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

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.

Mike Austin

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.