Uncanny Valley of the Dolls

Zefyr Lisowski
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My favorite photo of the artist Greer Lankton was taken in the bathtub. She is young, just twenty-six, and her blond bob is slightly wet, several strands tucked behind her ears. Her shoulder bones stick out, birdlike, from her bare back; her knees are pressed tightly against her chest. She appears to be beaming, but there’s a slight discomfort in her eyes.

In the photo, taken by Eric Kroll in 1984, she’s confined to the lower sixth of the picture. The bathtub is full of suds. Around her, occupying the majority of the frame, are seven of the dolls she made. One doll is gender-ambiguous, with sagging breasts and a penis protruding as if from a birth canal; two smaller dolls are perched on a windowsill, with pale, sticklike legs and rosy nipples; a bald-headed, blue-lipsticked figure holds an amber bottle in her lacquered hand; a fat doll has big breasts and a beautiful wide stomach circumscribed by a thick pink ribbon and frilly lace right below the belly button; a partially assembled wire-and-cloth armature hangs on the wall; and in the foreground of the picture, sitting on the tub in front of Greer, is a doll that’s bigger than her, with skin the color of undyed plaster and hair like a mass of electrical wires, red eye shadow making two deep Vs underneath her eyes, and between her breasts is etched a bloody cross that drips red onto the corset compressing her ribs.

Greer’s creations, like all dolls, are uncanny: they are like us, but not. In his 1913 essay “The Unfortunate Fate of Childhood Dolls,” Rainer Maria Rilke writes that a doll cannot be made into a person, or even a thing. Dolls, he notes circularly, are ultimately only dolls, fundamentally strangers to us humans. Greer, who is best known for the dolls she handcrafted from the ’70s through the early ’90s, found companionship in that strangeness. She fashioned gossamer-thin eyelashes and eyebrows, gently curving fingers with methodically painted lilac and periwinkle tips, expertly coiffed wigs set onto heads just several inches across in diameter. Sometimes they appear to be laughing haughtily, but mainly her dolls look unhappy, leering, starved. Perhaps this is because Greer loved “unusually distressing beauty,” bodies outside normative standards of gorgeousness: ones that are too much, too thin, or too thick. She made dolls that look like the bodies she loved. “I think when I’m making [my dolls],” she said, “something from me goes into them.”

 Unlike her dolls, Greer was conventionally attractive, with pointed, fawn-like features and light radiating from the wide, toothy smile that occasionally broke across her face. While Greer’s beauty could be intense (all high cheekbones and exposed ribs), it was a beauty she built herself, with a care that was as present in her own being as it was in her dolls. She came out as trans at just twenty years old, to what was, according to her diaries, a largely unsupportive world, and she found herself in her beauty, built whole theories around it. (She regularly laid around talking about beauty, her lifelong friend and sometimes lover, David Newcomb, told me.) But her work also suggests how being an object of desire conceals something more sinister. Her dolls—and her life—speak to the curdle of misrecognition caused by that beauty. Being beautiful means having access to things that those who are not beautiful are refused: dates, money, attention, institutional and otherwise. But it can also mean not having anything besides beauty itself—and that one is confined to being the muse instead of the artist. 

Critics didn’t necessarily see that same beauty in her work. Marc Lida, in the New York City paper The West Side Spirit, called Greer’s exhibits “very disturbing”; Mary Thomas, in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, dubbed her final exhibition, which was held at the Mattress Factory, “victim art”; Jan Avgikos, in Artforum, called her work in the 1995 Whitney Biennial “hideously glamorous.” True, Greer’s work unnerves, in that the dolls look almost alive, but not quite. Instead, they exist in a liminal space: the uncanny valley, a term the roboticist Masahiro Mori coined to describe the point at which a robot almost resembles a human. It derives from Freud’s concept of the uncanny as a hidden thing that was once familiar, and that has reemerged. To the transphobic viewer, we trans women fall into this gap. Our beauty, constructed against a society that fetishizes and hates us simultaneously, is abject, and Greer’s dolls are too. They’re not gorgeous in the way most women are, but maybe in the way trans women are—a beauty shaped by and against societal expectations. We love ourselves out of necessity when we’re around others who don’t. Greer explicitly linked her own beauty to her art. “Ever since I was little,” she said in a 1984 interview, “I wanted to be a girl. It was an art piece deciding who I was going to be, the process of making myself pretty.” 

Photographer unknown, c. 1983

But after she transitioned, Greer rarely referred to herself as a woman in interviews. She identified as a woman, she explained, mostly because that was what she looked like. Her dolls, too, resist fixed meanings or identifications; they look like, instead of being something essential: their genitals shift regularly, and their faces rearrange themselves and are split and reconstructed and stitched back together from the pieces of one another. As her work suggests, perhaps beauty is a dynamic action, one with the capacity to change. Perhaps beauty is what you do when you’re told that you scare others. 

I first learned about Greer Lankton through a Facebook message from another trans woman in 2017—four years after I had come out as trans and one year after I had started taking hormones. We’d met in a trans-specific arts scene in New York in which everyone was hooking up with one another, a scene that was notorious among trans people across the country; I had moved from North Carolina to be a part of it. The woman and I had been on several dates, but ultimately settled into a close friendship, trading DMs and texts and sharing drinks with each other. A retrospective of Greer’s life and work had opened and closed in 2014, the year before I’d moved to New York, and she sent me an article about it. When she first read about Greer, my friend said in her message, she’d cried. Greer’s dolls—stunning, prickly, lovely—mirrored how I felt about my own body: they were alluring and off-putting alike. 

Photo by Greer Lankton, 1980s

Listen: When I first started to transition myself, I was terrified of how rapidly my body was changing: breasts billowing out, body hair vanishing seemingly overnight. So I learned to make myself beautiful to contain the fear, to channel it into presence instead. I comparison-shopped different brands of crimson and coral lipstick, drew my eyebrows on, taught myself to sway from side to side to emphasize my gently swelling hips. And gradually, as I beautified myself (as I was able to beautify myself—beauty, like most things, follows racial and abled lines of power), life became easier. I experienced less street harassment, more employment opportunities. I was quickly learning how I had to look to survive, and I resented that knowledge. Beauty, for me, became simultaneously a shield, a way to dream of a better world, and a violence in what it granted me. In the photo accompanying the article my friend sent, the dolls appeared to struggle with that same burden, hungering under the sharp beam of others’ perceptions. Look at me, they seemed to demand, their bodies rejecting or meeting those gazes. 

“I love this,” I messaged her, and I started to cry as well. I had been working so hard at my own beauty that when I first saw the photo of Greer and her dolls in the bathtub, I was startled to see that the dolls rejected the very gaze I had been catering to. Like a light glowing from within, they were beautiful in a way I didn’t think possible. It was a beauty I didn’t even know I wanted until I saw it, after which there was nothing I wanted more. 


Greer was born to a Presbyterian family in Flint, Michigan, in 1958. Her father, the minister of the local church, announced her birth by spelling out it’s a boy on the church’s sign. She was a feminine child, tying a washcloth over her head into pigtails and craving what she later termed “the glamour of a hairdo and lipstick.” In a 1996 reflection on her early childhood, she noted, “I never was a flaming faggot… I was atomic.” According to Greer, her parents’ support often wavered between encouragement and disapproval. Their vexed relationship was only worsened by the profound sense of betrayal she felt about their complicity in the childhood sexual abuse she suffered, from age five onward, at the hands of her maternal grandfather. She failed to receive the protection she deserved.

But nevertheless, Greer endured. She lit up a room with her presence, friends and family said. Throughout her teenage and preteen years, she developed movement and art practices: gymnastics, cheerleading, painting, and doll-making. According to her childhood friend Joyce Randall Senechal, she made her first dolls in middle school, one of which was a life-size teenage boy with long brown hair and a STONED AGAIN T-shirt. He looked like her at the time: she always wore her hair long. She built the doll out of old sewn-together T-shirts and acrylic paint, and this set a pattern: Greer would construct dolls out of spare materials she found lying around, using wire coat hangers and soda bottles and torn-up umbrellas to make their skeletons, and building out their musculature with clothes she ripped into strips, adding glass eyes to complete the look. “My doll obsession manifest[ed] itself at a very young age,” she wrote when she was eighteen. “Dolls became more important than friends.… I feel my dolls in particular are very strong statements about ‘the human condition’; by mirroring our exteriors they capture our souls.”

Even before her hormonal transition, Greer had been living as a woman. At the 1976 alumni show at the Art Institute of Chicago, which she attended for a year after graduating early from high school, Greer dressed up in a woman suit: a large doll she’d made from cloth and hollowed out, and whom she called Madame Eadie. The doll was voluptuous, without genitalia. In The Chicago Sun-Times’ review of the show, Greer was misnamed and misgendered, the suit was singled out as the most lurid part of the opening, and Greer’s thinness and Eadie’s fatness were both emphasized. Greer in the Eadie suit was described as someone “who weighs 120 pounds but dressed up as a grotesque, overweight woman with her belly button hanging out”—the kind of derogatory language that would be used to characterize her work for the rest of her life. In her brief remarks to the Sun-Times, Greer insisted that Eadie was fashionable, not grotesque—which I take as genuine, despite her intense anorexia and hatred of her own body. (“Anything over three digits is a danger zone,” she once painted on her bathroom scale.) The journalist, however, viewed her remarks as merely a “claim.”

In addition to her remarks, Greer’s movements in the suit showed how positively she felt about it. She continued wearing it at college at Pratt Institute, where—at times—she was shy, awkward, and withdrawn. But “when Greer wore Madame Eadie,” her Pratt friend Karen Karuza told me, “she was the most confident and magnetic person in the room.” There exists little public reflection from Greer on why she made her dolls, but perhaps they became a way for her to model a life before she lived it, a twinning that would continue through her career. Eadie’s confidence—like that of Divine, one of Greer’s idols—was aspirational for the woman she would become.

At nineteen, after being assaulted at a bar, Greer had a mental breakdown, tried to kill herself, and checked herself into Riverside Hospital in Kankakee, Illinois. She was institutionalized for over two months—the first of several similar incidents in her life. According to case notes, the providers at Riverside often focused on medicating and pathologizing her, rather than on exploring why she was depressed. Later, Greer maintained that they placed too much emphasis on her transness. Treatment notes from the following year describe a person with “strong feminine interests,” but in later interviews, she characterized this period as filled with awkward feelings more than with explicit dysphoria. “I was never a man,” she said, “just a tortured boy.” The hospital forced her sexuality and gender into binaries, telling her she had to choose between being gay and being a woman: she could not be both. Following her hospitalization and a brief period of “trying to be macho,” as Joyce Randall Senechal described it, Greer went on hormones. 

Two years after her hospitalization, she went to see a surgeon in Youngstown, Ohio, for her vaginoplasty; owing to the flurry of mental health diagnoses she had received during and after her psych-ward stay, she was rejected by several other doctors. She had crowdfunded her surgery through her father’s church—in a moment of support for her transition—and ultimately used the money to pay out of pocket for a less reputable surgeon who operated on the side, without medical oversight. Retrospectively, she expressed ambivalence about the surgery. She had felt rushed by both her parents and the medical establishment, and this pressure had resulted in a subpar job. In a 1984 interview, Greer called this doctor’s practice “the K-Mart of sex change operations.”

After her surgery, Greer’s career took off. By the time she was twenty-five, she had appeared in a group show at the MoMA PS1, and had had her first solo show at her friend Dean Savard’s gallery, Civilian Warfare, in New York’s East Village. “She pursues a deeper intimacy with human anguish and its multiform disguises than many older artists ever dare to deal with, or experience,” the novelist and critic Gary Indiana wrote of the show. He went on to detail the dolls on display: a blood-drenched woman with a semi-erect penis birthing a group of “pepper-shaped” babies attached to a zippered egg sac (Hermaphrodite); a flat-chested, broad-shouldered gymnast bending backward to reveal her vagina, staring between her legs with blackened eyes at the viewer (Pussy Backbend); a dark-haired boy in an athletic outfit with an erection springing out of his shorts into his hand (Boy). In the preoccupations of the show—childbirth, acrobatics, sexuality, the abject, despair—we see the preoccupations of Greer’s work and life. 

That attention ebbed and flowed throughout her life. By the late ’80s, she was in the throes of a turbulent marriage to Paul Monroe, a dressmaker and jeweler, and her work—which she displayed publicly in the windows of his East Village boutique, Einsteins—had seemingly fallen out of favor. She divorced Monroe shortly after he allegedly tried to kill her. (Today, Monroe has an Instagram feed dedicated to Greer’s memory.) Trying to detox, Greer moved to Chicago in 1991. There, she distanced herself from many of the people in her life—although she did gain new friends, like Chicago club kid and her apprentice dollmaker Jojo Baby. She received some renewed attention in her last two years, with invitations to be a part of the Whitney and Venice Biennials, and during her retrospective at the Mattress Factory, but after that show, Greer was dead. The papers that had ignored her during her life wrote glowing obituaries.

In an interview with i-D magazine in 1985, before she left New York, Greer was asked if her dolls “have problems.” “Yes,” she said. “Eating disorders, depression, they can’t get jobs, their apartment’s too small… all the normal problems all of us have. They stay up too late, smoke too much.” It would be easy to read Greer’s own troubles—drug addiction, romantic unfulfillment, alleged abuse by her intimate partner and family, and above all loneliness—as shaping the work she made. After all, she literally put herself into her art. In an interview, Jojo Baby said that when Greer sewed, she’d accidentally cut her fingers, bleed inside the dolls. 

But trans women’s art is reduced to autobiography each day. Invariably, everything we make is viewed through the lens of memoir, as opposed to something wholly original. And while Greer’s work was admittedly an expression of herself, it was also more than that. She had a life outside of her dolls, and her dolls existed apart from her. Reading her works through the narrow keyhole of her pain eschews their complexity, the multitudes of moods, feelings, and characteristics they both contain and evoke: they’re mischievous, scary, and seductive in equal measure. It’s tempting to say that Greer’s work was her life, but that’s also too simplistic. She lived beyond her work; her life was filled with the complexities of being an artist, yes, but also an individual and a trans woman. To remember her solely as a tragic figure—and her work as yoked exclusively to her suffering—does a disservice to her actual life. 


I suspect that many other trans women have experienced awakenings similar to the one I had in response to Greer’s work. I suspect this because so many other trans writers have written about her. There has been a renaissance in pieces about Greer over the past several years, following the digitization of her archives and the publication of her 1977 sketchbook, which she worked on during the year she decided to hormonally transition. Most recent reviews and essays have been by trans women, and most, in turn, contextualize her within a larger ecosphere of trans women. Greer, the reviews emphasize, was like us: a sister lost to time.

This focus on Greer in terms of her connection to a trans community makes sense. Most of the cultural production about her prior to the past several years—obituaries and several pieces in The New Yorker and Artnet following her 2014 New York retrospective, the very exhibit my friend pointed me to in her initial Facebook message—framed her as an artist existing by herself, absent of any community. 

But Greer, as both an artist and a person, didn’t stand alone, nor did she have a simplistically supportive relationship with other trans women, as some current writing about her suggests. In interview after interview, she demarcates firm boundaries between herself and other trans women. But she also occasionally let them into her life. It was complicated. “I always love to meet transsexuals,” she said, “but few are friends.” Yet the relationships she did have are essential to understanding her life and work; the ambivalence she felt toward herself and others prevails. 

Photo by Greer Lankton, c. 1985

In a 1992 letter to her friend Jan, Greer mentioned one woman, Regan, whom she’d known for around fifteen years. Greer wrote at length about how much Regan meant to her: As “a transsexual recovering from heroin + cocaine,” Regan had a lot in common with Greer, and for a time, the two were even lovers. “I love her so much,” Greer said. Regan was dying of AIDS then, and Greer believed there was nothing she could do to alleviate her friend’s pain. She felt she had failed both her friend and herself. In the same letter, she noted, “My parents are very proud of how far I’ve come, but I feel like I’m just surviving. Not that I don’t have BRIGHT moments but it’s hard and I’m lonely.” Her complex relationship with Regan parallels her relationship with her dolls. 

There were other trans women that Greer shared space with—notably the model Teri Toye, whom she tried to pursue a friendship with in the ’80s, when they were both in New York. She was rebuffed. Toye reportedly thought that people would gawk if they saw the two of them together, telling Greer, “That’s what they want.” Greer was crestfallen. But despite, or perhaps because of, these relationships, Greer rarely was asked by interviewers about other trans women. She continued to occasionally hook up with trans femmes, and exchanged letters with several, but those relationships were typically complicated. “I feel so much less of a woman with a woman,” she once said. Because so few interviewers ever asked about these relationships, it’s difficult to ascertain the full extent of her feelings. Regardless, perhaps picking up on her—or society’s—reticence to talk publicly, cisgender friends hesitated to associate her too closely with women like her. Greer’s former roommate and friend Nan Goldin alluded to this in her request to use her portrait in her 1993 book, The Other Side. She wrote: “I’ll only include you if you agree to it—I don’t know how you’ll feel to be in a book where the primary context is transsexuality + drag.” It’s worth noting, though, that Greer said yes to Goldin’s request.

This ambivalence about transness and her trans peers runs through her non-doll work too. In her 1981 watercolor illustration Coming Out of Surgery, Greer dramatizes her vaginoplasty. It’s a simple painting, moving yet almost cartoonish, the background flush with oceanic blues and mossy greens deep as a forest. Slashed across the frame is a pale body, with pointy angles and sharp Egon Schiele breasts—presumably Greer’s. Covering the belly button and forming a panty line is a series of medical-grade bandages, wrapped tightly, dappled pink with blood around the crotch. Through a hole in the bandages, a catheter emerges, bright yellow urine running through it.

But it’s the text laid over the painting that’s most striking: written in pencil above and below her body are what appear to be memories of the surgery. “She feels a new fullness between her legs which seems to continue into her lower abdomen,” Greer writes. “She aches without actually feeling.” The text and painting are both immensely tender, gesturing toward pain and becoming simultaneously. It’s unclear if the fullness she feels is good or not, which is part of the image’s power. It doesn’t assign a negative or positive value judgment. It just describes, as if in a state of light dissociation, the aftereffects of her surgery. The work presents transness without endorsement: a transness that’s inseparable from the art itself, a transness that reflects her relationship with other trans people too.

I think about this watercolor when I see a later photograph of Greer, also in a hospital bed. Based on how soft her face is, I think she’s probably in her mid-twenties, when she had surgery to deepen her navel. Her hospital gown is rolled up to reveal bandages around her stomach. It’s a doubled photograph, two pictures collaged on top of each other: a smaller Greer reclining on a larger Greer, her duplicated leg warmers touching. (I see this as a gesture toward complicated community: On the one hand, there’s not one trans woman in the hospital bed with her, but two. On the other, they’re the same person.) She’s smoking in the photos, looking off to the side. On the larger Greer’s face, we see the beginnings of a smile. A small brown bloodstain peeks out from beneath the folds at the bottom corner of her hospital gown. The stain would have been right around her midriff, but because the gown is pulled all the way up, it hovers instead right by her heart.

Greer sought medical treatment frequently: in psych wards, in rehabs, and above all in hospitals. Being trans and being sick were twinned experiences for her. Even before her operation, her hyper-extensive joints often slid out of place, and her intense asthma caused her excruciating pain. As a result, she constructed both her life and her transness in relationship to the care she got. In college, Greer told friends that her hormone injections were allergy shots to help with asthma. Her drug use might also have been an effort to replicate the experience of care—as was her arts practice. According to her ex-husband, she built her dolls in an operating theater of sorts, placing herself in the role of doctor. Perhaps she imagined her dolls feeling as safe as she did when she worked on them. Perhaps her pain was shared by them.

Throughout her life, the doll Greer worked on the most was the most like her. Greer started building Sissy in 1979, while recovering from her vaginoplasty. Standing five foot eight and weighing 110 pounds, she had the same proportions as Greer herself. In some photos, Sissy stares out wearily, cigarette dangling from her lips; in others, her green eyes (the same shade as Greer’s) are hooded and outlined in black. Sissy had a full set of teeth, which not all Greer’s dolls did, and great scooped-out cheekbones and a pronounced jaw. She made her public debut in 1982—fully naked and covered in jewelry, in the window of Einsteins. Greer placed a hand-lettered sign on a tray next to her that said introducing—SISSY—you’re welcome.

Sissy was a constant presence in Greer’s life; she worked on and rebuilt the doll up until her death. I’d like to think this was a gesture against loneliness, that Sissy served as a form of community to Greer. But also, in some ways, Greer’s relationship with Sissy was fraught. She ripped her dolls open again and again to re-form them, arguably its own kind of violence. And though she worked on her dolls while others were in the room with her, they seem to reflect the isolation she felt elsewhere in her life. 

“Symbols always stand alone,” the trans woman writer Kai Cheng Thom has noted about her own relationship with community. During her life and posthumously, Greer has largely been perceived as a symbol—as a source of aspiration for trans women and as a tragic loner for others. But when she is, Greer’s relationships to both dolls and trans women are glossed over. Our lives, if we long for success or fame—and of course trans women do; being famous is one of the deepest dreams of those for whom every safety net has been taken away—can silo us away from others like us. Greer’s work speaks to the loneliness, violence, and isolation inherent in her pursuit of fame, while pointing to the messy, at times disappointing bonds she formed with other trans women too. 

Before she died, Greer reportedly stripped Sissy to reskin her, changing the doll from her likeness to a lover’s—perhaps another trans woman. As she disassembled the doll, the blank face underneath the face emerged, then its spindly skeleton. And the doll remained like that for a long time. She didn’t get to reassemble the doll before she died, and it hung on a coat hook in the closet of her parents’ house for years. Where the heart should have been, she had painted in red ink the same phrase that went inside each of her dolls, clear as the brown on her hospital gown, or the pink between her legs in Coming Out of Surgery, or the neatly inked lines in her letter about Regan.

 “Love me,” it said. 


Greer died at home on November 18, 1996. She was alone, without her family or friends. She had just completed a retrospective for the Mattress Factory, for which her apartment had been replicated in the museum to be preserved. Per the toxicology report, Greer died of a cocaine overdose; she had started using again to meet the deadlines of her last few shows. According to a letter they wrote to notify friends and family of her death, her parents, who found the body, weren’t surprised. In their letter, they memorialized their daughter’s life, using language that was caring, honest, and dismissive.

“Our daughter led a parallel life. She had a bright, creative side… She also had a dark, destructive side (including drugs, an attraction to the ‘underside’ of society, & abuse of her body). From the first year of life, Lynn [Greer’s mother] thought her journey through life would be ‘different.’ She was born a boy but at 21 she had an operation and became a woman. This never completely healed her difficulties… We supported her emotionally and financially right to the very end.”

Crossed out in the middle of the typewritten paragraph in which they described her life were the words “Things could not have gone better.”

While Greer’s death was ruled an accidental overdose, her illness and previous history of suicidality cast a long shadow over whatever happened. As a child, Greer had checked herself into Riverside because of these impulses, which were also almost certainly related to her sexual trauma. She had attempted to take her own life multiple times: there was one intentional overdose and several accidental ones, in addition to many hospitalizations, both voluntary and involuntary. The fact that Greer was so frequently suicidal is an indictment of the world she lived in—her “difficulties” were not innate, but imposed upon her. But the fact that Greer continued to survive after her first attempt is a testimony to her endurance in the face of hardship nonetheless.

Greer taught Jojo Baby how to make dolls; long after Greer’s death, Jojo said they could still hear Greer’s voice as they worked. Again and again, throughout my interviews, loved ones emphasized how funny Greer was, how much they’d loved talking with her. “She’d hold court,” Karen Karuza said. For those who survived her, these remembered conversations are just as important to their memory as her art is. “Her work was her form of communication,” Nan Goldin said in an article on Greer for The New York Times, but if it was, it’s a one-sided communication: The dolls can’t listen or respond to their audience. Only Greer could do that. Her legacy can never fully encompass who she was. 

Photo by Baird Jones, 1986

“I am haunted,” Kai Cheng Thom writes. “All trans women are. Behind me stretches a line of ghosts—trans women, killed before their time by the hatred of a society that does not know how to love us.… Perhaps this is why trans women dream so deeply—because we walk hand in hand with those in the next world.” No one was with Greer when she died, so it’s impossible to know if her death was a suicide or an accident or the result of overwork and neglect. However, the distinctions between those categories (I believe) are blurrier than most would maintain: all point back to the systems that kept her ill. Regardless of what happened, her art reflects a trans woman who tried several times to die but made beautiful things anyway, who had an unfillable emptiness that she tried to fill nonetheless. Her art has lasted because it walks in that next world too.

If you’re looking for it, suicide is everywhere in Greer’s work. Sissy hanging in the closet. Various dolls’ emaciated frames morphing into omens of death. According to her notes for graduate school applications in the mid-1980s, the seven-foot doll posing in her bathtub with a cross carved into her chest was a reference to suicide. A relative of Greer’s had attempted to kill herself in the exact same way years earlier. 

Dolls is also a slang word for trans women, an irony present in the many profiles written about Greer that compared her to her creations. True, she depicted herself in doll-like poses in pictures throughout her career—including in an ad for her Civilian Warfare show, in which she stretched out fully naked, surrounded by her dolls—but more than that, Greer was a doll herself: a doll who made dolls, a doll surrounded by dolls, alive or not.

Depicting death can also be a way of accessing life, though I don’t know if Greer believed that. I know that when I was most suicidal, I dreamed of making a flip-book cataloging every single way I could die: wrists slit, head gored open, body pancaked by jumping off a tall building. By putting it all down, I thought, I could get those urges out of me, could choose life instead of its absence. But I was too scared to actually commit to the project. Drawing these deaths, I feared, would make them more real. Greer’s dolls, in contrast to my imaginary sketchbook, are real, and live on after her death—but even they, with their pale skin and bony limbs, look kind of dead anyway. 

I can’t speak to her motives or thoughts, although I know for myself that when my own suicidality was at its most intense, it was driven by an unalterable sense of loneliness, a sense that my own existence was a punishment, a mistake. I harbored a bitterness that felt inescapable, and that I know, from so many late-night phone calls, other trans women possess as well: feeling as though the world has foreclosed on your life—because in many ways, it has. 

It’s perhaps hackneyed to say this, but what saved me was the love of others like myself, and the act of embracing the messiness and care present in our lives and work. This complex negotiation echoes what I see in Greer. I, too, have struggled to live. I, too, have struggled to love myself and other trans people. I, too, have realized that loving yourself isn’t a panacea for a world that doesn’t love you. At various times, I’ve felt an urgency to live and a simultaneous urge to die. Those same tensions are in Greer’s work. I finally realized I’ve been drawn to her work for all these years because in it I see myself as well.


When she was in treatment for drug abuse in the 1990s, Greer made a list of her strengths, jotting them down in red Sharpie. There are twenty-eight items, ranging from “compassionate” to “survivor” to “street smart” to “risk-taker” and everything in between. “Love to learn,” one of them says. And toward the end of the list is an entry that is partially scratched out, as if she wanted to say something, stopped herself, and then said it anyway: “wants to be healthy.”

By the end of her life, Greer was deep in the throes of addiction, incessantly calling friends to ask for money, and gradually they stopped seeing her because of this. But in her diaries and photos, she described moments of pleasure, however brief. Notes on a night out on the town, a picture of her beaming next to another trans woman at the Whitney Biennial, a small heart drawn next to the name of a man she’d just had sex with—all are evidence of the happiness and companionship she felt with others. “I will not die,” she wrote in her 1977 journal, shortly before deciding to transition. “I will become.” On the following page is a drawing of her own face in profile, with garish eye shadow and a sneer. In the drawing, she looks tough and fierce, and she looks beautiful. 

All told, Greer made at least three hundred dolls—not including the dolls she remade. Her work is now scattered among various individuals and institutions: private collectors, her ex-husband, David Newcomb, MoMA, and the Mattress Factory, among others. And in this collection—photographs, dolls, journals, and other documentation—her life remains. Greer posing next to a doll, her face heavily lined and crumpled at thirty-six. Greer ten years earlier, staring down the camera over a smoldering cigarette. Greer at twenty, in her freshman year at Pratt, laughing at a joke told by her dorm-mate who snapped the photo. Greer’s face sparks with joy, at least for a moment.

“Greer’s work was like surgery without anesthesia,” Nan Goldin wrote in a New York Times remembrance. “Her work came out of her need to create art to survive, and it took tremendous courage to reveal herself to such an extent.” But survival wasn’t only in her art; it was at the root of her life. 

When Greer was fourteen, she had a tooth extracted, and she drew a comic about it afterward. The drawing, done in pencil, is far more lighthearted than the work she would become famous for, but even then, melancholy still coursed through it. It depicts a bizarre birthing scene, in which a line of “old teeth” is nestled, mostly smiling, into a set of gums. One tooth, blackened with cavities and wearing an expression of resignation, is being yanked out with pliers. “Old tooth being taken up to the big heavenly denture in the sky,” reads the caption.

At the bottom of the image is a small human, “a little man in the mouth whose job is to push the new teeth forward to a new life.” With arms outstretched, he pushes a baby tooth out through the gumline. The teeth are smiling because they’re excited for someone new to arrive. “Welcome,” the tooth with the biggest smile says. In the drawing, we see glimpses of a theme that will pervade her work for the rest of her life: a world where vulnerable things are safe, where they endure. Birth is welcomed, and death doesn’t hurt. I really hope Greer believed this. I hope every one of us dolls continues living.

When I first saw the picture of Greer Lankton in the bathtub seven years ago, I thought her smile was one of pride in her work: Look at what I’ve made! Now I wonder if it was just a way of saying: I’m still here. Don’t forget me. In that photograph and others, surrounded by the things she made, she remains: blond hair swept up behind her ears, like she usually wore it, grinning wide with all her teeth in the flash of the camera, looking for all the world like someone who is still alive.

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