Kathi George and Julie Crosier are arguably the best looking people in the room. The sisters are dressed in a uniform of knee-high black boots, dark-wash skinny jeans and monogrammed pink jackets. They are dressed to impress, and with good reason; today they will conduct business at Grace Christian School’s annual craft fair.
Shoppers mosey along under the florescent lights of the cafeteria, stopping for baked goods or hotdogs nestled inside slices of white bread, $2.00 apiece. Little old ladies seated behind card tables wait patiently for passers-by to notice their knit caps and woolly mittens. It’s a charming example of small commerce, but nothing special.
The illusion of small-town normality falters. Kathi and Julie are accompanied by one dozen babies. They aren’t actual babies; they are dolls. Dolls with wet mouths, crusty eyes, and runny noses. Dolls with wrists that blue veins climb like ivy. Dolls with palms a fortuneteller could read. Dolls that more than one unsuspecting fair-goer mistakes for living, human children.
Kathi, a 61-year-old teacher at Williamstown Elementary School, and Julie, a 53-year-old fitness instructor and black belt, stand by their creations, which are nestled comfortably in wicker baskets and look as peaceful and still as every new mother desperately wishes her child would be.
Because of their eight year age difference, Kathi and Julie once led fairly separate lives. The blonde, blue-eyed sisters now spend Saturdays poking fun at each other and promoting their joint business, Until Forever Nursery, while vending their reborn dolls at local craft fairs.
Reborns are dolls that precisely, and disturbingly, resemble real babies. They are not your grandmother’s beloved Raggedy Ann. Not Chatty Cathy, the once premier item on your mom’s Christmas list. They aren’t even the American Girl dolls you accessorized. These dolls are another species altogether.
Some people love them. Others consider them creepy. It is easy to see why. A well-made reborn doll uncannily resembles an actual infant. Kathi and Julie once had the cops called on them for endangering children while they strolled with two reborns in the hot sun. Of course, the doll is an inanimate object. Still, objects can take on lives of their own through the illusions that they produce. And reborn dolls are masters of illusion.
Julie tucks a flyaway lock of blonde hair back into her braided halo and lifts Alexander, an adorably ugly little thing with a face like a basset hound. Cradled in his maker’s arms, nestled against her bosom, the doll transmutes into a baby boy. One boy (yes, a real one) sees Alexander and is smitten. The child’s grandmother offers the doll to him. He greets Alexander with a peck on the lips.
A mother creeps from table to table. Her gaze lands upon the dolls, shock contorts her features. For a moment, she seems horrified.
“Is this a…real baby?”
“Oh no! It’s a doll. Would you like to hold her?”
She does not answer immediately, unease wrestling with curiosity. She finally takes Louisa, who is as round and pink as a ripe strawberry, in her arms. A smile erases the tension in her face; she holds Lousia with delicate protectiveness.
“You have to look at this baby!” she calls back to the rest of her family, who have left her behind with the dolls.
“Smell her neck! She even smells like a baby!” a voice interjects.
The forgotten mother gives Louisa a shy sniff and proclaims that the doll, whose neck is scented with baby powder, does indeed smell “like a real baby!”
Kathi smiles at the scene. She and Julie have only been making reborn dolls for seven years, but Kathi is a veteran doll maker. Kathi’s first doll wore its brown, yarn hair in two plates and sported a yellow dress; Kathi made the doll for her daughter, Kira, in 1979. Now 39 years old, Kira still has the little doll with the yarn hair in her possession.
Kathi was drawn to reborn dolls by the challenge of creating something so lifelike. After hours of work, Kathi connected her first reborn’s hyperrealistic head onto its soft torso, bringing her creation to life. She immediately called Julie.
“When she held it in her hands she just looked at me and started to cry. She just said ‘you have to teach me how to do this.’”
The studio that Kathi keeps in the home she shares with her husband, Fred, and dog, Maverick, bursts with dolls that date as far back as the 19th century. It is not for the faint of heart. The eyes of a hundred dolls follow visitors as they peruse Kathi’s collection. You feel as though the dead eyes of the dolls are sizing you up and a
Kathi is at home here. On the first snowy morning of fall, she sits cross-legged on the studio floor, sorting doll clothes and humming Christmas carols. It is not yet Thanksgiving.
Not everyone loves the dolls as Kathi, Julie and their customers do. Elementary school boys dragged along by their parents edge closer to the display of seemingly sleeping dolls, jostling each other and giggling all the way. A chubby boy with a loud voice and stains on his shirt presents a challenge.
“I dare you to touch one of them,” he says.
A friend boldly obliges. He approaches the basket filled with monkey dolls, which are less popular than the reborns, but are quite cute with their hair bows and onesies. With a hesitant hand, the boy strokes a little monkey’s mohair fur. He shrieks. His friends echo him. They vanish from the scene like steam evaporating.
Others fairgoers also recoil. One family is split. The mother nestles a doll in her arms and strokes its ruddy cheek with her finger. The father, who wears a baseball cap and T-shirt, doesn’t make eye contact with it.
“They look too real. You just see them sitting out there and you want to protect them. It bothers me to see them out here all alone,” he says.
He shoots a glance at his son and future daughter-in-law, who keep back, and says “Besides, we’re hoping the kids will give us a real one soon!”
Some customers “adopt,” as Kathi and Julie say, reborns because the doll reminds them of a child they know or have known. Julie specializes in custom dolls, modeled after real children. Parents send Julie pictures of their child. From there, Julie finds a mold that resembles the child. She then makes alterations on the mold until it becomes a doll doppelganger of the child. It takes about 20 hours of work for Kathi or Julie to complete a reborn doll, and even more time to complete a custom.
Most custom dolls are modeled after living children, but Julie also receives order for dolls commemorating children never born or who’ve passed away. One couple reached out to Julie after they’d learned they could not have children together. They wanted a doll that resembled their hypothetical child. The couple sent Julie current pictures of themselves and pictures of themselves as small children. Julie created the doll from the two sets of pictures. Another couple reached out to Julie after they’d lost their child. Their order never went through, but the intention was to store the child’s ashes within the doll.
“We feel very honored to be asked to do that. It touches our hearts and honestly if we can make anyone fell better, if we can bring happiness to people through our dolls, then that’s really what it’s all about,” says Kathi.