I’m cruising a forum for owners and devotees of sex dolls, checking out the For Sale board – one of my habitual research haunts – when I spot it. Someone in Australia is selling their Real Doll. She looks to be in fair to fixable condition and the asking price is only a couple thousand dollars plus shipping. An excellent price, I think, considering these ultra-realistic dolls go for upwards of US$5500 new – plus more than a grand on top to get one out to Australia. And it’s rare to be able to get a second hand doll over here. Their owners tend to hang on to them.
As I scrutinise the photographs, I’m already running numbers in my head. I’d get most of it back when I resold her, right? It’s not like I’m going to do anything that would cause further, ah, injury. I just want to touch her. Hold her. Move her. I’ve been researching these dolls for months, on and off. I know exactly how they’re made, what types of damage can be done to them, how repairs – both amateur and professional – are carried out. I know they’re supposed to be slightly tacky due to the way their silicone skin “sweats” and I know their articulated bodies can be posed in almost any natural position. I’ve seen more photos and amateur videos, in various degrees of graphic intimacy, and watched more documentaries about these dolls than I can count.
In theory, I know a lot. In practice, I know nothing.
How exactly does the silicone feel beneath your fingers? Texture? Softness? Resistance to pressure? What does it smell like? Taste like? How does it feel to handle a doll, to bear the full ungainly weight of her in your arms? These, and other less seemly questions, are the kinds I want answered. Via personal, practical experience if possible – in the name of research, of bringing the necessary verisimilitude to my story, I can justify almost anything – and here is a second hand doll just across the country. So close.
It’s too much money, I tell myself. It’s ridiculous. But if I get most of it back … Hell, if I fix her up a little before selling, I might not even lose a single dollar on the exercise … She has got a very pretty face, even beneath the peeling makeup …
You get your hands on that doll, you know you ain’t even gonna give her back.
The voice in my head is sharp, with a vague American twang. It belongs to Beryl, the lead doll in the novella on which I’m working. Beryl, who is always angry and whose commentary I’ve been hearing in my head a lot lately. It’s something I tend to do when I’m in the middle of a difficult project – and none has been more difficult than The Home for Broken Dolls – carrying characters around with me, viewing the world as they would view it, getting a good sense of their voice.
And if you did go and give her back, if you went and sold her back to them what broke her, now what would that make you?
Beryl is right. I would never re-sell the doll. And I wouldn’t know what else to do with her. This is the path that Jane, my doll-obsessed protagonist, started down and look where that led her. I’m not Jane. I’m not Beryl either. (But they are, both of them, me.) I leave the forum. Wander off instead to explore websites both less and more disturbing. In my head, Beryl is silent. I wonder if she is even angrier that I didn’t make the guy an offer on his doll. That I chose instead to abandon her. And maybe she’s right about that as well.
When I started writing The Home for Broken Dolls, the character of Beryl emerged with speed and furious certainty. Much more so than Jane, or any of the other dolls, who all needed to be coaxed and cajoled. Who needed to be found. Beryl, she found me. She became a near constant presence – not just when I was actively working on the novella, or bogged down in research, but in my daily life. I could be reading an article or news story online, reading a book, watching a movie or TV show, even having a conversation with someone, and her voice would chip in with some barbed comment, an observation full of scorn and fury and no small amount of truth.
I confess that I did try – more than once – to tone her down a little as the story developed. To soften her edges, mix in some vulnerability, add emotional – read feminine – nuance. Because no one likes an angry woman, right? Only male characters are beloved for their righteous, unrelenting fury. (Don’t agree? Provide me, please, with the male equivalent for harridan, or harpy, or shrew. Hell, provide me with one for bitch.) Thankfully, the doll resisted my attempts to reshape her. Even-tempered dialogue sounded wooden; sympathetic gestures and signifiers of fragility rang false. I stopped trying. Beryl remained, until the end, unappeasable and utterly true to herself.
And I loved her for it. I still love her for it.
At one point in the novella, Beryl is asked if she ever gets tired of being angry all the time. “Only always,” the doll replies. “But that’s why I been put here, ain’t it? I get angry, so you don’t gotta.”
I do get angry. A lot. And it makes me so very, very tired. As a woman – even as a woman with the privileges of being white, cis, presenting as straight, educated, financially stable and able-bodied – spend any amount of time online or immersed in the dominant cultural output, and you will likely become angry, frustrated and exhausted. In recent years, I’ve had to learn to pick my battles and my allies, to know when to switch off, turn away and retreat. Otherwise, self-combustion.
But I have come to value anger most highly. Both in myself and, more importantly, in those who are usually scorned for brandishing such a volatile emotion. Those who are called harpies and bitches, those who are deemed to be uppity or loud, those who are ever so helpfully chided to be mindful of their tone in polite conversation. I listen to these voices, even when they are angry, especially when they are angry, and I try to learn from them. Because sometimes when they are angry, it means I don’t gotta be. And I thank them from the bottom of my exhausted heart for that, and hope to return the favour on another day, another front.
Beryl still speaks up in my head from time to time, though not as often as she used to. Part of that is me moving on from the novella to other projects, and the natural fading from view of former central characters that accompanies such a shift. Part of it is the (re)assimilation of her self into my own. (I am not Beryl. But she is me.) My acceptance of her anger and its value, an appreciation of the power it can bring to marginalised voices. I’m still learning how to cultivate my own anger constructively, to know how to wield it and when to set it aside.
But I will never abandon it.
Anger is a feminist and feminine emotion. It doesn’t need its sharp and bloodied edges pared away. It doesn’t need to display a vulnerable underbelly, to show fragile bones between its seething skin. It doesn’t need to speak in modulated tones.
What it needs is to be heard, understood and respected.