The Lifecycle of the Imaginary
November 2, 2007 1:18 PM   Subscribe

Who has imaginary friends, and why?

As far as I'm aware, I never had imaginary friends. Awesome dreams, fantastic family, wonderful friends - but no invisible playmates.

Is it a matter of isolation - do they only show up after nobody comes to your birthday party? Is it a cultural thing? I don't recall many tales of Bobo the Fantasyland Dinosaur from my Turkish, Ethiopian, or Romanian friends. Is it a middle- or upper-class phenomenon, that dwindles the closer you get to food stamps? Is there a neurological basis for best friends that live in your head?

To those who had imaginary friends: how were they born? To those who still have them (and I know you're out there): how did they survive?
posted by laughinglikemad to Society & Culture (30 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Here's an awesome article about imaginary friends from Wondertime.

I don't remember having any imaginary friends, and I have very early memories. But my mom said I had two, and they had names (I remember her telling me what I said the names were, but they're weird and made-up and askme is way too high up on Google searches these days.)
posted by peep at 1:47 PM on November 2, 2007

My 4yo son has an imaginary friend named Arrow who materialized right around the time I was pregnant with his younger brother. Arrow's life is a souped-up, cooler version of my son's life. For example, Arrow lives on an overpass and has a forklift in his front yard. We've been hearing about Arrow and his family for about 18 months now. The names and number of Arrow's cousins (2) and siblings (3) have stayed consistent the whole time. This seems like a pretty amazing memory feat for a kid who sometimes forgets he has to go to the bathroom on the way to the bathroom.
posted by selfmedicating at 1:48 PM on November 2, 2007 [6 favorites]

Print version of the Wondertime article.
posted by peep at 1:49 PM on November 2, 2007

I'll bite. The first time I imagined playing and talking to people who didn't exist was after finishing to read a book I didn't want to see end. (In case it matters, I started reading at three.) I started talking to the characters and imagining myself in their world. Sometimes, another book, a movie, or a story would make an impression, and the cast would either expand or one of the existing heroes would morph. A memorable addition--a boy with a lame leg that got squished by a block of cement--was introduced around the time of the Armenian earthquake. And yes, some are still around now--I'm a writer, have been since about 11, and the people I make up speak and interact on the page.

I was not a lonely child. I had many friends and a great family. I wouldn't have said so at the time, but maybe my relationships with them weren't completely satisfying. I certainly remember preferring reading to coming out to play on a few occasions.

I'm from Ukraine, so it's not a phenomenon exclusive to the US. Of course, Ukrainian children at the time usually had fewer toys. I was lucky to have four dolls and shared them with some friends who had none.

I should probably add that most children I knew who had imaginary friends in my town kept them a secret. No one would say, "Don't sit there because you'll squish my invisible friend Alex." Neither I nor anyone I knew told their parents. I would tell only my very best friend. It was a consummation of a friendship of a sort, letting her play with and change the people I created--a little like sharing dolls. Others have done the same.

Lastly but not leastly, I always knew my imaginary friends were imaginary, though I wanted to treat them as real. It never seemed like much of a departure from other popular games, like playing War (Russians against the Nazis with toy guns), or Robin Hood, or Mother-Daughter, or pretending the plumber was a spy and following him all day, recording his every move in a notebook. Or, really, sexual fantasies for adults.

I was never embarrassed by any of this. It was a secret kept simply for the pleasure of having a secret. Inventing other people has always seemed to me as just one more way in which we use our extraordinary faculties of empathy and imagination. But maybe I'm just being optimistic.
posted by whimwit at 2:00 PM on November 2, 2007 [4 favorites]

I never had imaginary friends as a child, but I have them now. I can't reveal their names, but they include a tiny dinosaur, a furry, hyperactive monster and a gay ant.

My friends came into my life after I married my husband. They seemed to develop as a natural extension of our play (we're very silly). They certainly don't fill a void - they just give us a chance to do funny voices and make up stories. I never want to become so grown up that I forget how to play.

Or maybe they're replacements for the children we'll never have... oh, god...
posted by Evangeline at 2:02 PM on November 2, 2007 [5 favorites]

My youngest brother and I both had imaginary friends (I had two, and they had names; he had one, named also). We are separated by many years, but in both cases we were too young to have created them because of any social rejection (2-3 years old). I believe we each kept them until around 5yo. I always assumed it was connected to language acquisition. When we could begin to differentiate ourselves from others around us and had the language to assign identity to ourselves, we could begin to create identity for other things. They weren't secret, in fact they were more like extended family members. We grew up lower-to-middle class in terms of finances, but in a fairly educated household (two college teachers). My own son is now two and he has begun anthropomorphizing inanimate objects. Imaginary friends seems like a reasonable next step. I'm going to check out the article.
posted by cocoagirl at 2:03 PM on November 2, 2007

Cool, selfmedicating! You should log/journal/write that down someplace - that'll be priceless for him later. Sounds like an awesome kid. I'm pretty dern imaginative and I think living on an overpass and having a forklift in the front yard sounds awesomely wicked.

I'm just like laughinglikemad - awesome dreams, fantastic family, wonderful friends - no invisible buddies.
posted by cashman at 2:06 PM on November 2, 2007

A good argument could be made that the majority of Americans, and pretty much everyone in the whole world, believes in, depends on, and routinely talks to an imaginary, omniscient friend.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 2:19 PM on November 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

I was an extremely shy child. I don't remember having fully-formed imaginary friends, but there were a couple of names I liked to toss around which served a similar purpose. Usually I'd find a name I'd like the sound of and write it a lot, pretending it was another person's name. They were more characters than actual friends I could see or talk to.

As I grew, I did the same thing, but turned the names into characters for novels. I wanted to be a great writer when I was seven years old. I never published any novels, but I have a ton of characters in various stages of development hanging out somewhere in my memory.

I wonder if it has more to do with creativity than loneliness.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:42 PM on November 2, 2007

I am from Puerto Rico, and squarely middle-class. My younger sister had an imaginary friend named Vanika. A highlight Vanika's life was that her house burned down.

My sister wasn't lonely and didn't come from a well-to-do family. She wasn't old enought o have suffered thru any peer rejection, and our family was (and still is) very loving and close. What she did have was a crazy-active imagination.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 2:58 PM on November 2, 2007

For as long as I can remember, I have had a running storyline (or two or three) always in the back of my mind, to be brought out and 'lived through' in quiet moments, like when I'm driving or listening to music or doing tedious work or before I fall asleep. Some of the characters that populate the stories are invented for a particular purpose and then discarded, but many are recurring characters that have been with me for years, appearing as called for in deep space or ancient history or a soviet spy plane or where ever, and I guess you could call them imaginary friends, although I don't actually 'talk' to them as if they were with me in whatever real situation I'm in. But they're extremely well fleshed out in my mind and I feel that I know them intimately, and whoever my character is in the story at the time certainly talks to them. They're mostly characters I picked up from books or movies that have been developed or given more facets as needed. I'm not particularly sure why they came about, unless it's that being a voracious reader (esp. of fiction) ever since I learned to read, any thought that flits into my head seems to naturally take the form of dialog, so I would have to invent someone to be talking to, and then it just grew from there. I'm not sure if this is really what you're looking for, though, since they don't usually exist separately from whatever story they're in at the time.
posted by frobozz at 3:03 PM on November 2, 2007 [3 favorites]

I had an invisible friend when I was 3 or 4. When I was at the store with my mom, I wanted to get my friend a telephone. My mom went to the toy section. I threw a tantrum and demanded a real phone because otherwise how I couldn't really talk to my (invisible) friend. My mom actually was a little upset too since she couldn't get it for me as there were other things we needed. No one remembers (or I never shared) the invisible friend's name, but it comes up in stories about me from that age range.

I also had a "dear diary" type friend around 4th grade for a short time, though I'd put that in a different category.
posted by ejaned8 at 3:06 PM on November 2, 2007

I've never, that I remember, had an imaginary friend in the classical sense, even though I played alone a lot as a small kid. I did develop an active fantasy life a la frobozz, most of it a long, epic sf tale with a Mary Sue of myself at the center. There were elements in there from LoTR, Trek, Star Wars, and the Niven/Pournelle CoDominium universe, for the most part, and I have notebooks of things like genealogies, starship sketches, and planetary maps.

Imaginary friends, though? Nah, I'm not weird.
posted by dhartung at 3:13 PM on November 2, 2007

When I was little, my imaginary friend was Marlin Perkins (the guy from Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom). He was very kind, but stopped coming around when I was five or six; I sometimes miss him.

Nowadays I tell stories in my head, like frobozz does... in fact, that post fits me so well it's almost eerie. This has been true since I was seven or eight or so, possibly even earlier, and has always been the case since.

Mine was a middle-class American upbringing, pretty ordinary really. I've always been somewhat anti-social/isolated, but not due to any trauma or some such, and it's not as if I don't have friends. I think the stories (and good old Marlin) have probably helped me to examine my thoughts and feelings over the years.
posted by vorfeed at 3:28 PM on November 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

I remember having an "imaginary" pet puppy when I was little. Imaginary in scare quotes because I never actually believed in it, I just thought it would be fun to jerk my folks around saying things like "Quick! Get up! you just sat down on my puppy" etc. I guess that makes me a bad kid. Serves 'em right for humoring me, amirite?
posted by juv3nal at 3:38 PM on November 2, 2007

Maybe this is off-topic but I have an imaginary friend who was once a real person until the cancer got him. I know there is no afterlife - he's gone for good - but I still feel his presence at times. This is entirely an construction of my brain and I am completely aware that this feeling is completely imaginary, but it's damned nice nonetheless.
posted by three blind mice at 4:02 PM on November 2, 2007

way previously
posted by grumblebee at 4:28 PM on November 2, 2007

Thirty years later, I still miss Bobby. My age and height, with shiny brown hair, he lived in an invisible airplane hanger at the end of our street that had the magical property that once you were inside, you could fly. We spent hours together, flying around and caring for his houseplant collection in the hanger, which numbered in the thousands. He didn't have parents, and would sometimes crawl through my window to sleep with me at night, or hide with me in my closet to read to me (I couldn't read yet).

He moved away right before I went to kindergarten because, he said, I would become too smart for him. I remember spending days crying myself to sleep and not being able to find the big, rolling door to his hanger anymore.

In first grade I asked my mom if she ever had heard where Bobby had moved to and SHE was the one who told me that he was imaginary. Even now, I have a hard time sussing out those memories to figure out how they developed. I do know that Bobby just showed up one day, knocking on our door to ask me to play.

I grew up lower middle class in a very small midwestern refinery town. Both parents were around, but I had a difficult childhood. I did have a little brother, and he had his own imaginary friends. I have a seven-month-old son now and I sometimes wonder if Bobby will stop by again. I hope he knows that he's welcome to.
posted by rumposinc at 4:34 PM on November 2, 2007 [2 favorites]

My son had an imaginary friend named Frank from about 2 1/2 to 5 (he's 14 now). I remember him telling us that he had to get some holes dug in the yard because Frank had to pour the foundation. He worked incredibly hard to get everything ready for Frank and the cement truck. The next day he and Frank were on to something else.

I always thought Frank served as just a handy add-on to his play, most of the projects he was taking on required a team effort and no fellow 4 year old would follow the game plan for as long as it took.
posted by readery at 5:04 PM on November 2, 2007

I had an imaginary friend named Mingee (guessing on the spelling) which probably was my kid way of saying imaginary. Mingee was a boy (I am a girl) and we had grand adventures. I grew up in a middle class Canadian logging town. No children my age were around and my siblings are all quite older than me.

I used to avoid eating new foods such as carrots and peas (yuck) by saying I had already tried them at Mingee's house. This seemed to appease my mom. He drifted away once I hit grade one and had friends to play with. My brother told me later that he actually killed him by running him over with his bike. We laid a wreath made of dandelions at the scene of the accident and I pretended to joke along with it though I secretly believe that is what happened to this day.
posted by beautifulcheese at 5:12 PM on November 2, 2007

Does God count as an imaginary friend? I don't really believe in him but still talk to him.

My almost-seven-year-old has imaginary friends who are all video game characters. This week he's hanging out with Beat, Allegretto, and Chilla (from Eternal Sonata and Kameo). Unlike Whimwit's experience, I have been told not to sit somewhere because I'd squish an imaginary friend and I've helped buckle imaginary friends into seat belts, cut them loose from poles they're tied to, etc. His age-level friends "don't know they're there" when he plays with both at the same time.
posted by Cricket at 5:45 PM on November 2, 2007

As Calvin's Uncle Max once said "Sometimes I think ALL my friends have been imaginary..."

Seriously? I had an imaginary horse named Peeny. In reality it was a wooden fence I could sit on at the end of the garden. I fed it by throwing it grass. Go figure.
posted by brautigan at 6:45 PM on November 2, 2007

I had two imaginary friends named Bewk and Nan. I have no idea where they came from or why. I mostly talked to them on a toy telephone. They were always together. You had to say it "Bewk n' Nan." I haven't thought about that in years. Until I wrote their names down it was always in my head as Book, but it wasn't pronounced like, you know, book. I now feel like an idiot.
posted by wv kay in ga at 7:09 PM on November 2, 2007

My youngest brother had an imaginary friend named avi for a while when he was a toddler. I'm convinced our other brother gave him the idea and made up most of avi's backstory though in an attempt to tease him though.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 7:31 PM on November 2, 2007

I had an invisible friend named Margaret from first to third or fourth grade. I was tight with a few of her friends, especially her kid sister Philippina who was my age. I could enter their invisible world through a zipper in front of me that I unzipped and re-zipped at will, where I had all sorts of neat clothes and sweets, and especially a lot of warm sweaters. Margaret's parents weren't around much and things were always pretty chill hanging out over there in Invisible. I also think I could call Margaret on the phone with a phone that was pretty much next to the zipper. For a short while I had an invisible boyfriend named Wijic, but he was kind of flakey and it just didn't work out.

As I grew older my imagination verged more in the direction of frobozz's. I lived out many very elaborate lives in my head, mostly while riding the school bus or trying to sleep at night. I'm a little less willing to talk about them since I stil have kind of strong emotions about some of that stuff. I don't really do that anymore, partly I think because I no longer ride the bus for several hours a day and don't have as bad insomnia. It's a lot harder to keep a story going in your head.
posted by crinklebat at 8:53 PM on November 2, 2007

I would love to go back in time and have a conversation with my imaginary friend Martin. I remember nothing of our time together. My parents tell me they knew of him, but can tell me nothing about him except that when my (3.5 years younger) sister's imaginary friend showed up his name was also Martin. To this day whenever there's an unidentified sound in their house they will say, sometimes in unison, "Hi Martin." Cheers to mom and dad for playing along I guess.
posted by TV Baby at 11:40 PM on November 3, 2007

From The Jaguar Smile, Salman Rushdie:

In an interview with Omar Cabezas, he revealed that, instead of the imaginary friends some children invented, he had owned, until he was about eighteen, an entirely imaginary dog. Gradually, his friends became fond of the dog, too. They would even borrow it for a couple of days at a time. 'It was a group craziness,' he said, 'that I invented.' Leonel Rugama, the poet, was one of the dog-borrowers. Once Cabezas lent Rugama a book and never got it back. When asked where it was, Rugama replied: 'That sonofabitch dog destroyed it!'

Another dog borrower was a young revolutionary named Roberto Huembes. Like Rugama, Huembes died during the insurrection years, and now was a covered market. Even the dog was dead. 'One day,' Cabezas explained, 'it was run over by a car.'

posted by sushiwiththejury at 11:56 PM on November 3, 2007

My imaginary friend was my stuffed leopard. As a little kid, I just knew he was orange and black, so I called him 'Tiger'. He was my main sidekick, but there were a number of others. When I was about 8, I even wrote biographies about them all. And yes, I love Calvin and Hobbes.

I was a fairly lonely kid, middle class. I was just considerably brighter than any kids I knew my age, and my imagination is truly huge. Funny, all this was quite science-fictiony, yet I wasn't reading that kind of stuff until years later.
posted by Goofyy at 6:54 AM on November 5, 2007

Oh, I forgot to add: Tiger got lost at one point, then was 'reincarnated', as a tiger. I have no idea what happened to that edition. But about 11 years ago I found a plush leopard, in exactly the right shape, at an outlet store. So, Tiger is still around, and I'm now 50. :-)
posted by Goofyy at 6:59 AM on November 5, 2007

Along with a friend (real, not imaginary) we invented a whole crowd of imaginary people. I think it all started as just drawing silly faces, but ultimately these faces and characters became imaginary friends and foes who we would have adventures with in the bush behind my friend's house.

There was Paolo, the Italian pizza chef with this huge moustache, Charlie and Choala, and the fiendish Charlie-Bears who would attack from out of nowhere and chase us through the trees. Whenever I see the Radiohead bear logo I think of the Charlie-bears.

For the record, we were lower-middle class Australian kids, not rich, but well off - we just had (and still do have) overactive imaginations fed by horror movies and comics, but oddly enough, no video games.

I think kids have too many video games and have lost the ability to use their imaginations (god i feel old).

PS- the charlie-bears are still out there, somewhere.
posted by robotot at 6:59 PM on November 12, 2007

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