When children do it, it is said to be normal; their imaginary friends are thought of as the captivating make-believe workings of a lively mind. When grown-ups do it, and are either silly or plucky enough to tell anyone, they are in danger of being looked at askew (at best) or being told to immediately make an appointment to consult their doctor because such things are ‘not normal’. I, however, have come to think of the accumulation of imaginary friends as a regaining of innocence. I have no problem with imaginary friends, especially de nos jours, these testing days of solitude, when talking to oneself doesn’t quite cut it anymore because, after all, you know your own old, worn patter of responses. Hence, my defence and support for parachuting in an imaginary friend or two to break up the conversation, a new voice that might take the chat, one hopes, in different directions.
Do you think I’m crazy? Well, tell me this: have you ever stood outside a child’s bedroom listening for signs of sleep, waiting for the hush of silence, only to hear the child talking animatedly to a stuffed animal, and probably putting on a different voice as it talks back? I have. I’ve heard bear, bunny, alien: Jimmy, Flopsie, Aliem. (It has to be said, alien didn’t get a great name, one letter change.) It’s charming, and surely an indicator of happiness, contentment, creativity. Yet, we hit a certain age and it all stops for fear of being thought of as mad. But what’s the harm in pretending, for to pretend is to play, and play is fun, and fun is uplifting, and doing things that are uplifting is good for us. I don’t exactly set the table for an imaginary dinner guest, but so what if I did, and moreover, maybe I should. Maybe it would bring me that feeling of having someone here, if only for a moment; maybe someone famous, or a loved one who has died, or someone I have devised and pieced together from a catalogue of characteristics in my head.
I have been reading a short essay by Philip Pullman and this is partly where my thinking has sprung from. In it, he talks about play acting alone as a child, when he was Davy Crockett at the Siege of the Alamo fighting with passion and dying with what he describes as ‘heroic extravagance’ – clutching his chest and staggering and crumpling in full-on, high-drama pretend. Pullman’s argument is that in play acting the child is also tricking its mind and feeling what it is to be brave and heroic, feeling exhilarated and triumphant (I’m assuming the child skips the whole bit about dying, jumps to its feet and runs off into some other swashbuckling adventure). He draws a parallel between play acting on one’s own and reading fiction on one’s own, arguing they are pretty much the same thing except the former is deemed childish after a certain age. Unless we go to drama school or hang out with children, we tend to abandon the stories of the mind for stories on the page and our imaginary friends make way for those conjured up by others, characters given to us by writers and filmmakers and playwrights. Doesn’t need to be so, we can do it perfectly well ourselves. Life is drudge enough right now without denying ourselves access to our imaginary friends, wouldn’t you say?