On a trip home recently to visit family, I met Brenda, age 67, at a neighborhood gathering. The strange story she told us lit up the dinner table. I had just mentioned I wrote a middle-grade novel about a clairvoyant child, and Brenda’s husband said that Brenda, who was back in the kitchen, had three “imaginary friends” whom she constantly played with when she was a little girl.
I had done a lot of reading about children’s so-called imaginary friends, and I knew what the “experts” with their Ph.D.s said about them: for a variety of reasons, often having to do with loneliness, children manage to hallucinate their playmates, project them out into space, and enjoy them.
I also knew that many of these children, once they grow into adulthood, insist that their little friends were real — the internet is full of such testimony. They claim their friends were spirits, with a life of their own, not at all imagined. Long interested in paranormal reality, I decided to get at the truth about Brenda’s friends. Two days later I interviewed her in depth.
Brenda turned out to be a past chapter president of an international woman’s organization, a past executive director of a child advocacy center, and a past executive director of a pro bono lawyer’s program. This highly intelligent and vital woman had impressive credentials. I knew she was someone I could trust, someone who wouldn’t make things up or even exaggerate. This is what she told me.
She grew up in a house with loving parents and a sister six years her senior. She had no playmates her own age and surmised that her loneliness drew her friends, three girls her own age, to her. Their names were Francie, Belikoma and Gopi. She played with them everyday until she went to kindergarten. During the summer between kindergarten and first grade, they showed up again. They swam with her in the nearby bay. They wore their regular clothes, not bathing suits, but never seemed to get wet. One day the leader, Gopi, drowned.
I found this surprising claim intensely interesting and asked Brenda a series of questions. Did she, a child of 6, witness the drowning? Was she upset, distraught? Were Francie and Belikoma distraught? What happened next? Her answer was not what you would expect. Brenda did not witness the drowning. Somehow she just knew that Gopi drowned. Brenda does not remember being distraught at all, even though she would never see any of the three again. Thinking back, she remembers feeling that her friends had become a little boring. It was as if their presence could not compete with her new school friends, and they knew it. The drowning was not literal; it was a symbol of their permanent departure.
But they played an important role for Brenda before kindergarten. They were always present, always accessible. And they constantly communicated, though not in words. Their mode of expression, as Brenda remembers it, was telepathic. Each of the playmates had a distinct personality, but Brenda doesn’t remember naming them. Their faces were mobile and fit the conversation. Brenda never doubted their love for her, and she returned their love.
How did her parents deal with the strange situation? They took her to a psychiatrist, who wisely counseled them not to worry. So they went along with their little girl’s demand that three extra chairs be set at the table. Brenda doesn’t remember their actually eating and is certain they didn’t “pass the bread.” Today she doesn’t recall a single episode of being embarrassed about her friends or disapproved of by anyone.
What does Brenda take away from her vivid early memories? Did the questions a professional like me bombarded her with loosen her belief in the reality of her friends? After all was said, might they have been imagined? “Not a chance,” she said. “I know what it means to imagine something. We all do. These were spirits with a life of their own. I believe they came to me because I was lonely, but I also believe they had something to gain by coming.”
What about all those dismissals by the professionals? Clinical psychiatrist Eileen Kennedy-Moore speaks for most of them. In Psychology Today she writes, “According to Marjorie Taylor and her colleagues at the University of Oregon, by age 7, about 37 percent of children take imaginative play a step farther and create an invisible friend.” She goes on to say, “On the other hand, if it’s not too much trouble, go ahead (and) play along. Set an extra place at the table for the imaginary friend, if your child asks you to do so … An imaginary friend is a unique and magical expression of your child’s imagination, so let your child be in charge of it.”
Rebecca Rosen comes to a different conclusion. In her blog she writes, “Children’s imaginary friends are often Spirits — usually guides or angels — who are making their presence known in a friendly, non-threatening way. I used to have them as a kid. My parents thought I was crazy at the time until I discovered my gift. Turns out I was talking with my spirit guides.”
Perhaps the most charming testimony for this other view comes from a girl whose mother posted her daughter’s 11 stick-figure drawings and running commentary on the 'net. Written in the child’s own hand, it reads, “This is Lisa. She is my friend. My mom and dad cant see her so they sed she is an imaganery friend. Lisa is a nice friend.”
In my view there is a single overarching reason for the professional’s quick dismissal of Lisa’s realness: She doesn’t fit the materialist paradigm they learned in graduate school, and that paradigm says that spirits aren’t real. Brenda knows better, and she, and thousands of others like her, are, in my view, the true experts.
Stafford Betty is a professor of religious studies at Cal State Bakersfield and the author of 10 books, divided equally between fiction and nonfiction.