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Lifelike Baby Dolls In Malta: Therapy, Or Morbid Obsession?

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If I ever had to pass by a locked vehicle in which there was a baby in distress, I would have no compunction about breaking a window to release him. Indeed, that is what Police in Queensland did, back in 2008 – only to discover that they had ‘saved’ a Reborn doll. This was before the craze for these lifelike silicone clones really took off.

My friend Eileen did have one – but then, she was an 80-year- old with dementia, and she was given the doll whenever she became jittery. These dolls are now to be offered in Malta too, to grieving mothers who have miscarried or birthed stillborn babies. Is this therapeutic, or will it give rise to a morbid obsession?

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Reborns are anatomically correct bundles of joy, with silken hair, veins, nails, eyelashes, and milkspots, or birthmarks, or dribble, or clamped umbilical cords, if the client so desires. Some even have shunts and tubes attached, if they come in lieu of babies who would have been terminally ill. Some have a device that makes the chest rise and fall, simulating breathing, and a heartbeat.

Can an inanimate object ever really fill the deep crevasse in a heart left by a dead child?

It is wrong to have a [real] child as a substitute for a dead one. It is wrong to call a child born after the death of a sibling, by a variation of the other one’s name. This is an injustice to the both children – the ‘replaced’ and the ‘replacement’.

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One of the psychologists I spoke to in researching this piece told me that it would be understandable were the doll given within a long therapeutic context, as a transitional tool that leads to dealing with the loss.

Another psychologist told me that a parent is given a ‘licence to grieve’ for miscarriages, stillbirths, and children who die. You cannot just abort this process, even you mean well, because a person must be allowed to progress through the stages of grief and arrive at acceptance.

A culture that shuns suffering and pain expects them to “git”, and this is unfair.

People – mostly women – who purchase these dolls, do so for myriad reasons. They ‘know’ that the child is not suffering, and that lessens their own pain. Those of us who have never buried a child cannot understand this. But they may not realise that their ‘new’ baby is frozen in time, with a soft cot replacing the mortuary slab. There will never be words, hugs, kisses, or boo-boos to kiss better.

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This may escalate to creepy. Like American Girl dolls, these plastic-fantastic dolls look like the child with whom they are associated, and like Cabbage Patch Kids dolls, they are adopted, not bought.

Reborn dolls are washed, have their clothes changed according to the time of day, and pretend-fed. They are taken out on outings, talked to, and coddled. They are designed to have the same feel and heft as a human child.

Some women purchase the dolls to compensate for not having had children; others go for them because they are “cheaper than a real child, in the long-term” and “will not cause trouble”, or vomit, or have dirty nappies. Some like the attention a baby attracts when they take it out.

A hobby brings joy; an obsession brings destruction (and sometimes, addiction) – and there is a fine line between the two. Cynics liken Reborns to sex dolls, because they ‘fulfil a need that is not natural’ and ‘cause deviations from normal human behaviour’ [when] ‘the boundary distinctions between mother and child are not maintained’.

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What begins as a scene from an abortionist’s morgue ends up as a series of dolls that are not toys. Those who make fun of this idea, saying that there are “real” babies up for adoption do not know how arduous (and expensive) the process is.

Those who sell Reborns are often preying on, and exploiting, vulnerable people. These are not only women who have lost children, but even those whose perfectionist OCD tells them that the ultimate in designer babies is better than a real one, and those who succumb to the social norm that a baby is what makes a woman ‘complete’.

Women who would rather play – albeit seriously – with these surrogate children are not always willing to volunteer with real ones who have more needs. Both, however, involve being “like a parent”. This says a lot.

Reborns may ease the grieving process for some women, and realise a need for others. But when you are “finished” with the doll – do you bury it? Do you put it in a box in the garage, for future generations to find and exclaim over?

Whatever next – Reborns created as monkeys, Avatars, vampires and zombies? Oh, wait; that’s already been done.

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