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Susan Scheftel Ph.D.

Welcome to the Dollhouse

The Therapeutic Power of Miniature Worlds

A recent article in the New York Times provided a déjà vu moment for me and solved a personal mystery. It was about the Thorne miniature rooms, a long-time fixture at the Art Institute of Chicago. Until I read the article, I wondered whether I had made up an experience that I half-remembered from childhood. I had a mental picture of myself as a very young child staring in wonder at tiny dioramas of mysteriously beautiful rooms in a hushed and darkened environment. But I never knew whether there really was such a place, or if it only existed in my imagination.

Art Institute of Chicago
Source: Art Institute of Chicago

Apparently these miniature rooms, perfect replicas of detailed historical interiors were creations of Narcissa Niblack Thorne, the widow of the heir to the Montgomery Ward fortune. Miniatures were her passion since childhood and she designed and created these amazing dioramas. She made 100 rooms in all, 68 of which are in Chicago, the others in museums in Knoxville and Phoenix. []

The detail of these rooms is intricate and exquisite, suggestive of venues for grand gatherings. They are lit from behind and within, such that one has the sense of outdoor space and daylight. No people, just these opulent and tranquil settings, all scaled for elfin inhabitants, temporarily offstage. Now I have proof that I did not dream these rooms, but wonder if they tripped off my own life-long fascination with miniatures.

As a child, my most treasured possession was my dollhouse. The actual house mattered less to me than the inhabitants and their furniture, and over the years, the doll family expanded or, upon occasion, suffered losses, when one of them lost a limb or even a head (as dollhouse dolls are wont to do) or got chewed up by my dog. Their quarters were upgraded from time to time. At one point they moved up in the world from a modest split level to a larger domicile that a kind family friend built for me. It had lights wired in and a front door on a hinge. It was lovely, though mundane in comparison to the grandeur of those dimly recalled rooms. Yet there was something about the quotidien aspect of my doll house that was just what I was after. The family that lived in the house was called the Martins, a name that sounded all American and not slightly unusual and not hard to spell the way my name seemed to me. Life with the Martins followed clear routines and was extremely tame. Rarely did my dollhouse stories have any signs of Aristotelian conflict or drama; instead the ho-hum nature of the doll family’s days seemed to embody an ordinariness and stability that may have represented the kind of structure and routine that even long ago my “inner adult” thought good for children.

I happen to have the privilege of being in a profession where I can have a dollhouse in my office. For child therapists, a dollhouse is a “must have.” It offers the possibility for a child to stage dramas on an acceptable play stage: a safe and small space within which to create narratives that somehow parallel and reveal much about their own inner and outer lives. In dollhouse play, a child can remain untroubled by the painful awareness that direct or literal self-expression might entail. Given a dollhouse, many children will create scenarios that are wished for, despised and/or accurate representations of his or her life. With some children too young to put feelings into words or older ones too frightened to speak directly, the dollhouse tells the tale. I have worked with children where virtually the whole course of treatment conducts itself within the four walls of the dollhouse (actually three since the fourth wall is like the theatrical one, imaginary also).

Some children naturally gravitate to the dollhouse, often girls but not exclusively so. A number of very aggressive boys I have seen over the years have used the dollhouse to stage scenes of grisly violence and cruelty; though neutralized since it is played out upon a tiny and seemingly unthreatening domestic stage. Interestingly in those cases, the aggressive dollhouse play seemed to result in the reduction of overt aggressive behavior outside of my office. The dollhouse material obviously should never be interpreted literally or even biographically; but there is little question that a child who is acting out small dramas in a doll house is working through internal issues about self and family in a productive and symbolic way. One young child whose parents had put a kind of psychological ban on his expression of aggression or ambivalence once invited his father in to join our session and watch the lively, animated and wild world he had created in the dollhouse. It was as if he wanted his father to consider the possibility of a universe in which naughty children did not listen to their parents, and went on wild and wacky adventures which their parents were too “scared” to join them on. The child was a natural story teller and I was encouraged that he wanted to share his doll house story with his father. After that session I received a phone call that the child would not be returning to therapy. I of course knew why. The child’s story and the parent’s reaction indeed reflected a microcosm of his situation, showing the power of dollhouse play for children and in this case a frightened parent. For the child it was indeed useful fantasy. For the parent, the unpredictability of fantasy was all too real and thus verboten.

More withdrawn or obsessive children have to be encouraged to create stories, but can have a delightful time decorating the house itself, sometimes taking an entire session to just arrange the furniture perfectly. I keep a plastic box of accessories which seem to provide endless fascination: cutlery, plates, glasses, play food, toys for toys, tiny pillows and sheets… little things I have been collecting for years (occasionally adult patients find them on their chair or under it: “Oh a tiny teapot, where did that come from?”). The fact that the decorating takes up the time can suggest a hesitation to embark upon a narrative. But this in and of itself can speak volumes, like the child who arranged every room beautifully, but said that the parents did not have a bed; or the child with a mentally ill parent, who scotch-taped a baby’s cradle to the roof of the house.

The favorite items are the ones that “work,” because cute as some things may be, children are truly disappointed when they do not fulfill their role as replicas of reality. I have a bookshelf that has miniature books, yet alas, no print inside; similarly a toy-box with little toys, but they cannot be removed. The youngest children always try.

I have also spent years collecting dollhouse families, but you would be surprised how difficult it is to find dolls that fit the bill. A good dollhouse family is indeed hard to find. In every city and country I visit, I try to go to at least one toy store to see if I can improve upon my collection. Yet the yield proves disappointing. Gone (at least as far as I know) are the intricate dollhouse dolls of my youth, which had highly bendable arms and legs and delicately benign faces. Currently, it seems only a few companies even make doll families and often, as some sensitive little patients of mine have observed, their faces look “scary” or unfriendly.

In my current collection, there has been a bit of a fiasco, because one child undressed most of the dolls in several sittings, without my realizing that getting the clothes back on would be a project! Try putting Cheerio sized underpants on a tiny doll. Finding diverse doll families, is also an issue. I thought I had hit pay dirt when I found a teachers’ catalogue that supplied multi-cultural families. Yet, none of the figures bent (a big problem: they cannot sit down), the skin tones were off (the Asian family looked green) and the faces were unsmiling and downright creepy. There is a company that makes schematic wooden dolls with yarn hair that are diverse, but there is something about the lack of detail in the faces and bodies that has turned literally all of my little patients off, ditto for bendable felt dolls which are never used. My best doll family is part of a set I won at an auction: detailed faces, bendable bodies, different generations: all designed by an artist, Laurie Simmons, who photographs dolls. I have variety of “fairy tale dolls,” that look like knights, kings, queens and princesses. Though my little patients love those dolls, they have virtually never been used as characters in the dollhouse. It seems that the verisimilitude factor is very significant when it comes to play with miniatures. The parallel universe of the dollhouse and its inhabitants at least has to start out looking “real” in order to permit the leap to fantasy. Children are, after all, what the writer Marianne Moore says poets must be: “literalists of the imagination”; needing “imaginary gardens with real toads in them” to really let their minds soar.

Along with the dollhouse is a fleet of cars and again, the ones with doors that open and will accommodate dolls that bend are the favorites. Trips to and from the dollhouse can reflect concerns about separation and reunion. Often the dolls visit a boat that was once a Playmobil Noah’s ark. Don’t think it sails on tranquil seas, for in fact frequently when the dolls get on the boat, it navigates rough waters often inhabited by sharks, and even on occasion, sea monsters. I have seen many adopted children in my practice. Literally with almost every one who has played with a family of dolls in the dollhouse, there has been the creation of a secondary family, in more modest and unstructured dwellings that crop up under my desk or behind my chair.

To my mind, all of this is remarkably useful and therapeutic since dollhouse play weds ordinary elements of everyday life to a fantasy narrative that a child can customize and control. The small size of doll houses mirrors the diminutive stature of children themselves so it suits them. Not too big, not too small, but “just right." Children can handle a lot of powerful thoughts and feelings, as long as they can process them on the right scale, intuitively concordant with both their physical size and developmental level. A dollhouse affords that opportunity. Its smallness is a huge draw. If you want to understand the minds of children, consider looking into (in both senses of the phrase) a dollhouse.


About the Author

Susan Scheftel, Ph.D., is an assistant clinical professor of medical psychology in psychiatry at the Columbia Psychoanalytic Institute for Training and Research