When the Doll Breaks

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– Theresa Karminski Burke

I remember meeting Marita my freshman year in college. She was cute, like a cheerleader, and had the same dynamic, enthusiastic “rah rah” personality. Marita had boundless energy. She was fun to be around and had a self-assured style. At the same time, she was still very much a little girl. She missed her parents, made frequent phone calls to her siblings, and had a roomful of cherished childhood dolls carefully displayed on her bed pillows and bookshelves.

The first night we met, Marita told me she would remember my name because Theresa was the name of her favorite doll, now a priceless antique. It had been passed down from her great-great-grandmother and was given to Marita when she was a little girl. Marita handed me the doll, a porcelain collector’s dream, gussied up in an ivory silk dress and intricate lace pantaloons. Marita and I became friends instantly and used to share library activities like “scoping” for cute guys behind bookshelves.

One night at a drunken fraternity party, Marita found herself having sex with her boyfriend. The details were quite foggy. She didn’t remember taking her clothes off, but woke up naked next to the young sophomore. When Marita discovered she was pregnant, she had an abortion immediately and never told a soul, except her boyfriend and her roommate.

When Marita told me about her abortion years later, she explained that her roommate Ruth had taken her to the clinic. Ruth had an abortion as a senior in high school and told Marita it was no big deal. Abortion was common on campus. Lots of girls had them.

After the abortion, Marita’s personality changed. She became irritable and began drinking all the time. She skipped classes on a regular basis, preferring to sleep in and snooze off each hung-over depression. Her attitude was cynical and negative, and she wasn’t much fun to be around. At that time, I didn’t understand what Marita was going through. But there were signs.

One night we gathered at Marita’s dorm for a party. We were drinking beers when Marita’s boyfriend jumped up and shouted, “It’s time for Baby Soccer!” There was a grand applause, reminiscent of the inauguration of gladiator games. Marita brought out several doll heads which had been decapitated from their torsos, rolling them along with her hockey stick for the grand entrance. Everyone started kicking the baby heads around the room in a frenzy of glee and hysterics. They all cheered while gulping drinks and devouring chips.

As the pastime continued, the aggression toward the baby heads became more severe. One girl picked up a doll head and started gouging out its eyes with a dart. Everyone cackled with delight. Ruth began ripping out shreds of another doll’s hair while burning its plastic cheeks with her cigarette. This sparked her boyfriend’s imagination. He grabbed another doll from the shelf and put the hot ember of his cigarette between the doll’s legs, then ripped them off, leaving only a melted and scarred-looking vagina hole. Ruth threw her doll head on the floor, stamping hard on its skull. They continued to kick the baby heads around the room in a hostile display of rage fused with amusement.

I learned that this had become a favorite game in the dorm. My reaction to this symbolic abuse was a sickening feeling in my stomach. I witnessed this traumatic play, unaware at the time of the psychic release of collective tension this game was providing. Desensitized to the authenticity of the game, I laughed along with the others, silently recalling all the “baby in a blender” jokes which proliferated among my friends.

As I picked up one of the doll heads, I was overcome with a vague familiarity. My heart skipped a beat when I identified the doll as “Theresa,” the porcelain antique which had once been Marita’s prized possession. Her face was cracked, smashed, and splintered, a jigsaw of fractured pieces-nearly unrecognizable. Where the head had been torn from the body there were razor-sharp claws of fragmented china.

Suddenly I felt a genuine, aching grief. I feared that at any minute I might burst into tears. What had happened to this doll “Theresa,” passed down through generations of female history within Marita’s family? How did this happen? What had happened to my friend?

The trauma was still very much a mystery to me-but I knew that something inside Marita had also been crushed. The desecration was reflected quite ostensibly in the face of her broken doll. I waited nearly a decade to discover the answer to my questions. Learning that Marita had suffered an abortion made everything crystal clear.


Those who study childhood trauma have documented many examples where children work through a traumatic event by recreating aspects of their trauma through playful games, stories and art. Child therapists will often observe children playing with puppets and doll houses to get a sense of what is going on in their minds and families. It can be easier to express an emotional conflict by acting it out through a puppet figure–rather than putting oneself through subjective introspection.

As with my classmates and the game of “Baby Soccer,” adults too can engage in symbolic reenactment of a trauma under the disguise of games, art, music, humor, and other amusements. This type of play provided an outlet for grief by replacing it with socially acceptable acts of “baby hatred.”

Marita’s battered doll reflected the abuse of a little girl-ravaged, disfigured, assaulted and burned. “Baby Soccer” was a sadistic “acting out” of unconscious repressed abortion trauma. A baby haunting her unconscious had become the target to be annihilated. Her battered doll’s head was a symbol of this conflict.

It is no surprise that this traumatic play so quickly became an amusement for all to enjoy. Like Marita, many of the young women and men drawn into this game had also lost children to abortion. Many others had lost sisters or brothers to abortion. “Baby Soccer” provided a symbolic means to mock, belittle, and display mastery over the babies who were never allowed to be born but who still haunted their memories.

As the group’s enthusiasm for this game demonstrated, the acting out of post-abortion trauma can be contagious. This is especially the case when so many have had a direct experience with abortion. Worse, this attempt to belittle and master babies through play reinforced and internalized attitudes and behaviors of aggression and hostility against babies.

If the college authorities had seen students beating up and defacing an effigy of a black person, or a symbol of Jewish heritage, would they not have felt compelled to intervene against this frightful and shocking symbolism? But what is said about the intolerance and contempt displayed for babies? It is unlikely that there will ever be a word uttered.

Collective guilt and trauma have the capacity to disguise massive injustice. The offensiveness of “Baby Soccer” was made socially acceptable because it concealed this display of aggression behind the mask of a “humorously irreverent” diversion, so everyone laughed.

We have all learned to snicker at sick jokes and engage in scapegoating because these things give us momentary relief from the tension of unsettled issues. In this case, we were laughing with the nervous giggle of an entire culture that has been traumatized by the abortion of tens of millions of babies. The sheer magnitude of it all is too much to grasp. So it must be trivialized, reduced to laughter and scorn, or else we will all be crushed by the horror of it all.

That is why the belittling of children is all around us. Themes of abortion-related guilt, rage and anger are pervasive in modern music, art and films. “Evil child” movies, like Alien and The Omen, reflect the demonization of children. The “evil baby” is our worst nightmare–something society must destroy before it destroys us.

This is just one of many ways that our culture has been ravaged by the haunting memory of aborted children. Far too many women and men have tried to contain and control this horror through aggression and the rejection of nurturing instincts. They have allowed life-giving, tender, and loving ways to be replaced with mockery, violence, and destruction.

These are the truths recorded for all to see in the broken face of Marita’s cherished doll. It was a shattered face. It was the mirror image of Marita’s own fractured self.

Theresa Karminski Burke, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, author of Rachel’s Vineyard, and director of The Center For Post Abortion Healing, P.O. Box 195, Bridgeport, PA 19405, (610) 626-4006. This article is an excerpt from her forthcoming book, Forbidden Grief. Copyright 1997 Theresa Karminski Burke.

Originally printed in The Post-Abortion Review, 6(1), Winter 1988. Copyright 1988, Elliot Institute.