The very special friend that I invented as a child
Eleanor Tucker is fascinated by evidence that children's imaginary pals are more widespread than ever. Especially as she had one herself...
In the 1970s, when I was at primary school, I had a friend. He was the sort of friend who would nowadays alert social services. Because he wasn't a child. And he wasn't a girl. No, he was in his 30s. He had a beard. And his name was Klas.
Klas was my imaginary friend. He wasn't about all the time, because he lived near my grandmother in a white house by the station, about half an hour's drive from ours. But as I grew up, he was alluded to. Mentioned. Blamed, even. If I talked when nobody was around, it was to Klas. If I sometimes played without my sister, I was playing with Klas.
It seemed quite normal at the time to have an imaginary friend with a Scandinavian-sounding name and facial hair. But lots of things pass for normal when you're a kid. By the time I went to secondary school, Klas had stopped visiting. I filed him away under "the past" and forgot about him, until a book I read recently jogged my memory and I mentioned him to my husband. He raised an eyebrow. "He doesn't sound like your average imaginary friend, if there is such a thing any more ... "
It turns out that there is. The book, Who Framed Klaris Cliff? by Nikki Sheehan, creates a world where imaginary friends have become the enemy. It's a young adult novel that tells the story of Joseph, an ordinary boy with an imaginary friend called Klaris who finds himself in the firing line in a world that has grown paranoid about imaginary friends. Anyone found harbouring an imaginary person is set for the "cosh", an operation that destroys your imagination so the imaginary friend has nowhere to live.
As part of her research, Sheehan discovered that rather than being an outdated phenomenon, a reminder of simpler times, imaginary friends might actually be more common nowadays. But why? First, it's probably just a more accurate representation of the way that children play. "For most of the 20th century the prevailing attitude was that imaginary playmates were a sign of insecurity and latent neurosis, so people may have been less inclined to admit to such flights of fancy."
Now imaginary friends are mainstream. Switch on CBeebies and you'll find Lola, of Charlie & Lola, chatting to Soren Lorensen, her Nordic-sounding invisible playmate. Maybe he knows Klas.
Sheehan also suggests that within smaller family units, children these days are more likely to play in a certain solitary way, which creates an environment that is welcoming to imaginary friends. As part of her research, she spoke to Anna Roby, from the Max Planck Child Study Centre in Manchester, who found that half of the children she interviewed with imaginary friends were indeed first or only children. "But making up friends is not necessarily an indicator of loneliness," Sheehan says.
Imaginary friends come in a huge range of guises, as educational psychologist Karen Majors discovered. They might be smaller versions of the children themselves; humans or sometimes animals; based on real people or TV characters; single or multiple; and varied in terms of gender, age and temperament.
Imaginary companions were also reported as sometimes "having lives away from the child and showing independence of will", Majors says.
This describes my own friend, Klas. He didn't even care to live that locally. Majors explains that when imaginary companions are not always compliant and show unfriendly behaviour, this serves to increase the interest of the child. After all, who wants to be surrounded by yes men?
Klaris, the imaginary friend in Sheehan's novel, was certainly not compliant. So what led her to create a character like this in the first place? "A strange thing," says Sheehan. "A recurring imaginary friend: she was a girl of about nine or 10 whose name began with the letters 'Al' – she was imagined by my brother, myself, and decades later, my own daughter.
"In all three cases, she was nice but bossy – like a big sister. Was this just a coincidence or was something else going on? When she was reincarnated the third time, I decided to write about imaginary friends, and among the many fascinating things I found in my research was the fact that in some places, including Japan, there are people who believe that imaginary friends are protective spirits who watch over children. Sometimes they are dead ancestors and sometimes just body-less beings who find themselves needed. I liked that idea, and from there grew Klaris, and a whole world where imaginary friends had substance, free will and people prepared to defend them."
Karen Majors' work certainly reinforces the idea of imaginary friends being "needed" – to overcome boredom and provide companionship or entertainment, to help express feelings and even for support during difficult times.
Intrigued by the idea that imaginary friends have a purpose, I asked around – had anyone I know imagined one? I was surprised how often the answer was yes.
Julie Mayhew's experience was the first on Majors' list, and her imaginary friends came in the form of siblings. "I was an only child and would watch my school friends fighting and bickering with their siblings, mesmerised by it. So when I was about eight, I created my own brothers and sisters.
"I had a much older brother, who was probably my favourite: level-headed and protective, though sometimes indifferent, which was annoying. I had an older sister who was nothing like me. I was a good, quiet girl – she was blonde and outrageous, always getting into dramas that I could tut and gasp at. Then I had a little sister, who was created more in my image.
"I even went to the lengths of finding pictures of models in the Littlewoods catalogue that looked most like how I imagined them and cutting them out."
Lucy Inglis went down the television character route. "My imaginary friend was Zebedee. Growing up in an isolated village, there were no other girls my age to make friends with, so I suppose I invented my own. I was a huge fan of The Magic Roundabout and Zebedee was one of my first words. My mother soon realised I was holding extended conversations with a puppet on a spring as if he were really by my side, independent of the programme.
"We did everything together and, of course, if I did anything wrong, Zebedee was the real culprit. This lasted into the first year of school when, sadly, reality got in the way of an excellent friendship."
It's no coincidence that the people keenest to tell me about their imaginary friends are women.
According to Marjorie Taylor, of the University of Oregon and author of Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them, boys and girls are involved in imaginary play to the same extent, but while girls are likely to invent companions, boys tend to impersonate imaginary characters.
Catherine Doran's experience is typical of this.
"My two imaginary friends, Jolene and Carly, sat on my left shoulder. Very often they became my conscience, too – I would talk over an idea with them and if it seemed like a bad one they would battle with each other about how to tell me – inevitably I listened. I think it made me a very good child."
In the same way that her main character, Joseph, has to delve into the depths of family life to escape the "cosh", Sheehan turned detective to get to the bottom of her own recurring imaginary friend.
"I spoke to my mum, Pat. Realising that I was starting to sound like a sideshow clairvoyant, I asked if there was anyone in the family who died young whose name began with an A.
"She went quiet for a moment, then told me about her sister Annie.
"Annie's heart had been irreparably damaged by rheumatic fever. Annie's death marked my family so profoundly that her memory was passed on to the next generation." Sheehan's book is as thought-provoking as it is moving.
When I put it down, I started thinking about Klas again.
Was he a provider of entertainment and companion-ship? I don't think so: with a sister so close in age I had a playmate by my side all during my childhood.
Was he an emotional support?
Klas came and went as he pleased, and I didn't recall ever confiding in him.
So maybe, like Sheehan's recurring imaginary friend, he was some kind of protective spirit. A dead ancestor? I looked over to ask my husband what he thought, but I didn't need to. There he was: a man, bearded, in his 30s (until recently). Suddenly, I knew who Klas was. Reader, I married him.
WHO FRAMED KLARIS CLIFF? BY NIKKI SHEEHAN IS OUT NOW