the doll games
shelley and pamela jackson


s doll journal

day one,

Excerpt from S Jackson’s doll journal, summer 2000

Journal of Doll Games day one. Of course it isn’t actually day one, which was a long time ago, in 1995 maybe, when I first explained hypertext to P on a drive to SanFrancisco (or was that our second conversation on the topic?): I remember getting excited about the multifarious aspects of the project: interviews! Paintings! Videos! Live performance! Fiction! while driving through the billboards over the roofs of SOMA, downtown swinging away to the right and the mission coming up ahead.

Or else day one was whenever we first told a story with a doll in one hand, or maybe it was when we finally couldn’t or didn’t want to play dollgames anymore, or, since I don’t remember that happening but only it having happened, when we finally realized we had stopped playing doll games, and referred to them or wondered about them as an activity no longer self-evident but past-tense and strange. Although, with that willful carelessness of memory, I did think for years that we could pick up the doll games again any time we wanted to, that it was all right there in almost tedious detail (beyond our power to record or describe or chronicle) any time we wanted to access it. In fact I think my mind shied away from it because it was such a huge compendium of knowledge, as if I had to forget a lot about it before I could enjoy thinking about it again. Which is exactly what happened, of course, but it’s strange, because I still have the comfortable feeling that I know all about the games, when in fact we proved today trying to reconstruct the game-scenarios (pirates, boarding schools) that we only remember snatches. It’s weird, as if, let’s see, as if I had a dress I loved a lot but never wore, and I pushed it to the back of a closet, and every so often I checked to make sure it was there, but I never needed to do more than catch a glimse of the sleeve or the hem, because I knew the pattern so well, and then one day I decided to pull out the dress and try it on, and I find out that the bit of cuff or hem poking out is all that’s left of the dress (the rest has been eaten by moths, say).
So, day one, though it isn’t even day one of this particular session of doll investigations, but rather day three. But never mind that. We are on tape 3 of our recorded conversations, which are sometimes stilted, but hilarious in patches, and rove around in an interesting and beguiling way which is worth recording, I think. We are noticing things about how these games worked that we didn’t before, or I am anyway—the process feels a bit ponderous, but I think we’re probably only getting started, decongesting those passages; then slowly new connections will form. Also we are having to figure out how to work collaboratively, which is not just a procedural issue but part of the point, in a mirrors-reflecting-mirrors kind of way: trying to figure out how to collaborate to figure out how we collaborated, back then when it came naturally. So far it feels natural enough, because we’re doing it as a conversation, and a conversation is collaborative, and passing the camera back and forth is almost a conversation too, or at least it seems like something either of us could do well without snuffing out the vision of the other.
I suspect the writing will be harder to do collaboratively, I have always been zealous to protect my great idea, how I think it should be done—not in the sense of copyright, but just wanting to get it done myself because I knew the best way to do it. But that’s why the project seems better to me now that we’ve rethought it to include more explicit questioning/ revealing of its methods, more comparison and commentary and dialogue, options and doubt and points of view. It’s a kind of exercise in self-exposure, despite the ironic embellishments we have in mind—I mean this stuff is personal, flawed, ridiculous; that’s its virtue. So the composition should also flaunt its clumsiness, self-consciousness, gaps and hesitations. The hifalutin ambitions and the misadventures of its realization: like the fact we’ve been talking about it for 5 years and have barely done a thing. We’re so good at exciting plans, not so good at proceeding, well especially because who knew if the other one was going to drop out and leave us doing all the work? Especially given that "I know best" attitude that makes me take on more than my share of all collaborative projects, though it doesn’t preserve me from feeling crabby and resentful about that, even though it’s my own fault.

Anyway. Status: photos are coming out really well. Conversations: good. How we’re going to organize this on-line I have no idea—want to borrow structural ideas from scholarly web projects. I’m a little afraid that’s one of those things I’ll have to do single-handedly. I guess I do still imagine I’ll do more than half the work, and feel a little tired at the thought. Although maybe that’s appropriate—I did boss the doll games around. I was thinking about that when Carol was talking about how Nikola gives Reed his lines in their games, and he plays along. I thought, oh, that’s just what big sisters do, that’s just how it is. I don’t have to feel bad about it. And then I thought: we were just kids! (Something I don’t often think.) So it’s funny that I still feel this much guilt and responsibility, as if those choices were all my choices, free and unprecedented, and it was my character alone that decided the course I took (bossy, selfish) and proved itself in those decisions. I guess that’s how family structures winkle their way into the self: you draw these warped conclusions about who you are from the way you see yourself behave, as if your behavior sprung pure from the center of you, instead of being dictated by contingencies, but why am I talking about this? Sleep.

Day 2 (4?) Thinking about gaps, holes, lapses. Work of memory as fondling the void. It isn’t just reconstruction, recovery, addition to what’s known, it’s also a work of failure (I mean, the failure’s part of the work) and acknowledgement of loss and absence. The only honorable way to write about the past would be to publicize its inaccessibility and the semifictional quality of memories. At moments we don’t know if we’re remembering or making things up. We have to acknowledge our separation from those goings-on, even from those people.

And think, also, about what the doll games mean to us now. Why they still have this magnetism, why they matter, and if it’s for the same reasons they did before or new reasons. Seeing a "narrative form" in them or a "collaborative model for writing" is a grown-up imposition, yes? And yet we also shouldn’t underestimate our self-consciousness then, since we both wanted to be writers, and I at least worried a lot about what the differences were or might be between the facile, unedited language of my journals and real writing, whatever that might be. I don’t think we ever thought of the doll games as art, but we did have ideas about art, we weren’t innocent of notions of genre and quality and the author-genius. So we should think about how those ideas filtered in, or why they didn’t.

I cramp up when I think of all the things I want to do, and the work that I know I will want to put into them, if they are to turn out well. It is not so much the drudgery of the doll project I dread as the work of imagination I haven’t done yet, dreaming up absurd Harvey theories and so on.

Day. This was not an entirely unselfconscious process, even then. The games went on long enough (by far) for us to become aware that they were unusual and to begin to think about that and construct self-justifications. But I don’t feel like writing about that right now.

Think about brand names or rather the official identities of dolls, how we departed from them immediately, bestowing new identities and even in some cases new genders on the dolls, even in the most resistent cases: viz, the Wicked Witch of the West, whom we recast as the misunderstood green outcast; we even tried to make her sexy, but while the green was easy enough to overlook, her beaked nose and scary sneer were a little more difficult. Still, that hair! Those wonderful hip joints!

See also the white-haired, bearded "Liddle Kiddle" Santa Claus and the grey-haired, grey-browed Kiddle Old Woman and the Cupboard) and how useless those public identities were to our games. What was Barbie’s Kid Sister to us? Why would we want to make our dolls do things we could do in real life if we wanted (get dressed, go skateboarding, ride a bicycle)? Our dolls were living the lives we wished we could live, and that was true even later, when they went to school, but only to freely display their genius and then return home to lives of unlikely freedom (just how old were they supposed to be?) and sexual possibility. But see this rewriting of the manufacturer’s identity, which adopted a few features and added whole new ones, as related to Vodun-style amalgamation of imported Christian saints into native systems of gods and spirits.

Dolls and baths. More about body image. Dawn. Race. Mutilations. Needing full accounts: B***** amputation, Laurie tragedy, the clay parts?

We did think the doll games would go on forever. But when I wrote in my journal "People are more interesting than dolls," I was ignoring the extent to which people were dolls for me, at least in so far as I was able to make use of them, in my fantasy life: as tokens, game pieces, opaque and uncomplicated little pawns which served my imagination the way a piece of type serves a story: useful, but replaceable. Recombinant, radically movable. You don’t think about them, you use them to think with. Maybe it’s when the doll games began to comprise such minute and detailed actions—the narrative of a hand on a breast, for example, which could only be acted out in the crudest way with a doll—and therefore moved farther and farther into my imagination, while the dolls just lay in position in my hand, that I became more interested in people; because if it was the reality of the character in my mind that mattered, and not the realism of the doll, then people were as good—better, in fact. And it was just as easy to move them around in my head as dolls.