The secrets of dolls


I played with dolls to nearly the exclusion of all else as a child. I had stuffed animals I played with too, but that was basically the same thing. All I wanted was to tell stories. Whenever I was faced with non-doll objects like building blocks, or when I played outside with rocks and the like, I simply made the objects into characters that talked to each other. That was the pretty much the only way I liked to play.

When I played with friends, it was often with dolls or stuffed animals, but sometimes we pretended we were characters from Grease (a movie I saw probably 20 times as a kid) or Charlie’s Angels (a TV show I never watched past the opening credits). Really it was just another way to tell stories. And when I was alone, dolls were the only thing I wanted to play with. (The picture above is of a dollhouse my mother made me when I was a little girl. Every single room was thoroughly decorated in a very precise style right down to the pictures on the wall. My father also made me a dollhouse when I was little that we kept at his apartment. It was basically just an empty structure with rooms that I could decorate exactly as I liked. Right there you have one of the major differences between my parents.)

At the same time, my dolls secretly terrified me. I imagined that when I left the room they talked about me and plotted terrible things to do to me. Sometimes I would leave my dolls on the floor, walk out of the room, and then race back in to see if they had changed positions. I was certain I would catch them one day.

The two most terrifying dolls I had were Ernie and Bert hand puppets (once again Bert appears to teach me an important life lesson). They were often the stars of performances my friend Randi and I would put on for our (probably terribly bored) parents. When they weren’t singing songs and telling jokes, Ernie and Bert sat on a shelf in my room facing my bed. I probably don’t have to explain that these hand puppets, which were delightful by day, were terrifying by night. Each night, I would turn their faces to the wall before I went to sleep, but then each day my mother would turn them back around (interpret this as you will). One night, I had a terrible dream that Bert leaped off the shelf and started choking me, and I’m pretty sure not long after that I told my mother I was too old for them and asked her to get rid of them.

But I wasn’t too old, really. In fact, long after Ernie and Bert were gone, I continued to play with my Barbies (I honestly didn’t care that Barbie had an unrealistic body type; I just wanted to tell stories) until I started to feel actual shame from playing with them. Surely, no one else my age (12) was still playing with dolls. I remember that I was starting to get increasingly bored with them, but I couldn’t bear to stop. Until one day I did, and I don’t even remember how it ended. All I know is for years afterward, I would have dreams that I was still playing with dolls (at my age!) and I would wake up with a start, in a total panic until I realized it was just a dream.

My girls, as it turned out, only had a passing interest in actual dolls. They did not own Barbies, but they had a couple of baby dolls when they were very little, which didn’t interest them all that much. They were much more interested in stuffed animals and small plastic animals, and stringing together blocks and various other materials into cities that stretched across our living room.  And I found that I really didn’t care either way. Something that had once been such a huge part of my life, that had brought me joy and fear and shame, almost simultaneously, was completely absent from my children’s lives. And just like that, I was a grown-up.


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