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What 'Reborn Dolls' Can Teach Us about Humanity and Compassion

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Reborn Dolls are lifelike dolls that really, really resemble real babies. They began as a quirky curiosity and have grown into a full-fledged subculture. Collectors sometimes spend thousands of dollars on a single Reborn, (the most expensive ever purchased went for upwards of $20,000) and often proceed to lavish it with clothing, shoes, toys, carriages, or even a complete nursery of their own. Modern Reborn Dolls can be modified to have tiny heartbeats, or chests that mimic breathing by slowly rising and falling. The artistry of the dolls cannot be denied. Their creation involves painstaking sculpting, baking (okay, that’s a weird visual) and up to 80 layers of paint. Wow. The result is a breathtakingly realistic baby doll.

Who are Reborn Dolls for? As you might imagine, they are largely purchased by or for women who have lost a child, suffered miscarriages, or are morose over finding out they cannot bear natural children. Reborn Dolls are now the subject of online communities, photo essays, and much Internet commentary. Most people find Reborn Dolls to be a positive, if eccentric way of dealing with a loss most people are afraid to even contemplate. But in what some would call the true spirit of the Internet—plenty of bloggers have taken time out of their day to explain why they disapprove of the coping methods of a stranger.

One blogger states that they “don’t believe” parents of deceased children use these dolls to grieve. Their evidence? They don’t think that’s what they would do if they were in the same situation. If that doesn’t sound very scientific to you, don’t worry. That’s only because it isn’t. It is true though, that not all Reborn Dolls are designed to be surrogates for lost children. After all, some Reborn Dolls are made to resemble vampires or animals. Another popular complaint among blogging wags is that mothers might neglect actual children in favor of their Reborn Doll. Of course, that’s also a great argument against women voting, driving cars, or joining the workforce…all those poor, neglected straw-children. Whether you think Reborn Dolls are an amazing collectible or a stupid thing to spend $1,000 on, it cannot be denied that they help grieving people. Some “adopters” of Reborns say that they simply find it comforting and relaxing to hold an infant doll.

I think bloggers who would decry, insult, or demean Reborn Dolls and those who buy them are missing a vital point. That point has to do with the way humans regard each other after a tragedy. When a person is devastated by a loss—say that of a spouse, sibling, parent, or a child, friends and family often visit immediately bearing food or flowers. They may help with funeral or burial arrangements. Then they go back to their own lives, often telling the bereaved to “call” if they “need anything.” But see, people who are grieving are almost certainly not going to call other people, or even to understand that they need help, or what kind of help might be needed. Few things can bring a person to the edge of (in)sanity like feeling totally and utterly alone.

When we know someone who is suffering a loss, we probably think about them often. We hope they’re okay, and wonder how they’re doing. But for the most part—we’re unlikely to call or visit. We don’t know what to say—especially since we can’t “fix” what’s causing the pain. Humans love to help each other when they can. But if we don’t know how—our aversion to discomfort coupled with our fear of saying or doing the wrong thing keeps us from connecting with people who might be genuinely helped by little more than a kind word.

With that in mind, people who bash the Reborn Doll movement are generally writing different versions of, Hey, sorry you lost a kid, but that thing is ugly and you’re stupid for having it. What they really mean might be more accurately translated as, I’m so uncomfortable with your extreme reaction to this loss—I can’t even contemplate how much I hope I’m never in your position. To these people, I’d like to say very bluntly that you being “weirded out” by Reborn Dolls in no way takes precedence over the feelings of those who use them as a coping tool for an extreme, often incalculable loss.

There are extreme examples of Reborn Doll ownership–parents that spend an unreasonable percent of their income on them, even to the detriment of their living children. These few are liberally splashed around British (Reborn Dolls are extremely popular in the UK) muckmags as if they represent the entirety of the movement. They don’t—anymore than all cat owners are hoarders, or all pit bulls are trained to be lethal killing machines. Plenty of people use pets to fill the perceived gap in their lives left by a loss, a death, being single, or not having children. But see, pets eventually die while dolls never do. Whether Reborn Dolls are a beautiful idea or the beginning of a dysfunctional fantasy-life is, ultimately, not for us to decide. As a childless woman, I say, let the people have their dolls.


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