My doll's head
I used to beat my dolls. I’m not sure why. Perhaps I was compensating for my overly-good behavior, my endless bid for approval from parents and teachers. As far as I recall, I was only spanked once in my life and the event remained memorable on that account. It was in a London hotel room in 1958. My mother asked me to do something and instead of complying, I hid behind a chair. What other frustrations triggered her fury on that occasion I have no idea. We were travelling and she had responsibility for keeping three kids clean, dressed, and well behaved day in and day out for nearly three months. A Depression-era child, my mother had never been out of the country, or even far from her Midwestern upbringing before her marriage. This extended trip was an extraordinary undertaking in an era when travelling with children was unheard of and a three-month excursion unimaginable.
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For me, the journey was fraught with classification confusion. We were supposedly touring “Europe” but somehow we never seemed to get to that destination. Instead, we went to countries like “France” and “Italy” that contained, logically enough, cities named “Paris” and “Rome.” The category of “Europe” seemed to define the scope of our trip, but it appeared to be elusive, hard to define. I kept wondering when we would get there. Also “Europe” didn’t seem to contain places like “England,” “Scotland,” or “Wales” that were part of our itinerary. As for “Israel,” it was a striking outlier, only reached by taking a ship across the Mediterranean, a distance that clearly put it outside of the continental–and categorical–boundaries. This conceptual conundrum confounded my six-year-old intellect.
As far as the dolls go, this one, Joanie, was my first “real” doll. Some fuzzy cloth things were probably put into my hands before that, comfort items shapeless as pillows and without definition and certainly lacking any significant accessories. Joanie arrived in a white metal trunk with brass edges and corners, a solid object meant to endure, that contained tiny hangars, a clothes rack, and a pull-out drawer. I was enthralled. The dress she came in scripted a girl’s expected destiny… a wedding gown, complete with veil and virginal touches. My mother had dedicated hours of her evenings to creating cunning little outfits to extend the range of possibilities—a lovely brown coat with plaid lining and matching hat, very Grace Kelly with its white edging and collar, and an Alice-in-Wonderland-ish frock in pink and white cotton (though Alice wore blue, the pattern was similar). Whatever other outfits once existed, they are gone, though a heavy red velvet gown bedecked with paste brilliants sticks in my mind, a dress for a young queen. Sports clothes, a lab jacket, or professional clothing of any kind were conspicuously absent. Those were the days.
For some reason, I attacked the poor doll with such fierceness that the mechanism of her legs broke, and finally, at some future time, her head popped off, alas. What crimes had she committed to deserve such treatment? When I look in my memory for any answer, that page is blank. My brutal actions expressed a need to impose discipline, though, as noted, I avoided trouble in my actual behavior, having no taste for the humiliation it entailed or for the loss of control it brought on. So why create elaborate transgressions and punishments? I confess I had experienced an early erotic frisson watching Fess Parker pull his daughter onto his lap to spank her in either Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett. That saturated technicolor moment remains vivid. For my occasional naughtiness, mainly verbal, I got my mouth washed out with soap or was sentenced to write “I will not talk back” a hundred times. Those were the parenting techniques of the times.
I am certain I got the doll as a Hanukah present, opened in the living room, sitting on the rug where each feature of that trunk and contents came in for intense and pleasurable scrutiny. But if the doll was meant to be an avatar with whom I could identify, the intention missed its mark. She was from the Madame Alexander collection, a brand displayed in special cases in the toy department of the upscale Philadelphia department store where we admired these expensive dolls regularly. We learned to distinguish their finer features—delicate coloring, well-crafted mechanisms for articulating limbs, the lifelike blink of their weighted eyelids, from that of more vulgar models. She bore no resemblance to me. All girls’ dolls in those days were pinky-white with straight hair. In this case, the blonde strands of some newly invented polymer substance had been carefully crafted into a wig, not stuck into puncture holes in a plastic scalp. The wig was parted and coiffed, glued to her molded head. My hair was curly, dark, and short. This made me the subject of random gestures on the street as complete strangers would reach out and touch me. “Do you mind, I just have to see what it feels like—“ the utterance would come almost after the passing head pat. My father sometimes called me “Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy,” and id I imagined that should give me permission to bite the hands that pet me, I forebore, eager to continue my good-girl track record. Biting, I knew, was not the route to childhood success.
I gave the doll the name Joanie, which was also that of my first best friend who had lived a few doors away, just down the street. Why I instituted this redundancy I do not know. Maybe the actual Joanie had already moved two blocks away, to a house where her parents could offset expenses by renting an upper floor out to a boarder, and I missed her. Joanie’s father worked as a salesman in a fur salon, now a position hard to imagine. The shop was thick with plush rugs, fine furnishings, and the skins of tortured animals designed to decorate the pale shoulders of Rittenhouse Square debutantes and their mothers. Joanie’s mother stayed home and fed us carrot sticks during the Mickey Mouse show, the only television time sanctioned by the parents who encouraged us in alternative activities. She baked and cooked. The kitchen was her kingdom. We could sense the claustrophobia and limits of her life in the edge of her voice.
Decades later, the doll’s wig is matted, unkempt, but her eyes are still clear. If the memory life of things could be unravelled from their aura, replayed from their bank of witnessed events, what might she accuse me of in my past actions? What retribution might she demand for my unjustified and unwarranted attacks on her plastic person? The mechanical joints and feet permanently cast to fit high heels seem slightly incongruous with the smooth childlike shape of her sexless body. The immobility of her features with their impartial gaze remains, as does the heavy blink of weighted her eyelids.
I had no idea what affective connection I was supposed to have to my dolls. Like so many experiences of childhood, this one came without instructions. I found my way. I look at the familiar features of the doll without much feeling, amazed that I can still recall the moment when I unwrapped the case, opened its latches, and beheld her in the trunk ready for her wedding vows and whatever followed. But it was my arms she came into. In those days, no male consort dolls were minted, and the primary bond was to be with the girl owner, not a spouse. Did the weirdness of all of this seems ever cross the minds of parents offering these overdetermined gifts to their children? I wonder. We were clearly meant to identify with the doll, improbable as that might have been in the realm of mismatched identities and characteristics. Needless to say, nobody made little half-Jewish girl dolls, or gave them outfits meant for aspiring writers.
Still, Joanie proved no impediment to my self-invention, so I feel a bit bad about the damage I did to her in the course of our relationship. I wonder what conditions of childhood could have caused such anger, prompted such violence. Was it the inability to make choices for oneself? The feeling of trapped-ness within the nuclear family and its constraints where parental prerogative superseded individual will? Or some deeper, more existential, struggle? What would that have meant to a child of seven or eight? The confusion of how to come into being, bring oneself into being, also without instruction or roadmap?
The look on the doll’s face is blank. The gaze of her decapitated head records no affect.
I sense no accusations and feel no residual anger. Whatever the struggles were in those childhood transactions, they apparently left no unpaid accounts. I am the only one who remembers.
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Well, carving measles off of a doll does seem pretty rough! Thanks for the comments!
Trying to figure out exactly why I found this story so moving. The confusions of childhood? I didn't relate to dolls when I was a little girl. They seemed kind of cold and stiff, kind of alien. I loved stuffed animals instead. Thanks, Joanna,