mental health

When a Doll Is More Than a Doll

For some, reborns — realistic dolls modeled after infants — aren’t just a collector’s item.

A reborn doll. Photo: SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty
A reborn doll. Photo: SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty
A reborn doll. Photo: SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty

In Servant, before you learn the wealthy couple’s names at the center of the Apple TV+ show, or even get an unobscured view of them, you think: baby. As opening credits roll in the first episode, a woman leans over a crib in a dimly lit nursery with a white rocking chair and wooden rocking horse. Then, the doorbell rings: Dorothy and her partner, Sean, are greeting a woman they’ve hired to be a live-in nanny. But as the episode progresses, viewers find out that Dorothy’s baby died when he was 13 weeks old — and what she’s been caring for is actually a “reborn,” a realistic doll closely modeled after an infant.

The concept of a realistic doll is nothing new (and in fact, a recent lawsuit alleges that the plot of Servant, reborn and all, is too similar to the 2013 film The Truth About Emanuel). Reborns, as they’re known within the community, have been created and collected by a vibrant group of artists and enthusiasts for quite some time. The reborn community is lively on YouTube, where collectors share “unboxing” videos, as well as influencer-style home videos. In one titled “Reborn Iyla’s Morning Routine,” a woman changes her reborn’s diaper and shows off the doll’s accessories, including a fully stocked diaper caddy. “I know that these dolls are not real,” reads a disclaimer at the video’s beginning. “This is just role-playing on camera for fun and entertainment.” Participants seeking similar content also look to Instagram and private Facebook groups, where creators show off dolls they’ve handcrafted and collected.

The dolls are like any other collector’s item, except not all purchase them solely for their artistic value. In fact, as portrayed in Servant, many are drawn to the dolls for benefits they describe as therapeutic: elders suffering from cognitive decline, women who have suffered miscarriages and stillbirths, and even those who cannot or will not give birth, due to biological or psychological challenges. For them, a reborn is less like a doll, and more like a pet, or even an actual child — a reality they know, and accept, that many outside the community won’t fully understand.

For Mandy Marks, a reborn artist who custom-creates dolls for clients, the doll-making process often starts with a text: “My customers usually contact me that way after they’ve been to my website, Chrysalis Dolls,” she told the Cut, at which point she and the client start discussing how she can craft their “dream baby.” They’ll decide on everything from size, to hair texture, to packaging specifics (a typical price tag is about $900, but can get as high as $2,700). While Marks first started making reborns in the ’90s because she found them fascinating, she says what drives her to continue making them is witnessing how happy they make her clients. One of her clients, Marks said, was a woman “losing her battle with cancer,” who said her reborn gave her comfort. Another client bought a reborn for her nonverbal autistic son, and told Marks he “had never connected with anything like that before.”

While early ’90s reborns were mostly the work of artists like Marks, the early 2000s saw doll companies start to take a deeper interest in the market. Companies like Paradise Galleries, for example, shifted from including reborns in their collectible-doll catalogue to making them the core of their business — somewhat to the resentment of dedicated artists, who see their work as one-of-a-kind, and the companies’ products as mass-produced dolls. In general, these dolls often boast higher-tech features and a lower price tag. Reborns sold by Paradise Galleries, for example, feature baby-powder-scented “skin” and are weighted with a bean bag “for a more realistic baby feel.” Another company, Ashton-Drake Galleries, sells animatronic reborns that simulate breathing, cooing, and a heartbeat. On average, manufactured dolls tend to run from $50 to $150, quite a bit less than many artisan-made dolls.

While artists like Marks may maintain that their handmade dolls share little in common with reborns sold by larger companies, the latter also attract those interested in their potential therapeutic benefits. “These [clients] include many mothers who are grieving the loss of a pregnancy or baby, as well as patients suffering the effects of Alzheimer’s, dementia, and anxiety,” Kate Quaid, director of digital marketing at Paradise Galleries, told the Cut.

While one could make the argument that many well-made dolls resemble actual babies, reborns are so convincing, they can sometimes pass as a real newborn. In May 2016, a New Hampshire police officer smashed a car window to rescue what he thought was an abandoned newborn. “I went to put my finger in its mouth and it was all resistance,” the officer told ABC News of the reborn doll, which was draped with a blanket and had a bottle of milk. “[But] It felt like a baby. It looked like a baby.’”

To its owner, and to many who have reborns, it was a baby. Per a local New Hampshire TV station, the aforementioned doll belonged to a Vermont woman named Carolynne Seiffert, who started collecting reborns as a way to cope with the death of her son. That particular doll, named Ainsley, was just one of approximately 40 that she owned. “You can’t know how people choose to deal with their losses in life,” she told the station.

Mental-health experts say this kind of deep emotional connection between a grieving person and a reborn can be useful — whether they’re grieving a child who died or the one they cannot have. “For some women, the fantasy of a baby is powerful, and having the reborn doll allows them to indulge in this fantasy more powerfully,” Dr. Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School, told the Cut. “During those moments they feel a contentment that eludes them in real life.”

However, were a reborn to become more than a transitional object — which appears to be the case in Servant — psychiatrists say it could severely hinder a person from accepting reality. In general, Saltz says, she wouldn’t “specifically recommend [a reborn]” to those dealing with overwhelming feelings of grief or sadness.

But not all who decide to invest in a reborn in the hopes of therapeutic benefits are in a state of denial about their situation. Just over two months ago, Amy Ferguson received Oliver: a 22-inch, 4 pound, 4 ounce reborn she bought on Etsy. “So he is really like a brand-new baby,” she told the Cut, before sending a photo of herself cradling Oliver against her chest. Ferguson, who has schizoaffective disorder, says Oliver has been like an anchor for her. “Doing things like dressing him, taking him on walks on nice days, changing his diapers — it helps me feel like I’m taking care of him.”

Another person, Tavi, told the Cut that the dolls appeal to them because they can’t have biological children for medical reasons. They’re currently in the process of buying their first reborn, which they hope will provide them “a little outlet for wanting to be nurturing and motherly.” They think a lot of people in similar situations are drawn to reborns.

“It’s a positive outlet for people that need to be a parent,” they told the Cut, “for those of us who never will be.”

Reborn owners know that not everyone will be accepting of their decision — in fact, many expect to be misunderstood. While Ferguson says that she’s always “eager to introduce Oliver to others and explain why [she has] him,” and most have been “impressed and supportive,” she’s heard of women who have felt too ashamed to bring their doll in public spaces. Tavi says even their partner has had difficulty grasping why they want a reborn. While their partner is ultimately supportive, they say she doesn’t quite understand the desire and considers the dolls “creepy.” But that doesn’t deter Tavi — who, unlike their partner, has always wanted children — from planning for a future with their reborn.

“I know when I get my reborn, I’ll want it to be a part of my life,” they told the Cut, “Even  though I’ll get strange looks when I take it out to the store or anywhere in public. I’ve wanted one from the moment I learned about them.”

When a Doll Is More Than a Doll