Imaginary Friends

They’re good for kids, so why not for adults?


The word is out-it is now cool for children to have imaginary friends. They've always had them, of course, but, apparently, psychologists had for years taken a dim view of make-believe pals, urging children to outgrow them as soon as possible. Sensible, sane grown-ups, after all, don't talk to people who aren't there. They talk to themselves.

However, a study published recently in the journal Developmental Psychology documents how imaginary friends help children. It encourages adults to leave children and their pretend pals alone.

Why should children have all the fun? Imaginary friends, the study concludes, offer children fun, comfort and companionship-things for which adults are starved. I say bring on the imaginary friends. Start making one up right now, it's not too late.

This idea may not be so far-fetched. Off the top of my head, I can think of three serious examinations of adults with imaginary friends, though each is a work of fiction.

Illustration: Mike Austin

Remember reading Joseph Conrad's The Secret Sharer in high school or college? It's about an insecure novice ship captain who plucks a mysterious man, named Leggatt, from the water during a midnight watch. Leggatt explains he is on the lam, wanted for killing a man, though accidentally. The captain-never named in the story-feels such a connection to Leggatt that he hides him in his cabin, then helps him to escape, learning to become a more confident leader in the process. English professors like to torture their students with the question Was Leggatt really there or did the captain make him up? In 500 words, explain.

In the movie Play It Again, Sam, Woody Allen plays a recently divorced film critic who attempts to date again. This is 1972-vintage, neurotic Allen, of course, the dating doesn't go well. The film critic's only anchor through those insecure times is his idol, Humphrey Bogart, who shows up to give useful advice (actor Jerry Lacy stood in for the late Bogart).

Finally, there's 2002's The Secret Lives of Dentists, in which a dentist realizes that his wife is cheating on him. He's afraid and angry, but, for the sake of his security and his small children, he represses his angst. He also begins to imagine his most difficult patient hanging around with him. Played to perfection by mad-dog comedian Denis Leary, this imaginary friend says all the outraged things that the dentist can't.

If these tales represent the current state of adult/imaginary friend relations, then one thing is clear-adults are a mess. Children play with their imaginary friends. They throw little stuffed-animal parties and lead space armadas and storm castles with them. Grown-ups, on the other hand, seem to use their imaginary friends as therapists.

Maybe that is their best use. Children also turn to imaginary friends for help. As one of the study's researchers observes, "It makes you feel brave to walk by that scary dog next door if you have an invisible tiger by your side." It sure would be handy to have a steadying presence beside you. I could use an imaginary friend with impeccable spelling and a good memory for jokes that he could whisper in my ear when everyone else is trading zingers and I can't think of anything.

But then, imaginary friends can't really know any more than the person who imagines them. And who has time to maintain one? They say that, to have a friend, one must be a friend-after we get through our days of coworkers, clients, bosses and customers, our nights of families and domestic chores, where would we pencil in the imaginary playtime?

An adult may very well conjure up an imaginary friend, only to have it wander off in search of someone more fun to hang out with.

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