It was my mum’s birthday and I was googling photos of adorable baby animals to send to her when I stumbled upon an image of an adorable baby. I was shocked when I realised it was not, actually, a baby. It was just the most lifelike doll I’d ever seen: the only difference between it and an actual baby being that, while a living baby will burst out crying (with that newborn meow coming out of newborn lungs) and will eventually grow up to become just another schmuck adult, this baby will remain in this perfect moment, forever.
I became fascinated with image-galleries of what I now knew to be ‘reborn’ dolls. As I scrolled through, I couldn’t stop thinking that this was so much better than Facebook, where people feel justified putting up hundreds of photos of babies they begot by doing nothing newsworthy. But these baby dolls are works of art. I’d be posting close-ups of tiny feet and wrinkly foreheads too, if I’d created them with my own hands.
Instead of the infant vole I’d been planning, I sent my mum a photo of a cute reborn. “That’s morbid!” she said when I revealed that the baby wasn’t real. Even though she had burbled over it when she’d thought it was alive, my mum now found it disturbing. There was something eerie about it, she said.
My mum was experiencing uncanniness: that feeling of dread, when something is familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Like when a good guy in a film turns out to be a zombie, or when you mistake a mannequin for a person – a sudden sinking in your stomach tells you: something’s not right.
The Uncanny Valley is a phenomenon specifically addressing dolls. Roboticist Masahiro Mori came out with it in the 70s, when he noticed people getting creeped-out by humanoid robots. Most people are fine with dolls, Mori said. For example, teddy bears: we find them especially cute if they have human characteristics, such as a smile or cheeky facial expression. But when dolls start looking too human, then they frighten us. I asked my mum what she found so morbid about this baby. “It’s not alive, and I thought it was,” she said. “It reminds me of death.”
My mum was not the only person who got the willies from reborns. As I would hear over and over, dread was a common reaction. On the internet, people seemed to love them (spending thousands of dollars on dolls), or hate them (mainly for how terrifying they seem). Seeing the strong emotional reactions people had to these little dolls made me want to dig deeper.
I found out that reborns are conceived by sculptors: people like Alicia Toner. “Some people find them creepy,” Alicia tells me, giving an example of a friend who won’t come over because she is scared of the dolls. But for Alicia, they are art. “I started sculpting in 2006, after I had a miscarriage. I went on eBay looking for a memorial piece to help with grieving process. Then I saw the reborn dolls. I was fascinated.”
Alicia bought a reborn, then she attempted to sculpt one herself, and she’s been doing it ever since. “I believe you take whatever positive you can out of a negative. I do this every day, it’s how I make a living.”
Alicia trawls the internet for hours, looking at photos of babies. With the images still in her head, she sculpts every evening. Alicia’s baby gestates from a piece of clay. She lets inspiration take over her hands. Just like a real baby forming in-utero, (which comes out with its very own facial expression: an individual formed behind-the-scenes) Alicia doesn’t know how her baby-sculpts will turn out. “One time, I wanted to make an African baby. It ended up being a white premmie instead,” she tells me. (Granted, a would-be African baby coming out white would be unexpected in real-life, but stranger things have happened.)
Alicia sends her clay models to a factory to be made into vinyl kits (essentially, a dull, plastic baby in pieces). Now, photos of her prototype go on the internet. In vinyl, dull form, Alicia’s babies wait to be reborn. Reborn artists are people who can bring a vinyl kit to life, sewing and painting it masterfully until it is a baby, ready to be delivered to an excited ‘mum’. They go for $500–$1000.
Mainly, this is a woman’s game. The sculptors, reborners and collectors all seem to be female. There are reborning superstars, who are celebrated for their skin-mottling, milk spots and hair-rooting. Lyn Conlon is one such artist living in New South Wales. She has ‘reborned’ some of Alicia’s kits, painstakingly applying layer upon layer of skin-tone to make the baby real. I call her up to find out more.
“I do dolls for collectors.” Lyn says. “I’ve done one for a lady who takes her doll everywhere with her. I think that’s a little bit strange.”
I notice on the forums that a lot of collectors have, like Alicia, lost babies. Some of their testimonials are sad:
How can I thank you for baby Billy: it’s as if you had the living baby’s picture to work from. Am a bit worried as my maternal instincts kicked in when I set eyes on him…
I was pleasantly surprised to see how perfectly her skin colouring matches my husband’s, and her dark hair matched mine as a baby! Even more perfect is how much she looks like our angel, Leigh!
Lyn thinks I should see a doll in real life and refers me to one of her best customers. “Trish is a nice lady who buys five dolls a year from me.” Says Lyn. “She’s got one on layby now. They’re more than dolls to her, but she doesn’t put them in a pram and take them down the street or anything.”
In our first phone call, Trish is very open: “I lost my four children as babies. The dolls haven’t replaced them, but I love having them around, posing them and changing their clothes. These dolls bring good stuff out of some people and terrify others.”
When I ask if I can visit and see a reborn in real life, Trish hesitates. She explains that she has a problem trusting people. “I don’t go out anywhere, because I don’t like the people side of it. It’s me and the dolls and the dogs and the toys over here,” Just when I think that’s the end of that, she says, what the heck. She invites me to come over and see “the nut-house”.
On the long drive to Trish’s house, in which she lives alone with over a hundred dolls, I don’t know what to expect. Will I be scared of the uncanny babies? Will I be scared of Trish?
I arrive and psych myself to go inside. Trish and a shy, black cocker spaniel welcome me at the door. I peer into the house. “You ready?” she laughs, picking up on my child-about-to-go-into-a-haunted-house anticipation. “Come on,” she says, letting me inside.
We find ourselves not in a dark place with cabinets full of staring babies, but in a large, light-filled living room. It is populated with infants and toys: a childcare centre, frozen in a happy moment. Trish has a talent for design, and when she mentioned that she ‘poses’ her dolls around her place, I didn’t realise she was quite so good at it. Seriously, Trish should style doll catalogues. All around are babies and toddlers: in highchairs, playing with plush toys, holding crayons above unfinished drawings.
Trish explains her system: “I buy all the beautiful old prams, high chairs and bassinets I can afford. Then I get Lyn to make me a doll to go in it.” Trish takes me into the next room, showing me more cribs, high-chairs, all with small people in them. “It’s hard when you go in to hospital to have a baby and you come home with nothing,” she says. “But this way, there’s something in the cot. At long last. It gives me a chance to dress a baby form. I’ve done it to friends’ babies, but I’ve never done it to my own. These are my babies, and this is my turn.”
I ask Trish if I can hold a baby and she goes to a crib, takes the blanket off a newborn called Rose and gently takes her out. Rose was reborned by Lyn. Lyn weights the babies’ bottoms and heads, to add to the realism, so Rose feels very baby-like in my arms. I look closely at her. Her eyes have that blurry look of the newly born. She’s got a slight scowl, as if she’s about to let out a cry; maybe she needs to be burped. She’s got some wisps of blonde hair that stick up, but she’s one of those fair, baldish babies, that aren’t quite as cute as their dark-haired counterparts. If I look closely, I can see capillaries on her eyelids, and a tiny drop of milk on her lips. Her little hands are in loose fists, with veins running over their tops, the slightly translucent skin disappearing into chubby wrists.
Trish talks about the artistry that went into making a baby like Rose. The fine detail, the hair, rooted strand-by-strand. To get this fine skin detailing, Lyn puts a baby’s head into the oven on 130 degrees nine times – sometimes double that for a baby with darker features. It takes a long time to get the mottling and veining right, and you can really see when someone has talent, like Lyn.
As Trish shows me around room after room of dolls, I notice that I am keeping my voice down and gently rocking Rose. As often happens when I’m holding a baby, I get a sudden fear of dropping her.I can’t work out why I’m treating Rose like a real baby, even though she’s not. Is it a maternal instinct? Are we, as humans, just programmed to be gentle with something that has the form of an infant?
Trish lifts another baby out of its crib. “This one’s a premmie,” she explains, holding it up. Smaller than a full-term newborn, this little child is bluish. It’s finally my turn to have a moment of revulsion. I feel my heart do a small tremble of fear. I’ve never seen a dead baby, but I imagine it would look something like this.
Alicia Toner has sculpted premature babies before. “We cop a lot of flack in the media. But we’re just trying to create realism. I guess these dolls are not for everybody.” And it seems, they are not for me. Afterwards, at home I look up more premmie reborns. There are micro-premmies with tubes in their noses, spidery thin limbs, posed surrounded by medical apparatuses. Back at Trish’s, the lifeless premmie and Rose go back in their cots.
Trish and I have a cup of tea while lots of little eyes watch us. Trish tells me about the little girl doll she’s saving for. “I’m busting my butt to get the money to pay it off before Christmas. Lyn’s very good. She’ll always let me layby. She’ll call and say, ‘Your baby is ready, it’s waiting’.” Lyn sends a photo, and then Trish ‘falls in love’ and thinks about the baby all the way until it comes in the mail.
“What happens when it arrives?”
“Lyn packs them nicely, usually with a bunny rug or a toy with them. Lyn does up a little photo on a birth certificate and she puts my name on it.”
“And how do you feel when you see the doll?”
“I go ‘wow’. You can feel the love that’s gone into them.”
Before she discovered Lyn, Trish collected from other artists, and you can tell the difference in quality. To help her pay for her new doll, Trish is selling a little boy, who is about six months old. He sits in a wagon wearing a slightly uneasy expression. He’s got hazel eyes and freckles and he’s wearing a grey hoodie, a plush turtle toy in his lap. Trish explains that his hair hasn’t been rooted well – he’s one of her earlier dolls.
“Do you think about your own babies a lot?” I ask.
“Every day. I have a little cabinet with four little dolls in it. Sometimes, I’ll sit and wind up all the musical boxes and play with their little booties. Those are bad days.”
“How do you ever get over something like losing four babies?” I stupidly ask, even though I know the answer.
I remember something Alicia the sculptor said: she came across reborns when she was going through the “grieving process”. A process indicates change over time. Alicia kept the reborn she bought off eBay for a year, then she sold it. I wonder if a mother’s body craves to hold something small and soft after pregnancy? So maybe straight after the loss of a baby, a doll can fulfil a purpose. Perhaps it’s okay to cuddle a reborn, as you deal with your immediate grief, before you go back to the world of the living.
Since her miscarriage, Alicia has had another baby. Her daughter is now three, and plays with the sculpted doll heads that didn’t work out. While Alicia works on her reborns, she lets little Ellie paint the seconds: “They come out with blue eyelids and green noses.”
But what if you never have another baby, and you don’t find a way out of the grief? Is it a good idea to surround yourself with dolls, shunning contact with real people?
“I find it’s a great coping mechanism,” Trish says. Though for some, like Lyn’s customer who takes her reborn everywhere, it seems like a way of never letting go.
While one testimonial says: Kalani is amazingly realistic. I half expect to hear her breathe or feel her pulse through her little veins! the fact remains that Kalani will never have a heartbeat. Because what it comes down to, as my mum pointed out: it’s not alive. That must be a confronting thought when you’ve lost a baby, and perhaps the woman half-expecting her doll to breathe would rather not be confronted by it.
Even though I find Trish’s reborns mesmerising, I wish her life wasn’t only about them. And just when I think we’re going to end on Trish sitting still and alone in a house full of dolls, something Hollywood occurs (in rural Australia).
Enter Hollice, Trish’s neighbour. Hollice also lives alone. He’s about Trish’s age, with sparkly eyes and a ready smile. Apparently, he hangs out here every day.
Wait a minute, I hear you say: Trish has a friend? It’s true that Trish avoids most people, but Hollice is different. In a good way. For one thing, he is perfectly comfortable in this house full of dolls. In fact, when Trish gets a new doll in the mail, Hollice insists on being there for the big reveal. (“It’s a lot of fun,” he says.)
When they met, Hollice was so impressed by Trish’s house that he opened up about his own passion for toys. But, being an adult, he didn’t have any. Trish soon put an end to that. She pushed him buy his first toy aeroplane and it escalated from there. “We have dumper trucks, remote controlled cars, jigsaw puzzles, train-sets and planes,” Trish informs me.
“Sometimes, we build a train track through the house,” Hollice adds.
“People think we’re weird,” Trish says, but they don’t care, and nor should they. While others sit at home watching The Bachelor, Trish and Hollice do awesome things like build Lego villages. “He’s the ringleader in the fun we have,” says Trish. “Often we just end up rolling around laughing.”
Hollice was luckier than Trish, as far as kids are concerned. He’s got grownup children with babies of their own. Trish has photos of all of them. “His kids call me their other mum.”
I wish it was as simple as Trish and Hollice being happy forever, but Trish is certain she’ll never get over her grief. On bad days, she’ll play with the toys in the cabinet and think about death. But on good days, she might take the dogs out and fly remote-controlled planes with a 120cm wingspan in the company of a pretty cool guy. Those days are all about being alive.
As I’m writing this article, something weighs on my mind. I call Trish. “Oh, I’ve got to tell you what happened yesterday,” she says.
An elderly neighbour runs out of the house sobbing. “I think my cat’s dead,” she tells Trish.
Trish calls Hollice: “Go to my house, make a strong coffee and wait for me, I think I have to bury a cat.”
“Right.” Hollice is on the case.
Meanwhile, Trish goes into the neighbour’s dark house and in the corner finds the dead cat. The old lady cries out the front while Trish takes the cat into the backyard and digs a hole.“And as I’m burying it, I’m talking to the cat, I’m saying: ‘Your mum loved you, but she can’t be here right now.’ And I’m bawling and bawling.”
That’s the thing about humans: we’re soft. Even after everything that’s happened to her, Trish’s heart breaks again over a dead old cat. “Yep, yesterday was hard. So now Hollice is coming over and we’re going to have a picnic and play with the dogs.”
I ask Trish if she’s still selling the little boy doll with the light freckles.
“Tommee? Yes, he’s still here.”
When the box arrives, I feel a rush. Trish has written a card: “Hope Tommee arrives safe, am feeling a little sad to see him go. I have enclosed some winter clothes and dressed him in his summer outfit. He has his toy and a blanket.” I look at my very own reborn and think Trish and Alicia, who made it out of the uncanny world of death and found new ways to be alive. I examine Tommee’s little face, which I first took to be uneasy. Now I look closely, I see I got it wrong. His face looks hopeful, and full of potential.
Sofija Stefanovic writes for both print and television, and is a founding faculty member of The School of Life Australia and Paper Trail Tours.
This piece is from our most recent print issue, TLB20. You can grab a copy for yourself!