxes of German biscuits that at the time you simply couldn’t get in Australia. (Now they’re available everywhere from Woolworths to Aldis). To this day, cinnamon, a spice unknown in my mother’s kitchen, still smells of Christmas to me. I use it all the time, possibly because I want my family to have more enchantment in their lives than I had, and my daughter was totally mystified recently when I confided in her and told her it smelled of Christmas.

I don’t think that as a very young child I had tapped into the inner creepiness of dolls. They were just things I was supremely uninterested in. I remember before the youngest brother was born  (or born but not large enough to matter) one Christmas I got a doll and some boring clothing stuff, while my brother A. got a red pedal-car he immediately called Mr Dobson. He went hareing down the slope of the backyard having immense fun. I was insanely jealous, and tried to borrow it from him. He wouldn’t, not unless I had something to swap that he wanted to play with. All the mechano and lego in the house belonged to him already. He was fairly and reasonably uninterested in dolls. I never once got a ride in Mr Dobson.

My mother’s reaction was interesting. I’m a mother myself, and I quite like it when my spawn is happy. I assume she would also have preferred having happy children, too, although we all saw little enough evidence of it. You’d think that if a child, even a girl, showed a complete lack of interest in dolls, you’d try buying them something else. Doesn’t that make sense? It does to me.

Apparently it didn’t to my mother. No, instead of that she kept buying more and more dolls, present-day after present-day.  Doll after doll. Was she trying to find the “right” one, the one which would `crack’ me and make me love dolls? And each-and-every doll I’d cast aside without even playing with it once. They were merely a total waste of space. All the potential a wrapped parcel offers – and when you open them it’s just another doll! I suppose it was a testament to the strength of hope inside me that year after year, even well into primary school, I kept hoping that one day the dolls would stop.

Fortunately, my parents valued education and literacy – when it became obvious that I loved reading, they started buying books. They never developed taste in books, though, and to this day at forty-nine, if I receive anything at all it’s likely to be either a piece of glass (my mother’s love – I much prefer turned wood) or a book.

It’s hard to buy books for adults with established libraries: even if you can predict their tastes, they likely might have the book you see and think they will like. Last year or the year before I received my first truly sensible and appreciated present: a book voucher. My brothers would have probably bought me books, but my sister-in-law, not a blood relative, choose far more wisely.

But when I think of my childhood, it was an endless array of school uniforms, dorky undies and dolls. I had a baby-doll called Jackie, in whose doll’s pram my baby brother, S., would later sleep at least once, and a tall blonde doll. I had a bride-doll which I had the sense to vandalise pretty quickly – or at least it, unlike the others, disappeared and didn’t keep reappearing in my bedroom like a silent accusation every time I tried to hide it in the backyard under the hedge or in the car under the back of the front seat. I had Sasha, a politically incorrect Eskimo doll with dark-chocolate skin, blue eyes and European-shaped features, dressed in a leather hooded tunic trimmed with real seal-fur. I had big dolls and little dolls. My mother gave them all names.

I was never allowed to have a Barbie, even though it was my generation when they exploded and tried to take over the world. My mother, who was very breastie, had an issue with breasts, and wouldn’t buy Barbies because of their large breasts. I rebelliously tried to want to have a Barbie, but my general dislike of dolls easily won the day.

I had a gollywog, but he wasn’t quite as offensive as the dolls because at least he was soft. Before I went to school I had a large soft clown-thing with an Elizabethan neck-ruff and harlequin motley in, I think, green and silver, called Mr Flop who was comforting to carry around because he picked up and fed back to me my body-heat, giving me an illusory sense of interacting with at least one living being in my childhood.

Ditto my White Rabbit a few years earlier,  a rabbit-shaped ragdoll with long ears. I was much smaller, and I used to grip his right paw in my left hand, suck my thumb, and breathe on his belly, touching my face. It wasn’t the thumb-sucking that was so comforting – it was the warmth coming back to me from his belly. It made me feel loved. Not a lot else did, and eventually the White Rabbit was taken from me. I howled for nights and nights. And I never sucked my thumb again. Well, I couldn’t – I didn’t have the White Rabbit. You can’t suck your thumb unless you are holding a White Rabbit, everybody knows that.

Eventually I learned to live without the White Rabbit, and years later, I learned to live without Mr Flop, whom I must have discarded before I ever went to school. But I liked Mr Flop and I loved the White Rabbit, and they were taken from me. I hated the dolls with a passion because they never went away and kept coming back  no matter what, with new recruits entering their infernal army every so often. But they weren’t creepy. Not yet.

My mother must have known that I didn’t like dolls. I mean, the evidence was there, in plain sight. But she still kept buying them. Why did she do that? What was it about? Was she trying to train me to grow up to be a “proper” woman, interested in boys and having babies? (Good luck with that one!) Was she just so devoid of imagination that she couldn’t think of anything else to give to a little girl?

My mother, despite being married to a lawyer and thus being reasonably affluent, never forgot her postwar German peasant roots, the lower-class roots she never admitted to and only ever alluded to by accident and in passing. She simply couldn’t bear to waste money. Wasting money was a huge issue: we had to eat every mouthful on our plates no matter how full we were, for example, because the food cost money, and you couldn’t waste money.

And yet, there was an entire battalion of dolls languishing, unloved, in the house. Such a huge waste of money. If she couldn’t get me to play with them, someone had to play with them. It would have been unthinkable to offer them to my brothers (just as it was unthinkable to offer me anything interesting like lego, spirograph or mechano), but they to be played-with in order for the money not to be wasted.

I vividly remember walking into the living-room of “the old house”(it’s still the old house today, even though we moved into the New House in 1969), to find my mother in a large arm-chair with an assortment of half a dozen or so of the ghastly, hated dolls. She was changing their little outfits and bending their arms and legs into and out of standing or sitting positions.

As a child it gave me the horrors. I think I only saw it once, but I never forgot it. I got out of that room as quietly as I possibly could, so that she wouldn’t notice me. There was something profoundly wrong, utterly wrong, with the whole scenario. My mother. Dolls. Previously, I didn’t imagine my life could get any worse. In that moment, it had.

As an adult I can feel sorry for my mother, her only gifts to me rejected, having to play with them herself because of her paralytic fear of waste based on an awful early life of her own. As a child,  I didn’t know any of that and I was appalled and creeped out. It was, as a matter of fact, on that day that the seeds of the creepiness of dolls were planted.

I got one of the four biggest floggings of my life (my mother used to call them “thrashings”) when I left Sasha, the disgusting Eskimo doll, in the backyard in summer one year. She was made of softer plastic than the rest of them, presumably, and what with being forced to wear her warm sealskin leather and fur outfit in the heat of a baking Australian day, she died of heat exhaustion. Her face partly melted. I couldn’t sit down without pain for days.

In my late teens, I suppose, I started reading about alternative forms of spirituality, having started to read about death and dying at fifteen. I discovered shamanism, and spirits personnified in dolls. I discovered Voudun, and remote cursing using dolls as a representation of the target. I discovered worship, and the epitomising of a divine unknowable deity in a statuette. Statuettes, as Gods and goddesses, became wonderful; dolls as substitutes in distance-magic became creepy.

In my early twenties I discovered the writing of Peter Carey. I knew and loved his short story collections before I read his full-length novels, and I still think he is a master of the short story form. In one of the collections I have, is a story called Peeling.

From memory, the protagonist forms a crush on this girl who lives upstairs, and goes to visit her to have tea with her whenever possible. Her house is painted dead-white throughout. It is furnished and equipped in the same shade of dead-white. And in every corner, there are clusters of dead-white dolls the same shade again, so you don’t realise they are there until you are really close to them. As the story unfolds, other things happened, but it became known along the way that she worked at an abortionist’s clinic, and for every child that was aborted when she was working, she’d buy a doll, strip it, de-hair it, and paint it entirely white. To the character in the story, each white doll in her home represented the soul of a dead baby, a dead  baby that it was her mission to remember and mourn.

Bingo. Dolls have been creepy ever since. Creepy with a creepiness that I can’t deny.

Many years later, I had a daughter of my own. Instead of showering her with dolls, I gave her wooden trucks and trains, and soft toys: a  bear called Wellington, a cat and dog  called Wolfgang (the dog) and Amadeus (the cat) which encompassed a musical joke which I don’t think my daughter has “got” to this day even though I occasionally play Mozart in the house, an orange-chested  bear called Sotti (pronounced Zotti) and so forth. She got construction toys, drawing supplies, manual dexterity puzzles, lots of cuddles.

Completely unconsciously, I never bought her a single doll. I didn’t even realise I wasn’t buying dolls, until once when she was about four or five, during the night-time routine she grabbed one of my forearms, cuddled it, and crooned over it “baby-doll”.

I was immediately consumed with guilt. Of course, she had no reason to have my loathing of dolls. By avoiding getting them, was I unwittingly not giving her something she needed as certainly as my own mother didn’t give me what I needed all those decades earlier?

I bought her a baby doll, a little cute one with a blue jump-suit.  It gave me the shudders, but she liked it. She slept with it exactly once, and went back to sleeping with soft-toys: they didn’t have hard bits to roll over on, unlike plastic toys. And for years she’d continue to grab my forearm and croon “baby-doll” – it  quickly became a joke between us. It transpired she was never big on dolls, either, although they didn’t horrify her the way they horrified me. She only ever had a couple of dolls, and didn’t play with them all that much. She preferred bicycles, computer games, lengths of rope and toy carpentry tools. She was completely unimpressed when her grandmother bought her a miniature broom set, too.

Looking at my feelings for dolls, I think a lot of stuff has played into my feelings about dolls. The creepiest of all are wooden dolls, especially as epitomised in the wooden Papuan one a friend gave me and which was amongst my magical artifacts for many years, safely bound in red thread. Second to hand-carved tribal wooden dolls, are ceramic-faced plastic-bodied dolls of all kinds, but especially pierrot dolls. Unutterably horrible.

A couple of days ago, I had a TV crew in my place filming, and in between takes, we chatted a lot. The sound guy mentioned working on documentary on dolls, and I said that I found dolls creepy. I couldn’t explain why, because I hadn’t thought it through – I just kept saying how creepy they were, until I had him slightly creeped-out about dolls, too.

Forty-eight hours later, I have thought it out. Dolls are creepy. And they are creepy because of personal memories in the deep past, as well as adult cultural awareness, helped along generously by Carey’s tying little white-painted dolls tightly to dead unborn children.

Even without Peter Carey’s impressive story, dolls would still be creepy, though. And they are creepy for everyone, not just me. My personal circumstances have made me particularly sensitive to the creepiness of dolls, but it is there under the surface all the time, even for people who love dolls. I am fascinated by the concept of doll collections, doll hospitals, doll museums, doll exhibitions. But no force on earth could drag me into any of these places.

Dolls are creepy.

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6 Responses to Peeling Dolls

  1. Kate says:

    Possibly the gift of the dolls was the best your mother could do to give something to a daughter she innately sensed was quite different from all her own expectations and desires. Perhaps it was a projection of her own childhood wishes.

    I feel deeply for these mothers who come from backgrounds of hardship. My own mother was similar. We never think our parents do enough ……. but they do, or we wouldn’t be here doing as well as we are today. My mother didn’t expect to end up with someone as dark and quirky as me and I see now that she really did her best. She passed long ago and we have since forgiven each other, with love.

    I think I was lucky to land in a family where I had enough to eat and drink and where there sacrifices made to ensure that we all had the opportunity to learn to love reading and debate and to get a reasonable education. I don’t have children but my siblings have been able, because of their own experiences, to give loving and fun-filled homes to their own kids. They have been able to afford that as well.

    Karma and our own capacity to create our present – that is what I’ve learned from my own childhood. I don’t even mind now that it has taken so long! You seem to be doing that with abundant energy.

    I don’t have the same creepiness about dolls but I only ever had one, which I adored. It used to get fed mud on gum leaves which it survived because it was made of some kind of strong and washable material. Mum never exclaimed at the treatment poor Violet got. The pram used to get treated like a billy cart. As a slightly older child I found a male doll which became my secret companion on many wonderful adventures.

    Nisaba, the associations you have with dolls make them creepy! That is all. In reality they can provide some rich insights into cultural history. A friend has a small and exquisite collection.

    ‘Collectors’ is a favourite show of ours on Friday nights here. I look forward to seeing your segment.

  2. nisaba000 says:

    That was a lovely and thoughtful reply, even if I disagree completely with your second-last paragraph. I hope you’ll do me the honour of visiting again.

  3. Stella Hoshiko says:

    I’ve not much of any recollection of why I’m uneasy with dolls, especially those that has eyes that moves to a shut when you lie them down and pops open when they sit up. Anyway, I’d prefer cuddly soft plush toys. I only had a barbie and a ginger bread manlike soft doll in my childhood, my mum never had issues about breasties dolls. Only thing was that we were considered quite a poor family compared to their other friends. If my parents were better off during their times, I wonder if they’ll load me up with dolls too. Come to think of it, was it actually your mother who’d like the dolls so much to keep on buying them?

  4. Mitzy says:

    Oh baby! I am pretty sure you are my sister from another mother!
    I hate dolls with a passion, they are incredibly creepy. I did not play with dolls (other than Barbie, who became GI Joe’s arch nemesis) and I thank the Goddess that my daughters were into baseball and barbies, not baby dolls.
    Do we know when the air date is for your Collector’s show?

    • nisaba000 says:

      They won’t know until some time after they’ve done the production and editing work on it. then I won’t be told until about a week beforehand – watch this space! (and Facebook, and AT …)

      Some people are really creeped out by clowns, probably more than who are creeped out by dolls. I’m not, but I suspect it might be the same phenomenon: in dolls, you have something non-human apeing the human, and in clowns you have something human apeing the non-human. I think it has something to do with crossing different levels of reality in a way that the observer cannot control. People who aren’t aware of the creepiness are either okay with being out of control during spiritual experiences, or just aren’t aware of that dimension-shift.

  5. nisaba000 says:

    Yes, it was her doing. My father was even more parentally challenged than she was, the poor man, and was barely conscious he had kids at all. And all the surviving dolls, including a half-melted Sasha, still reside in my mother’s house, and still get moved around and have their clothes changed periodically. She used to try and give them to my daughter. Two Earth-signs against one Air sign. She lost. They’re hers, and she’s very welcome to them.

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