The staff at John & Tony’s Steakhouse in West Chicago know the couple well: There’s 54-year-old John – a genial man with a big, partially toothless smile who works in truck deliveries – and his wife, Jackie, a petite, dark-haired beauty in a wheelchair whose favorite dish is bacon-wrapped dates.
The inseparable pair are staples at John & Tony’s, and it’s their annual dining spot for celebrating Valentine’s Day – but the wait staff are accustomed to taking other reservation calls, too, from people who simply want to sit near them to observe John’s doting love.
Because Jackie is no normal suburban wife; she doesn’t walk, talk, laugh or even eat her beloved dates. Instead, she’s a life-sized doll that John ‘married’ on the Jerry Springer show years ago, but he treats her like she’s a human princess, gazing adoringly at and chatting away to his silent bride (as strangers look on, aghast.)
John and Jackie are the stars of new documentary Silicone Soul, which chronicles the lives of men who’ve fallen in love with dolls – as well as other doll enthusiasts who have interests and motivations separate from sex or romance, such as a female artist who uses dolls for photography and friendship.
In addition to John – who purchased Jackie for $7,000 – the film follows a man named ‘Davecat’ in Detroit who’s married to doll Sidore and owns another, Elena, with whom he’s involved (they’re polyamorous, he says). There’s also a New Jersey husband going by the pseudonym of ‘Ben’ who keeps several dolls in the basement as surrogates for his severely ill wife. And they’re far from the only people choosing such a lifestyle, according to director Melody Gilbert, who was wholly unacquainted with the phenomenon before embarking upon this project – though it immediately fascinated her.
‘I’m really interested in subcultures,’ Gilbert tells DailyMail.com. ‘I’m interested in subcultures to find out more how we’re alike than how we’re different. I think the easy thing to do would be to sensationalize this story; I’m not interested in that. That’s easy. It’s much harder to dig deeper, spend time and find out what really drives these folks.
‘And what I saw – and this takes time to explain, it takes time even watching the film – I developed a lot of compassion and understanding for why people are doing this, especially in this day and age in our society.’
Gilbert was actually contacted several years ago by Long Island professor and psychoanalyst Danielle Knafo, who’d stumbled upon the subculture when a patient told her of his own unorthodox living arrangement.
‘Initially, I did not know,’ she says of the patient. ‘Initially, this patient of mine was telling me about this wonderful relationship he was in; he had had two failed marriages and now he found the love of his life – and, as he described it, it was a little too perfect, in my eyes.
‘Then eventually, like in the fourth session, he revealed to me that it was a doll. I was taken aback; I tried to … stay cool,’ she tells DailyMail.com.
She adds: ‘You know how men call women “dolls” – at first, he was using that, and I thought, “Okay, she’s a doll to him” – and then I realized. I looked at him and I said, “You mean a real doll?” And he goes, “Yeah, yeah.”
‘I had to go through a lot of mixed emotions. You know, I’m a feminist, and suddenly this man telling me that his best relationship with a woman was with a doll – and all these thoughts about objectifying women and blah, blah, blah went through my head. But little by little, I got to know him and his own story, the pain involved in his relationships … I developed sympathy and began understanding the appeal of this kind of relationship.’
She began seeking out similar case studies to further educate herself about the existence of what’s known as iDollators, or people attracted to dolls.
While jokes and jibes about blow-up dolls are rampant in popular culture, such female stand-ins were for years about the only alternatives available. Modern advancements in technology, however, have extended to sexual surrogates, with businesses such as California-based Abyss Creations churning out customized, anatomically-correct, lifelike female dolls.
There’s a waiting list at the Abyss factory in California; creator Matt McMullan describes the process in the film of creating the mold, skeleton and more customized parts of the companions to be shipped across the country.
‘They have online forums for these people who live with dolls, and I posted a request if anybody was open to speaking with me – and quite a few replied and actually wanted their stories heard,’ Dr Knafo tells DailyMail.com. ‘’I think … some of them kind of wanted to hear from me, are they normal, are they abnormal?
‘But I did develop relationships with quite a few of these men, and they opened up to me about their relationships. In the beginning, I thought that most of the men were asocial, they were socially challenged loners, had difficulties with relationships – but what I discovered, over the years: Some of these men are married, some of them have relationships. They have a doll relationship in addition to a human relationship. So it’s not easy to just peg them as one thing.’
In the case of John, he’d been married before – and was actually alerted to the existence of such dolls by his stepson. The marriage disintegrated, however, and John ordered Jackie; the anatomically-correct silicone doll cost him $7,000 brand new, and Jackie requires occasional body replacements due to wear and tear that cost thousands more.
‘I worked my a** off to pay for it, to pay for her,’ he says in the film. ‘She was something I wanted; she was someone I wanted. She was everything I wanted.’
He says: ‘I was married to a flesh-and-blood person for eight years, and it didn’t work out … Now I’m with Jackie, and we’re happy – and it is weird, but it’s good weird. Weird doesn’t necessarily mean bad.’
He takes great pride in dressing Jackie, though his long-suffering niece, who tries desperately to incorporate the unusual couple into family life and even invited them to an awkward Thanksgiving dinner, complains that he ‘dresses her kind of like my grandmother’. He takes her for walks outside of his trailer in the modest retirement neighborhood where he lives and on trips to the zoo and to their favorite restaurant.
‘Real dolls don’t cheat,’ he says in the film. ‘They don’t lie. They don’t steal … She keeps me honest. She keeps me happy. [I’m] trying to learn the zen from her. She’s just so calm and so collected and so much more mature than me.
‘We’re married like any other married couple,’ he adds, while conceding that such a marriage is not deemed legal.
‘We communicate more or less; she has her own body, but we share the same brain,’ he says in the film. ‘She has her own private spaces in here. She knows everything about me; I don’t know everything about her. She has places in my head that she develops independently that are subconscious to me … so that way, she can surprise me.’
The reactions to Jackie run the gamut, to put it mildly. In footage from one of John’s trips with his ‘wife’ to the zoo, long-time staff rave about his friendly demeanor, while strangers gape and question. Ambivalent or supportive reactions often come from perhaps unlikely places; a boss at John & Tony’s, for example, speaks highly of his unconventional regulars.
‘I grew up on the east side of Detroit, and I was the only white guy in the neighborhood,’ the restaurateur says in the film. ‘So I know what it’s like to be different … [It] doesn’t make you bad, just different. He’s a gentle person; he doesn’t bother anyone.’
That’s a point hammered home by Davecat, the articulate Detroit ‘husband’ of Sidore whose dolls have active online presences that he engineers.
‘I would describe myself, essentially, as a synthetic activist and a person who wants to get people to realize that dolls … are not something to be feared, but something beneficial,’ he says in the film. He’s been with Sidore for nearly 20 years; for their tenth anniversary, he purchased matching wedding bands that say ‘Synthetic love lasts forever.’
While Sidore is his wife, he says, the couple are involved in ‘hierarchical polyamory’ with another doll, Elena: ‘Basically, that means that, like, we’re all in love with each other,’ he says in the film. ‘It’s all equal, but Sidore will always be my wife.’
For all his protestations, however, Davecat is clearly aware – keenly – that his paramours are dolls; he takes them apart and explains the mechanics in the film, as well as the eye-brow raising question of cleaning Sidore and Elena.
‘There are special tools, let’s just say, that are involved with that,’ he says, attempting to gloss over the issue in an awkward exchange with Gilbert, though he explains that he’ll put down a bed sheet on the floor before he works to ‘clean that area out’ with ‘basically a bulb with a syringe.’
He says in the film: ‘A large part of it is self-deception. It’s like, “Right, okay, she can’t really love me because she’s not really a she, she’s an it.” On the other hand, she does love me, because I’ve created a personality for her – and that gives her her own sort of spirit, ideas … likes, dislikes, etc.’
For some iDollators, Dr Knafo tells DailyMail.com, the physical aspect of the relationship falls by the wayside after time as the men nurture a different kind of bond with the dolls.
‘Eventually, some of them stop having sex with the dolls, just like in a marriage,’ she says.
Across the board, however, these men do realize that their companions are not capable of mutual feelings, according to Dr Knafo.
‘On one level, they know they’re not real; they’ll show you the mechanics, how they work, their heads, their whatever,’ she tells DailyMail.com. ‘But on another level, when they’re speaking about the dolls, you get the impression that they really believe that these dolls are real people, real humans.
‘They live in this in-between place between fantasy and reality – the reality that the dolls are objects, and the fantasy that they are women who care about them and have personalities and have histories.’
She adds: ‘These guys, some of them spend almost all their waking hours preoccupied with these dolls in some way – whether it’s dressing them or creating stories for them or creating blogs. A lot of them have blogs and twitter accounts – so they’re speaking through these dolls like ventriloquists. They’re like their alter egos.’
Perhaps most interesting in the film is ‘Ben,’ who remains committed to a relationship with his living, breathing wife while enjoying the company of his dolls Marina and Tasha. His cancer patient wife can no longer participate in physical intimacy, while Ben remains a ‘very sexual’ person, Dr Knafo says – so the couple came up with real dolls as a solution.
‘People are judgmental, and unless you’re kind of in our shoes, I guess it’s difficult to understand,’ Ben’s wife says in the film. ‘But you know, here I have a husband who continues to be faithful, and I don’t have to worry about him having safe sex or, you know, going out and finding somebody else and then coming back to me.’
She adds: ‘That’s why I say it’s a win-win, as long as he’s happy and he’s safe. He’s not doing anything wrong. I’m fine with it. I really am.’
She requested that she take a little time before she ‘meet’ the dolls, however – but eventually began helping her husband to dress and style them. Marina, in particular, proved particularly helpful through their personal struggles.
‘My wife was very critically ill; we almost lost her,’ he says in the film. ‘She was in very bad shape … Marina got me through. I just held her at night and talked to her, and we got through that whole thing together.
‘That’s how she became very special … that’s how she got so deep into me.’
For others such as Davecat, however, the allure of dolls has trumped the need for human women altogether.
‘Being able to picture myself with an organic woman, it’s … I’d almost be shooting myself in the foot,’ Davecat says in the film. ‘There’s so many expectations that she would have to uphold.’
He adds: ‘At any point in the relationship, she could just be like, “Yeah, you’re weird, get away from me.” Obviously, she has the right to do that, but if that was an option, then obviously I wouldn’t want an intimate relationship.
‘”The car may crash, so I’m not going to get into the car:” That’s how I think about it these days.’
According to Dr Knafo, Davecat ‘is very much in love with this doll; he considers himself a pioneer in this kind of relationship – and that this is just the beginning. The way we would think of taste – somebody who prefers blondes or redheads – then will prefer an inanimate object.’
Abyss Creation’s McMullan is also behind RealBotix, which has engineered more robot-like products with programmable memory and personality – and conversational capabilities.
‘The interesting thing is … they’re putting AI in these dolls, which is, in effect, turning them into robots – but some [of the men] don’t want that,’ Dr Knafo says of emerging technology. ‘They don’t want a doll who speaks; they want that silent female who doesn’t respond that they can control.’
She adds that ‘technology and humanity is developing to the point where many people in artificial intelligence are predicting that we’ll be marrying robots within 40 years.’
In the meantime, however, the varying rationales and existences of iDollators really challenged director Gilbert’s assumptions and her world view, to some extent. She spent significant time with her case studies, working hard to earn the trust of a subculture that is, understandably, wary of openly telling their stories.
‘It’s a film about companionship and relationships and love and acceptance and secrets, and all those kind of things – that’s what I was trying to do,’ she tells DailyMail.com. ‘Because you know what? It’s easy to make a film about sex dolls. A lot of people are doing that right now. That’s not what I’m doing …I like the balance of the different people in the film.’
She adds: ‘It’s hard to imagine that a documentary about sex dolls would be about creating empathy.’
After researching her subjects and spending time with the me, she says: ‘What I realized is that everyone has a need or desire to love or be loved – and I think that’s really what this is about, and it just took time to see that and spent time with people, because you first hear about it, it’s a little shocking. And … John, with his wife Jackie, I mean, it is so clear to me that he has so much love to give.’
She points out that he’s far from alone, since there’s a waiting list for dolls from a California factory, a business is churning them out in Japan – where there’s even a doll brothel – and a similar establishment has recently opened up in Paris.
‘I don’t advocate this; this is not an advocacy film,’ she tells DailyMail.com. ‘I’m not saying this is the way to go, this is right or wrong or you shouldn’t; I’m just showing that this exists in the world. Not only that, it’s growing, and we’re going to have to deal with that.’