The fine art of parenting, I’ve discovered, includes an ongoing course in needlepoint on one’s nerves that cross-stitches imagined concerns onto real fears. At this point I’ve got a regular sampler going about Anna’s ugly dolls.
If you can believe educators such as Bruno Bettelheim, horrific fairy tales, spooks, goblins, and parents’ high school yearbook pictures help kids surmount their fears and become more independent. I’m hoping this also applies to dolls modeled on side show freaks. When I survey Anna’s hideous collection of plastic playmates, it’s hard not to think the opposite is true— that they may, instead, inspire psychopathic tendencies. In which case we have a future Subway Strangler on our hands.
My worries started soon after we returned with Anna from Guangzhou. Acutely aware we resemble a gingko tree as much as a Chinese couple, Marsha and I ordered an Asian doll from our adoptive support group to smooth her transition. It cost as much as a black market visa and took two months to arrive from Italy, where the closest thing to Asians apparently is reruns of The Incredible Hulk. With a bowl cut, troll-like features, clenched fists, and skin so hard you could hit line drives with it, it’s about as cuddly as a toilet bowl brush. Anna gnawed its feet at every opportunity. Not every doll serves as a teething ring.
Another doll, which nurses from its own bottle, has a permanently strangulated expression that recalls Luca Brasi’s fate in The Godfather. The couple who gave it to us also presented Anna with a Barbie boom box, which has provided us with two years of numbing pseudo pop. They may soon be following Luca to the fishes.
The ranks of the doll damned now also include Emily, an American Girl doll whose right eye opens half-way, as if she recently got in a bar fight; a Cabbage Patch bath doll whose swollen visage recalls the baby that died in the movie Trainspotting; and a dark-skinned doll whose painted hair looks “conked,” the way black people wore it before civil rights. I’m expecting a call from the N.A.A.C.P. on that one.
I always thought dolls were supposed to foster feelings of tender concern and maternalism. Anna’s seem geared for Ramboesque frenzy. When I go in her room I feel I should be toting an M16. While it may bode well for ROTC involvement later on, it feels premature now.
Thankfully, there’s still Barbie. For all the guff about her perpetuating sexist stereotypes, she still has one thing going for her: She doesn’t resemble a lineup at your local precinct. You're not afraid she’ll inspire fantasies of vampirism. After the Barbie deluge last Christmas, she now nearly outnumbers her more decadent dollmates. In case of a doll Armageddon, though, Marsha and I have provided ol’ Barb with reinforcements.
On a trip to Chicago last weekend, my wife took Anna to the American Girl store downtown. A play, a tea, and the equivalent of a mortgage payment later they emerged with two dolls, Kit and Annie, that actually don’t send you scurrying for prayer beads. Kit and Annie will be joined by Emily when she gets home from eye surgery at the doll hospital. Yes, there is such a thing. (Please don’t ask me if there’s an HMO for dolls, too.) This is light years away from Raggedy Ann and Andy, but, then, Emily, Kit, and Annie are no ordinary dolls. They actually cause me to drop a stitch in my needlework of worry over doll-psyche connections.
I should take a cue from my neighbor three doors down. A toned softball fanatic and ski racer, Larry doesn’t object to his little boy dressing up in Anna’s clothes when he comes over to play. No fears about him going out as Dr. Frank-N-Furter of Rocky Horror on Halloween or putting Little Mermaid stickers on his training wheels.
Unfortunately, like most Dick and Jane era moms and dads, mine believed that if boys laid a cuticle on Baby Tinkles they’d grow up to join the Rockettes. I once made the mistake of cleaning my cousin’s doll house when I was seven, probably because, unlike the décor in my house, everything in it matched. My folks reacted as if I’d passed classified documents to the Soviets in an Easy-Bake Oven. In a twinkle I found myself deluged with subscriptions to war comics and enough make-believe ordnance to stage my own Cold War. Curiously, G. I. Joe was absent from the proceedings. Maybe they were afraid I’d go for a man in uniform when I grew up.
They should see me doing cross-stitch, now.