Let’s Call It Love

Reborn Dolls and the Internet

Leigh Behnke, Flaneur in the Library, oil on panel, 2022.

The laundromat was always humid, palpably so, but it made me feel better than doing my washing in the dorms, where I felt especially subject to my own worst, looping thoughts on endless repeat. I was subject to them there, too, I could not escape them, but the medication dulled their sting and so did all the noise, my fellow poor folk and their clamor, my headphones shoved deeply into my ear canal, a playlist meant to soothe, to soothe, on in the background. 

I remember sitting gingerly on a chair and I remember the baby looking at me. I watched it for a moment and then smiled. It was quite cute, sparkling little blue eyes and a tuft of blonde, curled hair. It was sitting in a car seat, perched precariously in one of those metal baskets meant to transport clothes from washer to dryer to folding table. I’m myopic to a fault, even with my contacts in, my glasses on, so I didn’t notice anything different about the child until I was close enough to touch it, to steal it away from it’s mother, had I had the urge. It was then I noticed its soft, vinyl skin, its unblinking stare, its unbreathing body. I made eye contact with the mother, who then stroked her hand down its head, soft spot included, as if to say it’s all right, my love, I will protect you from the wretched woman, her wretched stares. I managed to smile, again, and she saw me, for this was an age before masks, before those worst, looping thoughts kept me locked away for years, and she gave me a tentative one back. I wanted to ask its name, how old, but I couldn’t. Something had seized up inside me, in my chest, and no words would come. In my retelling of this story, I made it funny. I didn’t mock, but I threw in jabs about my intense childhood fear of dolls, how I was afraid to sleep with stuffed animals lest they come to life and torment me. I described the look she gave me and played it up for gathered friends, but it didn’t come close to the truth. Nothing ever could. 

In my dreams, something always rots and withers. The stag’s antlers pierce my stomach, the tender flesh of my forearm. I am in the woods in the fall at night and one should never be in the woods in the fall at night. If there is another me there, a more capable one, she is crying in the brush, and I cannot find her. Still, this is not my worst kind of dream. Not at all.

Pregnancy terrifies. It only comes in nightmares, in a blood-rush haze. My maternal grandmother only had two children, but my mother was born breech, and her labor stretched over several days, ending in the last moments of 1967. I saw the light, she says. What light? I want to ask, but don’t. My aunt had four children, pushed them out just fine, she says. My mother had me, lonely me, when she thought she would have no one at all. For her troubles she had severe toxemia—now called preeclampsia—for the last two months of her pregnancy. Bed rest, sickness. Repeat. 

I know so little about my father’s family, feel so disconnected from them, that I wonder if I can chronicle them at all. Still, my paternal grandmother had ten children, and loved being pregnant, if only because being with child kept her severe menstruation cycles, which are better described as tectonic, at bay. 

She had ten children and two of them are dead. The ninth, Grant, died before his first birthday from bacterial meningitis. He cried and cried all night, and nothing could soothe him. The siblings took turns carrying him and rocking him up and down the hall, on shift, so that their parents could sleep. 

The second dead child is my father, fourth in line. Four is a death number, in many cultures, though not our own. I shouldn’t be surprised. 

For a long time, I am so afraid of everything that I cannot leave the house, which is when I learn the name for what I experienced that day in the laundromat. I am in my bed, like most of the time, and I maneuver face up a bit, though it is numb from being squished into a pillow for hours and hours, so that I can find another YouTube video. My favorites are about “weird” or “freaky” subcultures or when people get really into intense handicrafts. The picture next to the video title shows another unseeing, intricate doll. Despite my pause, despite the residual fear in my body, I click.

“A reborn doll,” according to Wikipedia, “is a handmade art doll created from a blank kit or a manufactured doll that has been transformed by an artist to resemble a human infant with as much realism as possible.” 

“Obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD),” according to Wikipedia, “is a mental and behavioral disorder in which an individual has intrusive thoughts and/or feels the need to perform certain routines repeatedly to the extent where it induces distress or impairs general function.”

Reasons I would be a terrible mother: I like to sleep, I am obsessive and compulsive, a depressive to the nth degree. I would resent being a mother. I would resent a child having needs. I would resent having to cater to those needs. I have lots and lots of books that are easily torn and that I gently handle. I hate leaving the house. I hate going to the grocery store. I have expensive taste despite my poverty-soaked blood. Despite my love of cats I feel like owning one would be too much commitment. I like to go wherever I want whenever I want. I feel like any affable, likable part of myself is a persona used to manipulate. I believe that real art takes sacrifice of blood and bone and comfort. I see myself as a modern mystic at odds with the world around me. At my worst I don’t feel like speaking to anyone or doing anything. I resent any encroachment on what I feel is my space. To feel choked and chained makes me crazy, push me into a corner and I bite. Most of all, I am an artist and a monster. 

Jenny Offill writes in Dept. of Speculation: “My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art…”

Another dream—before I gained consciousness we had two Dalmatians named Pongo and Perdita. They are with me. I am older in this dream, thirty or thirty-five instead of twenty-six. I am walking slowly up to the haunted house and they are standing at the gate. Perdita opens her mouth to speak human words and it is so terrible I have to close my eyes and cover my ears. 

I wasn’t shocked when Roe v. Wade was overturned. Nor have the events since shocked me. I could feel it coming, something rumbling in the distance, like the earthquakes caused by fracking. In May, the governor of Oklahoma signed one of the strictest abortion laws in the nation. Around the state, there was outrage, but of course, there was also celebration. Lots of it. I pissily clicked through the headlines until I gave myself a nauseous headache. 

Another reason—despite what they pay me to write, I actually have very little patience for people’s growth and change. Either learn it or not, I think. Either you’re going to be a terrible person for the rest of your life or you’re going to have to work at something for once. Hurry up. 

The doll video was just the beginning. I needed something to hang on to and I had found it, though it horrified me. I finished the Wikipedia sections. I went on Reborns.com. I searched through Reddit. Flipped through pages and pages of Etsy selections. I shocked myself with my Youtube algorithm and the amount of Reborn Day in the Life and Morning Routines I consumed. I was an open mouth, an open hand. I horrified myself with the images, but I considered them a ward. There are no dolls in your house, I told myself. You are fine. This is not the worst thing. Look around you. This is not the worst thing. 

I stopped writing about anything at all. Themes started to emerge. Some women used the dolls as a coping mechanism after a miscarriage, a stillbirth. Some women’s children had left home and they didn’t know what to do with themselves without something to care for. Some women just liked the way they looked. Some women, some women, because so few were men. Though the men, often husbands, would sometimes play along. They would carry the doll and pretend to feed the doll and sing to the doll. I thought there was something grotesque about that, then felt bad about maligning a coping mechanism. For who was it hurting? And aren’t women so often made to feel bad about all their choices? Wasn’t I participating in this cycle of patriarchy as a viewer through the screen?

And then one of the women says she doesn’t know who wouldn’t want a baby, and I shudder at the look on her face. 

My mother has never pressured me about marriage. She tells anyone who comments on it that she didn’t marry until she was thirty, and thought she never would. Of course, one doesn’t have to get married to have a baby, but the two are so inextricably tied in my mind. Call it the Southern Baptist raising, call it the geographical pinpoint I found myself raised in, I cannot separate them. 

I have two elder half-siblings, two elder step-siblings, and now, three younger adopted siblings, but I still consider myself an only child, because I was raised that way, and because I don’t know how to construct a narrative wherein I am not the worst and only mutual decision my parents ever made. 

I like and love my adopted siblings, who are in blood my second cousins, and my mother’s great-nieces and nephew. We spend a lot of time together. They ask me lots of questions. I braid hair and have family dinner and then retreat back into my house that was once my father’s. It is covered in spray paint and holes and mismatched laminate flooring that is coming up on the edges. But it is quiet, and in it I can make my simple dinners and sit at my chipped kitchen table and pee with the bathroom door open. The middle child of the Boxcar Children, which is the name I use for them, privately, as a collective, finds a Reborn doll at a yard sale, unbeknownst to me. She calls him Matthew, and I do not know this until she pushes his hands against my back to scare me. Oh my God, I scream, and everyone laughs. Matthew’s glassy eyes feel like they’re watching me from where he has been sat in the seat next to mine. He loves you, Aunt Autumn, she says. I make a face. Keep that thing away from me, I say. The eldest Boxcar Child laughs, but she finds me before I leave. She says, I’m always extra nice to him later. Just in case. 

Just in case, I say back, and the darkness of the no street lights night feels especially menacing for several days after. 

It’s ridiculous. I mean, it’s a doll. What could it really do to me? I am broad and tall, built for some kind of contact sport with minimal cardio. If it came down to a fight, which it won’t, I constantly remind myself, as dolls are inanimate objects, I could probably take it. 


The term “uncanny valley” was coined in 1970 by roboticist Masahiro Mori. The IEEE Spectrum states, “Mori coined the term ‘uncanny valley’ to describe his observation that as robots appear more humanlike, they become more appealing—but only up to a certain point. Upon reaching the uncanny valley, our affinity descends into a feeling of strangeness, a sense of unease…”

I read the Confessions by Saint Augustine. I read Stoner by John Williams. I read Annie Ernaux and Julia Cameron. I read the Tao Te Ching translated by Stephen Williams. I meditate on Jung. I scan hundreds of pages of literature in translation. I hope these will make me a person better suited towards life. Ha, ha. 

What Saint Augustine said: “But what is this, and what kind of mystery? Behold, Thou blessest mankind, O Lord, that they may increase and multiply, and replenish the earth.”

The youngest Boxcar Child is a boy. He likes to play outside and be messy, like all little boys do. He is constantly covered in grime and dirt. I make him wash his hands before he hugs me, and I think the first few times I hurt his feelings. I tell my mother when I leave to gently explain to him it is not him, it is me, because I am incapable of explaining this plague on my mind like a normal person. I don’t want to hurt his feelings. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, not really. 

Reborn dolls can cost up to many thousands of dollars.

I learn that there are dolls that can mimic breathing with an expensive apparatus installed on the inside of their tiny forms. I learn that there are dolls that come inside a pseudo-placenta. I learn that if you send a picture of you and your spouse, an artisan can craft you a child. I remember Hamlet. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio / than are dreamt of in your philosophy. 

When I pray to my ancestors, I light a candle. I pray in other ways, too, but this is perhaps the most standard. If we imagine prayer, and hope, as energy, lots of things could come to life, now couldn’t they? 

The most expensive thing I have ever purchased is a $1200 dollar MacBook on my first credit card. I use it mostly as a word processor. 

I don’t watch any of the pre-pubescent Reborn influencers, as it feels exploitative, perverted, almost. Perhaps that is just my mind, though, my constant monitoring of the  morality or ethics of thought crimes that must be assuaged by mental compulsions, or, worse, hours of ruminating. Still, I think there is something to be said about the confidence it takes to put oneself out there. At that age, I felt everyone’s judgemental eyes upon me. I refused to go inside stores with my mother, opting instead to sit in the car with a book, and even then, I would shrink back into my seat when someone walked by, waiting for something to happen that I could not name.

No one should feel embarrassed about their hobbies, of course. Nor should they be subject to public ridicule for them. Though I suppose that is where my empathy wanes. What can I do about it? I am full of shame. I am plenty targetable on my own, much less with a baby, or something else, in my arms. 

One of the most popular Reborn content creators has 2 million subscribers. In my dreams, the Times says my novel has sold half that amount. 

The doctor at the Indian Clinic asks me if I am sexually active. Not currently, I say, by which I mean who am I supposed to bring back to my dead dad’s house in my hometown seven years since I was last seen. Okay, she says. She puts my feet up in stirrups. I want birth control, though, I say. Really. She lists my options. I ask her what the chances are that a copper IUD will come loose from my cervix and pierce my uterine lining, if I will be able to tell, and how long it will take me to die if I don’t notice. 

She looks at me for a long moment. I can give you a three month supply of the pill, she says, finally. 

I have less time for the Reborn forums, now. My free therapist said, in moderation, they might serve as low-grade exposure therapy. But graduate school is over. The novel needs finishing. I am less lost in time and space. My spirit has realigned into a new shape, one I am still learning. What once felt like something keeping me tethered to the days, though not in the way one would expect, nor the way other participants experienced it, seems like a passing fancy. An anecdote to recount. I do not live in their uncanny valley, but a separate one. I visited, but I am not a tenable neighbor. I never was. 

In my dreams, I have a monstrous child that seeks to destroy me. She comes out of the womb discomfited and screaming, screaming. I try to soothe her but she won’t calm no matter what I do. I try everything and am wounded for it. She grows at a terrifying pace, and takes and takes. She is smart and cutting and will not take any of my advice. She is truly a very terrible child but when she tells me she wants to die I want to die, too. How could this have happened? I do everything I can to keep her alive and she does not thank me. I wash her hair in the basin. I let her piss on my traditions. I let her trample my carefully tended garden. I tell her I love her at night and make her breakfast in the morning. One day she comes to me and says she knows what will help her. I say anything, anything. She pries open my chest and takes a bite out of my bitter heart. Just before my eyes close, I realize the truth—there, behind her hair, is my face. 

Autumn Fourkiller