the doll games
shelley and pamela jackson


introduction x2


The doll games were intimate, moral, obedient enough to their recurrent themes to verge on obsession. We crouched over our miniature stage-sets, bumping our futures together in our fists. We made up worlds as dirty as our minds. Around us, larger worlds wheeled, but we held them off. In our games, heros and heroines were reliably heroic, and also capable of self-deprecating humor. Certain principles could be relied upon: the proud will be humbled, the greedy will get no satisfaction, swelled head never won fair lady. We mocked the would-be macho men and tarts, who flaunted their derided totems: scribbled mustachios, wasp waists and torpedo breasts. Our heroes were androgynes, beautiful by accident. Their thoughts were uninflected by gender, and they moved with limber, neutered grace.

Our favorites always won. But we played all the parts, losers and winners and the saps in between. We identified, not with just one doll, but all the dolls in the scene. I was a pirate girl with a dagger in her belt, but I was also a vamp, a buffoon, a tyrant, a cad. This was a multiple, theatrical sense of identity, surviving head-swapping and sex changes. In these prosthetic selves we could be braver and cleverer than we really were, but also stupider, crueler, and more shameless. The dolls were little space suits in which we ventured into strange atmospheres: love, hate, victory, defeat, and the damp otherworldly fronds of sex.

We hunched over the little figures, our knees and elbows sore and bumpy from the shag rug, working the permutations, trying on consequences. Mommy called. Without looking up we yelled, "Coming!" But no intrusion from the big world altered the equations we were working out. My sock drawer did not cease to be a cave dwelling when I had to change my socks. Dolls did not cease to be people when we had to change their heads. Their lives were elsewhere.

Their privacy was perfect. I identified with their hard dumb inexpressiveness. It was how I felt too: my real life did not show on the outside. The dolls clacked together, their bodies all beak, all shell. Despite this, everything about them was erotic. The rubbery ratcheting of bending knees, the disturbingly tiny feet, the sharp hands with their fused fingers. The rubbery globes of their heads. The flexible neck holes, with their sturdy lips. The poignant stumps. We knew their bodies better than our own.

Dolls work like possession: the little girl's daemon occupies the helpless vessel of the doll. But influence often works both ways. What about the reverse flow, the daemon haunted by the vessel? What did the dolls mean to me? What did they do to me? I once made a private promise never to stop the doll games, a promise I broke. But the doll games were abandoned rather than finished, like a question left hanging. They remain as we left them the last time we played, like a kind of woolly mammoth on ice. The impression of life only recently departed belies the time that has passed. For years it seemed to me that we had only to pick them up again to bring them back to life. Even today I catch myself thinking it's still there, that world. The DNA is intact. If we just knew how to go about it we could pick up the conversation where we left off, twenty-some years ago.


The doll games evolved into an intricate world with its own laws, its own history—complete with golden age, decadence and decline—its documents and relics, heroes and villains and grotesques. All this was packed up in the doll box and stored away when the doll games ended, and years later when we opened the box it was all still there: the dolls themselves, still wearing the scars of their past lives; their props and possessions, their letters and writings and art. The doll games had archives. That was what gave us the idea of doing a sort of documentary—an exhibit, a tour of this little world, its rise and fall.

What is a doll game? What is a doll? What are two kids playing? In the project we are archeologists, voyeurs, utopians of doll games. Sometimes we're embarrassed. The doll games are inaccessible in a lot of ways—fundamentally baffling, no matter how much we scour our memories and pore over the doll box—but it still seems possible, as we assemble the fragments, that we might be able to recover them somehow or even bring them to some new life. We're curious what that new life would be.

In a way we're excavating ourselves when we dig into the doll box. Jesse and Aina, Dawn and Harvey, Mara and Melanie, their secrets are ours, their histories, their sexual adventures, their cleverness and stupidity, all ours. Whatever curiosity, affection, or prurient interest we feel toward them now is at least in part directed backward at our own childhood selves. But we are also prying into the dolls' childhoods, even if we don't exactly know where the boundaries are: Laurie's death, Aina's two heads, Harvey's pink slippers, the thrill of clay penis and plastic crotch, those are their secrets too, and as archaeologists our motives may be neither entirely innocent nor entirely well-meaning. The dolls didn't ask to be dug up again. But in reassembling them we can't help but wonder whether there's more to know about them than we knew at the time, whether they're different now, whether there's catching up to do.

The doll games were a tiny private world, and they were enclosed within other worlds—Shelley's room, our family, Berkeley—which had tenuous ties to the wider world themselves. They weren't sealed off from the ouside; the doll games admitted Mattel and the women's movement, Shakespeare and Pippi Longstocking, Stridex, Suave and junior high school; but they had a demanding logic of their own. The games had a tendency to swallow up the outside world, which made them somewhat monstrous, and a capacity to both slavishly mimic what they borrowed from "out there" and to transform it, make it "nasty" or chop off its legs, which made them both tacky and subversive. I guess that is more or less the way I see childhood, my own at least. It's not easy to leave doll games.

[These introductions, which set out the aims of the adult Jacksons with fair eloquence and seeming honesty, are (to my eye; invisibly perhaps to the casual reader) marred by the self-consciousness which stifled the project in its infancy. "How serious are we?" I can hear the Jacksons asking one another: the same vexed question that had tolled out over the last throes of the doll games themselves! Note how scrupulously they tried to abide here by their principle of equality (as laid out, with disingenuous cheeriness, in the tapes) toiling to make their introductions the same length—though foiled, I very much fear, by the vagaries of HTML. I shudder to imagine the inner struggle it must have taken to decide which name should appear first. I say, and I shall say it again: it was self-consciousness that undid the doll games—and none other that scuttled The Doll Games. —ed.]