In the Absence of Wigs


Welcome to the Dollhouse

Dearest Carla Fran,

That was Doris Lessing! I read The Fifth Child standing up in a aisle of Tower Books in downtown Sacramento a bunch of years ago. Two interior decorating details are still with me: one was a long, long wooden dining table the couple had bought, the other is a strong impression of scary stairs. I left chilled and convinced of the unwisdom of having a big family.

I must tell you I watched Welcome to the Dollhouse for the first time ever, and spent most of the movie gaping in disbelief at Dawn Wiener. She was me. I was she. Shall I list the ways?

  • The t-shirt tucked into the elastic-waist pants. This was how I dressed.
  • The hairtie with the two plastic balls twisted up together on top.
  • The tiny perfect dancing sister. The way the tiny sister makes everything about Dawn twice as blobby and big.
  • The jerky sibling move that results in the sister’s endangerment (in my case, her getting locked into a Holiday Inn hotel room when she was 3. She bolted the door on accident, and the hotel had lost the master key. The fire department couldn’t get in, and I stood there, watching my father pull the fire alarm, my mother tearfully talk my sister away from the fatal toilet drowning mechanism, thinking to myself that I had lied, that I hadn’t had to go outside the room, that I hadn’t heard them coming at all and just wanted to feel important for a second and get away.)
  • The piano-playing.
  • The total submission to abusive people, except that I was more of a tattle-tale.
  • The weird spurts of agency in which she makes Steve Jello and macaroni and plots his seduction.
  • The clubhouse. Mine was a fig tree that gave me rashes on my legs. Whatever.
  • That shot of her lying in bed, expressionless, all night, after she’s met Steve.
  • The voice!!! That was my voice!!!
  • The terrible moment of appearing at the party in her “Love” heart-shaped earrings, her grown-up hairdo, lime-green pants and electric blue midriff-baring top. Mine was white roller-skates with with hot pink wheels, long silver dangly heart earrings, a turquoise spandex top with silver lightning bolts and bike shorts to match.

I’ve never recognized myself so completely in a movie before. I don’t know what to think—I experienced it almost as an unfamiliar invasion of privacy.

The line “There’s voices in my head / Coming from the phone” reminded me of your observations on schizophrenia, specifically of a friend of mine who hears the air condition constantly telling him that he’s a horrible person, good-for-nothing, ugly, etc. When this happens he very stiffly gets up and takes the dog for a walk.

The happy puppet is pretty terrifying, I guess. You’re right, it suggests that we’re yanked around by our genes, or by a genetically encoded desire to please and get attention, which might be the same thing. So what other phenotypes are there? Are the rest of us disaffected dummies? Moody marionettes?

In my trolling for belly-dancing material I watched a history of burlesque last night and came across an act in which a woman lies down on a couch and is fondled and partly undressed by a life-sized puppet of the devil. This was in response to censorship laws decreed that a dancer couldn’t bump and grind directly facing the audience or touch herself anywhere at all while onstage.

What terrifies me even more than the genetics, dear CF, is the puppetry that happens in reverse. As long as the dancer’s controlling the devil, it’s okay, but Welcome To The Dollhouse is so much about being controlled by the people you hate. It’s about that moment when you hear their voices in your own head. Good old Dawn. Every time she gets called something—“Lesbian,” “Retard,” “Faggot,” she turns around and does it to somebody else. The only person she really treats nicely is Brandon.

I wish I could condescend, pat her on the head, and tell her this too shall pass. Fact is, I don’t think it stops. I feel the Firecracker in my head every time I try to write. How do we not become puppets? And should I get a dog?