The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.

The Sympathetic Magic of Dolls

by Mara KarapetianSurvivor, Ductal Carcinoma in situFebruary 27, 2024View more posts from Mara Karapetian

There are many cultures where dolls are considered a magical item. Animism attributes a soul to the inanimate: plants, objects, and natural phenomena. I remember the first time I read about the Shinto belief that there is a spiritual essence, or kami, in all things. I might have been in high school when I learned about this, or maybe college. It resonated with me, at any rate.

Last year, I learned in some Ukrainian households (not mine), there’s a doll called a motanka presented to a girl at birth by her mother. This doll is made by rolling fabric scraps together and wrapping thread and fabric together to form clothes. You can’t give the doll a face: you can only wind thread around the head in a pattern (like an X) because giving the doll the face of someone specific might trap their spirit inside. This doll stays with you for your entire life, from birth to death, and is present for all of your major life events, including your wedding. Your ancestors may come and go freely to protect and guide you through this doll. I think it’s a beautiful tradition and I wish it was something that our family did.

A magical, protective talisman… is that what dolls mean to me? I think of all the dolls I surrounded myself with as a kid, as a teen, a younger adult, and now, where they take up a good chunk of my room, including the ones I bought specifically to be my post-cancer recovery buddies. It’s part of the attraction, but it’s not the whole story.

At the start of 2019, my life took a hairpin turn. My marriage of 18 years that I thought had been on pretty solid ground had abruptly ended in September. I had left home. I was living with my parents for what I thought was a temporary period. I had the nerve to think this was as bad as it would get. On February 4, 2019, I was assaulted. Two weeks later, I received a layoff notice. I did things like arrange to have my first age-40 mammogram… and discovered that I had breast cancer. “But it’s ductal carcinoma in situ, it’s breast cancer!” they said. Those of you who have had “easy” breast cancer know that even “easy” breast cancer is pretty horrible, especially when your “easy” breast cancer comes back and the solution for that is the fire sale: everything must go, as in your cancer-afflicted breast.

Well, that’s all pretty traumatic. Maybe that’s why a heavily traumatized woman will reach for something beloved and safe. The thing here is that I never stopped reaching for dolls. A child playing regularly with dolls, I once read somewhere, may imprint some of their own soul into their toys. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, these vassalized toys forever yearn to be played with, forever aching to be picked up again and loved. If dolls and toys are haunted, this is what haunts them: abandonment. I love how this was worded. You decide what you make of it. It made me feel very sentimental. I was a lonely little kid and my dolls were my buddies.

A story like this has been lingering in my subconscious for a while because I’ve always been sure to keep track of the first teddy bear that I ever got. I’ve also never kicked my doll habit. It’s evolved, but I have always been a person who has loved dolls. Barbies as a kid, vintage Barbies as a teenager, fancy Asian ball-jointed dolls as a younger young adult, and all of these at present.

I have been collecting dolls since I aged out of playing with them. I made friends. Sometimes, I got teased about my dolls, sometimes unkindly. Maybe it’s because women aren’t supposed to hang onto sentimentality like dolls… they grow out of this, they should want boyfriends and careers and they’re supposed to grow, grow, grow, claw for the top and pursue every ambition possible until they have won… except I did. I thought I had gone and done all of the adult things that an adult does, like get married and have a successful career and a home and good credit, and then on a dime I had none of those things and I had one less breast. But I had my friends and I had the dolls that I had always loved, this interest that grew with me.

In 2018, I’d seen these dolls that are three times the size of a Barbie at a convention called Smart Dolls and was really impressed with their diversity. Since I was just beginning the process of being divorced, I tabled this purchase to a day in the future. That day in the future was last summer, and I didn’t buy one, I bought three. Three doll buddies to help me get along during this latest chapter of my life journey that included the loss of my breast. A quickly-penned note in the comments field of my order resulted in the creation of a mastectomy option bust that’s easily been my proudest achievement of the past four years. From Smart Dolls, I’ve found an interesting community of people around the world who are friendly and welcoming. I’ve made friends with other breast cancer survivors and we’ve been able to connect and share stories because of the mastectomy option bust. The story continues with the upcoming introduction of a plus-sized Smartdoll currently known as the “pear body” to make even more people feel seen than ever before. I’m most grateful that these dolls that once saved me from loneliness have brought me to people who keep me from despair. That’s their magic.

Join the Conversation!

Leave a comment below. Remember to keep it positive!