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Invisible Companions, by J. Bradley Wigger

11 October 2019

John Pridmore reviews a study of children’s imaginary companions

BRADLEY WIGGER’s Invisible Companions is dedicated to “Crystal”. Crystal has been a close friend of Wigger’s daughter Cora since Cora was three years old. The odd thing about Crystal is that she does not exist. Except that she does exist. To be sure, Crystal cannot be seen by short-sighted adults, but, for Cora, Crystal is there, as are all those invisible friends who keep children company and who are the subject of this fascinating study.

Wigger begins his research with a series of interviews with children from his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. He soon has to revise his assumptions about children’s imaginary friends. He had expected that, typically, a child would have just one such friend, but it turns out that some children have numerous friends unseen by others. He is also surprised to discover that these friends, whom the rest of us cannot see, need not be animate. We meet Andrea, whose favourite unseen friend is a teapot.

Invisible friends, Wigger discovers, prove to be flexible friends. Such friends have a bewildering capacity to be now here, now there, and now here and there at once. The inner life of the child is so multi-layered and richly textured that it defies all logic. Such mental confusion was dubbed “pre-operational” by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, on whose altar we all once cast incense. Wigger comes to wonder whether children are not more attuned to the mystery of things than Piaget gave them credit for.

Wigger’s investigation of children’s invisible friends — “IFs”, as he calls them — takes him further afield, to Kenya, Malawi, Nepal, and the Dominican Republic. But his time in these places is limited. Outside his comfort zone of the United States, he is — on his own admission — less sure of himself. He must work through interpreters, doing his best to negotiate cultural and religious differences that on short acquaintance he cannot be expected fully to appreciate. His fleeting visit to Nepal is the least productive of his field studies. “The case for imaginary friends among Nepali children”, he wanly concludes, “remains open.”

Anyone who has done any research knows how one question leads to another. Certainly this was Wigger’s experience. Nathan, aged four, tells him about his friend Quack-Quack. Who is Quack-Quack? He is an imaginary duck. But to say as much is to beg other questions. Quack-Quack is the construct of Nathan’s imagination. But how are we to understand the part played by the imagination? “Everything you can imagine is real,” Picasso said. So is Quack-Quack in some way real?

Some have said — George MacDonald among them — that creation is the work of the divine imagination, and that, by the exercise of our own God-given imaginations, we, too, call into being that which was not. But we must tread carefully. Some fundamentalist Christians think that the likes of Quack-Quack are demonic.

And what of God? “Is God just another imaginary friend?” Wigger asks. And his answer? “Maybe.”

The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney in east London.

Invisible Companions: Encounters with imaginary friends, Gods, ancestors, and angels
J. Bradley Wigger
Stanford University Press £20.99
Church House Bookshop £18.89

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