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'Reborning' Is More Than Just a Creepy Obsession With Dolls

Last weekend I was invited to see the play "Reborning" at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles. I Googled the title, and what came up first was not a description of the play, but numerous articles on the reborning movement—the creation of intricately detailed baby dolls that are sold for up to thousands of dollars to individuals or “parents” who care for them as if they were real. They coddle them like infants, buy them clothes, take them out in strollers and have birthday parties for them. Often the dolls are made in the likeness of a lost loved one.

I had the same reaction as you’re probably having now. Curiosity, discomfort and then the ick-factor set in, especially since my Internet sleuthing took me right to a video about reborning enthusiasts in the TLC Network lineup, right there alongside the guy who collects ketchup and the woman who bought over 4,000 outfits for her pet squirrel.

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But there's nothing like a night of well-written live theater to take the bitter taste of reality TV out of my mouth and show me I was missing the point of the movement entirely. And to remind me that parents judging other parents was something I rallied against but was all too easy to do.

The play centers around Kelly, a young, spirited reborning artist and Emily, the older, professional woman who has hired Kelly to craft a doll in the image of a baby daughter she lost years ago. Their story plays out amidst the complicated relationship of Kelly and her boyfriend Daizy and in the aftermath of Kelly’s drug-addicted past. The couple are both art school graduates and question if they are living their lives as true artists (Daizy designs and manufactures dildos, so prepare to see a lot of fake penises on stage.)

I started to see these reborning artists as heroic, providing solace to their customers, many of them women who have lost children, suffered miscarriages or for other reasons cannot have children of their own.

But the heart of the story is Emily’s heartbreaking desire to tangibly connect with her late infant daughter, even if it’s in the form of a doll, and how she is relying on the reborning artist’s skill to somehow bring her daughter back to life.

Pablo Picasso said, “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” I started to see these reborning artists as heroic, providing solace to their customers, many of them women who have lost children, suffered miscarriages or for other reasons cannot have children of their own. The dolls bring comfort to their “parents” and help fill a void in their lives. To me, it illustrated how Kelly was the best kind of artist, providing joy to another person through her art.

The writer, Zayd Dohrn, said he first became aware of the reborning movement when his wife was pregnant with their first child and they were looking for baby clothes online. “We stumbled across numerous sites and forums for reborn dolls,” he says. “Buyers would testify how the dolls comforted them. I was trying to balance my own fears and hopes about becoming a father with my work as a writer and an artist, and I became fascinated.”

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Even seeing that the dolls are so clearly beneficial to some, the writer admits it’s easy to be put-off or unsettled by them. “These dolls are realistic enough to be upsetting—beautiful and odd and grotesque all at once,” Dohrn says.

While I’m not ready to run out and buy a reborn doll myself, I can see where the dolls and their artists can be instrumental in “washing the dust of daily life off” for some. One reborn artist in Florida talks about how crafting the dolls is cathartic not only for her customers but for her as well. Eve Newsom, who has had seven miscarriages, says, “Not being able to have children. And not having the resources, actually, to adopt. This was my calling. And now it's my passion ... my reborns bring me a medium of joy and happiness.”

Photographs by Ed Krieger

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