In the recent blockbuster film Jojo Rabbit, the main character Jojo has an imaginary friend. His friend is Adolf Hitler.
While it is not uncommon for children to have imaginary friends, it is fair to say that making friends with a deceased dictator is. But who are we to judge?
This eloquent book delves deep into the psyche of a number of young children across five different countries, who he meets and spends time with to better understand what having an imaginary friend is like.
The book brings together the findings of interviews with children and their families, with the latest developmental research. Children’s drawings of their imagined friends are also used throughout, showing just how colourful they are: Quack-Quack, Jaffette, and Flower Barbie to name a few.
We are invited to challenge any preconceived notions that we have: that having an imaginary friend is simply frivolous and good fun. Instead, the author poses that by having a clearer understanding the imagined world, we have a better grasp on reality.
When the writer’s now grown-up granddaughter, Cora, was just 3, she had an imaginary friend called Crystal. Cora and Crystal would join the family for afternoon snacks and trips shopping. Although she was imaginary, she was certainly real to Cora. The author keeps coming back to his granddaughter’s experience throughout the book.
Wigger is clever at being able to put himself in the shoes of the young people, including Cora, who believe their friends are real, doing so with respect and good humour. This makes the book a stimulating read for anyone with an interest in children and those that are willing to have their minds stretched.
I have to admit from my own childhood that I do not recall an imaginary friend in particular, though I did have an avid imagination. I also asked a friend recently if her 5-year-old daughter had an imaginary friend, to which she answered: ‘She doesn’t have an imaginary friend, but she wants Harry Potter to be her brother and has sent him a few messages at Hogwarts but that is about it…’
Despite my own lack of experience in these matters, I did find the book a stimulating read.
Wigger admits to his own religious biases within the book: he is a Presbyterian minister. He questions if there could be a connection between a child’s relationship to an invisible friends and our relationship to invisible beings, including angels, ghosts and gods. ‘I began to sense that I was stepping through a looking glass where childhood mingles with reflections of the sacred,’ he shares.
There are two main assumptions that people make when it comes to imaginary friends. One is that it’s only children that have imaginary friends. Wigger mentions a number of adults who claim to have friends that are not real. The second is that the imaginary friend is in human form. Again, this is not necessarily true, and he describes many people he has spoken to whose friends are either animals or objects.
The author references the experiences of Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology, Carl Jung. As an adult he claimed he had regular conversations with imaginary friends, including Elijah, a wise man with a white beard. Later, Elijah appears to morph into a Philemon, an inner voice that guides him.
Wigger admits that this has led a change in his own thinking about imagined friends here, and offers that perhaps that they are in fact saints, or perhaps the children who see them are saints.
During his expedition to Malawi, Wigger makes another discovery. Older children were just as likely to have imaginary friends as toddlers. You therefore do not necessarily outgrow your imaginary friends with ageing.
Invisible Companions also touches on Marjorie Taylor’s ‘theory of mind’ tests which looks into the minds and perceptions of children who do and do have imagined friends, suggesting that those that have imaginary friends often do better in life than those that do not.
If you are looking for a stimulating and mind-expanding read of the subject matter, then look no further than this book. It is packed with anecdotes, drawings, humour, not the mention explanations of some of today’s cutting-edge theory in relation to imaginary friends.
Globally, we are entering into a period of huge uncertainty with the outbreak of coronavirus, and self-isolation becoming the norm for many of us. It would therefore not surprise me if we see the an incline in the number of imaginary friends to accompany both children and adults alike.
This book may pose more questions than it does answer questions, but it has certainly opened my eyes to the power of the mind during challenging times.
Mike Findlay is book review editor at Psychreg. He is a Glasgow-based writer and communications professional. Connect with him @MikeFindMedia.