New Brunswick·Feature

Patricia's Dolls: photo essay honours Saint John's 'doll lady'

Patricia Garnett is known to many Saint Johners as "the doll lady." Her story is captured in an award-winning photo essay titled "Patricia's Dolls" by freelance photographer Chris Donovan.

By telling Patricia Garnett's story, photographer hopes to inspire compassion

Patricia Garnett brings her doll Michael for a walk to the corner store in Saint John. She says she never feels lonely when she has one of her dolls with her. 'I had a real baby, and the dolls took the place of the baby,' Garnett said. 'It’s how I come to start taking these dolls out. A person gave me a doll at the hospital when I had my baby. The saddest time in my life was when they took the baby. The dolls help make it better.'

Patricia Garnett sometimes gets strange looks out in public.

From a distance — toting a baby carrier, pushing a stroller, or with a tiny bundle swaddled to her chest — Garnett resembles any other loving Saint John mom.

But up close, there's a difference. The baby's wide blue eyes are plastic and unblinking. The wisps of hair on their little heads are painted on.

Garnett is known in the community as "the doll lady."

When I started to understand Patricia, I felt like I had an obligation to help other people understand her, too.- Chris Donovan, photographer

"I had people ask me before why I have them," she said. "They go, 'that's not a real baby, that's a doll that she has!' I just don't say nothing, I let it go. I don't want an argument with no one."

Garnett, 45, is a warm-hearted west Saint Johner who enjoys reading, puzzles, riding the bus, and writing letters and cards to her friends. But to say her life has been difficult is an understatement.

She suffered brain damage as a baby and has lived with a caretaker all of her life. As a child, she was raped by her father and became pregnant. She gave her son up for adoption and has never met him.

She cares for her dolls to cope with the trauma.

Saint John-born freelance photographer Chris Donovan, 22, met Garnett in 2013 when he approached her for a photograph for his popular Facebook group, Humans of Saint John. They struck up a friendship.

"When I started to understand Patricia, I felt like I had an obligation to help other people understand her, too," Donovan said.

'Taken advantage of her whole life'

He contacted her sister and caregivers to discuss doing a photo essay. They were "a little bit anxious about it, initially," Donovan said.

"That's understandable considering that Patricia is in a vulnerable place. She has been taken advantage her whole life: I didn't want to be part of that taking advantage in any way."

With the full co-operation of Garnett, her family, and caregivers, he shot the photo essay, "Patricia's Dolls," in August 2017. In November, Donovan's work won Gold in the domestic picture category of the College Photographer of the Year competition, an international contest for student photographers that gathered 11,000 submissions worldwide. Donovan placed third in the portfolio category, which takes into account a photographer's overall work.

Donovan hopes the award-winning photo story will help people understand Garnett — and treat her, and others in the community who are dealing with difficult circumstances, with more compassion.

Chris Donovan's full photo essay, "Patricia's Dolls," is published below.

Garnett rides the bus as a way to relax. She knows all of the bus drivers in the city and is proud that all of the drivers know her name. 'The dolls are a real coping mechanism for her,' said her caretaker, Michael Dobbelsteyn. 'Depending on how her days or weeks are going, she will take them out more, or less. She can focus on them and pay attention to them, and they distract her when she is stressed out.'
Garnett writes a letter to her son, asking him to come visit. 'I write my son letters all the time, but I never know where to send them,' she told photographer Chris Donovan. Her son was supposed to meet Garnett when he turned 18, a moment she had looked forward to for years. He is now in his twenties and she has still never met him. Donovan said Garnett regularly writes him letters, as well. 'Patricia has a lot of wisdom if you ask the right questions,' he said, even if she can't always express her thoughts out loud. 'She is a really smart person.'
Garnett’s letter to her son. 'Patricia is incredibly generous,' said Dobbelsteyn. "She'll do things like writing 300 cards and handing them out on the bus, or to people at the hospital: Christmas cards, valentines. We’ve heard from people who have been affected by her kindness. She makes people’s days. She will spend six, seven, eight hours writing cards for all the different seasons.'
Garnett holds her doll Michael as her caretaker, Leah Urquhart, plays with her 10-month-old son, Dominic. Garnett lives at home with the family and another special-needs resident — a living arrangement made possible by the Alternate Family Living Arrangements program administered by the Department of Social Development. Dobbelsteyn said he wishes more people understood Garnett’s story. “When you see someone acting in a way that’s different, or something that might seem odd to you, you might make a rash judgment. But even things that might seem very odd at first, once you find out why she’s doing it, it doesn’t seem that odd at all."
Garnett brings Michael to Walmart to pick out some new clothes for him. While she knows Michael is a doll and not a real child, she still treats him and the other dolls with the utmost care. 'I buy them birthday cakes, I throw a party for them. They are my babies,' she said.
Garnett reads in the library at Key Industries, the employment-first agency where she works. Since 1974, Key has provided a wide range of work opportunities and social programs for individuals with disabilities. 'I do math, reading, puzzles, and games,' she said. 'I like to read.'
Garnett waits for the bus at King Square. The decision to shoot photos of Garnett, Donovan said, was different from many other projects he undertakes. 'Often, I want to get a story out in the world," he said. 'This story, I want to get out in Saint John. I want everyone in Saint John to know her story, because that is what will make her life a little bit more bearable."
Garnett takes pride in knowing all of the bus routes and schedules like the back of her hand. She delights in helping people out when they are lost. When Donovan went out with Garnett to shoot the photos, he said, 'you saw the stares and the whispers. People aren’t malicious. They just don’t know why she has these dolls. But this is an extremely healthy way to deal with trauma. It’s something that doctors agree is a good thing to do, and she’s just doing it naturally.'
Garnett brings her doll to the park near her caretaker’s house. Since Garnett is so regularly seen out in public in Saint John, 'everyone wonders about her story,' Donovan said. 'So it was weird to me that no one had ever tried to tell it.'
Garnett brings Michael to the Exhibition every year. When Donovan went with her this past August, 'she bought tickets to go on some rides with her doll — she wanted to bring him on the rides for kids,' Donovan said. 'But the gatekeepers wouldn't let her on without a 'real kid.' It was infuriating. There were plenty of adults on the rides and I pleaded with one of them and he just wouldn't budge. I thought, 'Maybe if he knew what was going on he wouldn't be such an arsehole.''
Garnett gives her doll Michael a bath in the sink of her caretaker’s home. Her caretaker says she treats her dolls better than many people treat their real babies. Donovan said he shot the photos in black and white because Garnett's is 'a quiet story,' he said. 'It’s contemplative. Black-and-white helps express that. It portrayed to me what she communicated that her day-to-day life is like.'
Garnett feeds her caretaker’s baby, Dominic, as her doll Michael lies on the floor. She loves having a real baby in the house and refers to him as her 'little brother.' Dobbelsteyn said Garnett is a great help with the baby.
Garnett dresses Michael in new clothes after returning from Walmart. She spends most of her money buying new clothes for her dolls. Dobbelsteyn said the amount of time Garnett spends with her dolls tends to vary depending on what's going on in her life. "There are times when her anxiety is worse and she takes her dolls out more," he said. "Sometimes she goes through periods where she feels confident enough not to take them out. Lately, she has been more happy and proud about them. She wants to tell people about them. I don't see why that’s a bad thing."
Garnett goes for a walk with Michael on the west side. The photo story, Donovan said, is an expression of respect for her experiences. "Ultimately, this is a story about someone who is dealing with the trauma of sexual assault," Donovan said. "The other message is that you never know what someone's story is, ever. Every single person is dealing with something. Patricia's was one of those stories that really pushed that home for me."