Invisible Companions: Encounters with Imaginary Friends, Gods, Ancestors, and Angels, by J. Bradley Wigger

Reviewed by David J. Halperin

It’s the stuff of an atheist one-liner, isn’t it? “What a friend we have in Jesus”—yeah, an imaginary friend, like those that little kids are apt to have before they outgrow such nonsense. Unless, as benighted religious believers, they never outgrow it.

The comparison, of children’s “invisible companions” with the equally unseen objects of religious faith, is probably inescapable. It need not, however, be offered in a hostile spirit. In this charming, insightful, generally persuasive book—published by Stanford University Press in the same “Spiritual Phenomena” series in which my own Intimate Alien: The Hidden Story of the UFO will appear in March, 2020—J. Bradley Wigger introduces us to a colorful panoply of invisible friends. (Literally “colorful”: the reproduced crayon drawings of Quack-Quack, Jeffette, Flower Barbie, and their kindred are among the book’s many delightful features.) He does so with maximum respect for these entities themselves and for the children who play with them and learn from them. An ordained Presbyterian minister, Wigger tries his best at the end not to let religion down with too hard a bump. In this, he is mostly but not entirely successful.

Why do children have imaginary friends? The most obvious answer, that they’re lonely and don’t have any real playmates, may work in some cases but falls far short of covering the phenomenon. Wigger demonstrates this at the beginning of the book with reference to his now grown daughter Cora, who as a little girl had plenty of normal, visible friends but also enjoyed hanging out with a see-through child appropriately named “Crystal.” His extended, meticulous fieldwork in multiple lands and cultures—Kenya, Malawi, Nepal, the Dominican Republic—amply bears it out. The subtly disparaging theories of Jean Piaget, who saw imaginary companions as evidence of young children’s “prelogical” inability to tell what’s real from what’s not, are also measured against the empirical data and found wanting. In Malawi, Wigger discovered, older children were just as likely to have imaginary friends as three-year-olds, suggesting that it’s not something you outgrow as you learn to cope better with the real world. And research by Marjorie Taylor seemed to indicate that on “theory of mind” tests—understanding the minds of others, what they know and don’t know, perceive and don’t perceive—children who had imaginary friends seemed to do better than those who didn’t.

Far from being expressions of childish egocentrism, as Piaget would have it, the invention of invisible friends can be seen as an exercise in the understanding of others’ points of view, imagination used in the service of social maturing. “Appreciating the knowledge, desires, intentions, or perspectives of another is ultimately an act of the imagination,” Wigger points out. “By playing with mind, by imaginatively representing other minds—even when invisible—children are fine-tuning their ability to understand others” (p. 107).

How real are these companions, in the minds of those who talk with them and crayon pictures of them?  The best answer is: real, yet not real. A seven-year-old girl in the Dominican Republic describes her friend Iris as being “bad in school” because she’s “always looking out the window.” That sounds real enough; yet when the interviewer asks whether other people can see Iris, the answer is no, of course not. She’s only “en mi cabeza” (p. 167). Little Jennifer in the US knows that her friend is “pretend” but is offended when the interviewer speaks of her as such. She understands the word, reasonably, as belittling. Wigger comments: “I could imagine myself shedding a tear over a favorite character in a novel and someone saying, ‘Come on, it’s just a story.’ I might have a meltdown too” (p. 74).

Wigger compares the children’s invisible friends with parallel characters in the cultural imagination: Winnie-the-Pooh, Elwood P. Dowd’s giant rabbit friend Harvey, Hobbes in Calvin & Hobbes, moving on to Santa Claus, angels and spirits, and, inevitably, God(s). Most intriguingly, he compares them with figures in the imagination of fiction writers, who do sometimes seem to take on a life of their own in defiance of their creators. When I was writing the “Rochelle’s Story” section of my novel Journal of a UFO Investigator, it felt like my character had sat down with me at the breakfast table where I worked on my laptop, dictating to me her account of what had befallen her. After the book was published, I found some inconsistencies in that account and wondered if Rochelle had lied to me. An invisible friend, perhaps; but our friendship was purely functional, to be dissolved after completion of the novel. And certainly “en mi cabeza,” with the caveat that my cabeza has levels that normally go unsuspected in my conscious life. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, for whom Wigger has a decent but not excessive respect, devoted their lives to exploring those levels.

At times, Wigger seems on the verge of granting some sort of ontological reality to the unseen friends.  “What if the ability to see invisibles, an awareness of more, as William James once put it, is tied to something profound and enduring?” (p. 46). Near the end of the book he echoes and possibly answers this query: “Religion at its best cultivates the spirit of more, of mystery, of seeing through surfaces to the infinitely irreducible—the sacred” (p. 190). But he also quotes evolutionary psychologist (and outspoken atheist) Jesse Bering as explaining, in evolutionary terms, why we can’t rid ourselves of our stubborn awareness of a more that has no real existence. “It may feel as if there is something grander out there,” Bering acknowledges. “But, in fact, that’s just your overactive theory of mind.  There is only the air you breathe” (p. 200). The “red balloon,” of the 1956 movie that Bering invokes to illustrate his point, feels like it’s an entity with an independent consciousness. In reality it’s just a balloon. To which Wigger comments, alluding to the movie: “Pop!”

How you respond to this tension will depend on whether you think religion is a balloon that ought to be popped. I myself am convinced we are better off with religious faith than without it, and that each popping of the balloon—it happens over and over—is a small tragedy. Which doesn’t mean that it’s anything more than a balloon; and I have a dismal suspicion that Bering is probably right. Wigger, as I’ve said a Presbyterian minister, tries to soften the impact of Bering’s argument but often gives the impression of talking around the issue rather than addressing it. It’s not clear that anyone could have done better.

Perhaps Wigger’s strongest point is the one he puts in italics on p. 198 (and again on p. 205): “Without a doubt the relationships [with the invisible friends] are real, and this is remarkable.” I’m reminded of a passage from one of John Wain’s novels in which the minister at a burial service reads from the Book of Common Prayer about the “sure and certain hope of the resurrection.” The protagonist tells the minister, a bit tactlessly, that the hope is indeed sure and certain; the resurrection is not. Flip this around, put the emphasis on the reality of the hope, and it’s no longer so deflating.  I also remember the astonishment of the graduate students with whom I read Émile Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, that Durkheim was an atheist. He seemed, on every other page, to praise religion and its contributions to human advancement. Our relationship with the transcendent remains real, even if the transcendent turns out to be an illusion.

“Imaginary friends and God have this in common,” Wigger writes: “they are invisible relationships and bear the fruits that community and friendship bring” (p. 206). I detect here another allusion to William James, this time to his criterion for the legitimacy of any religion: “by their fruits ye shall know them.” The fruits of children’s relationships to their invisible friends, as Wigger convincingly presents them, are uncommonly sweet. For that sweetness alone, his book is worth the reading.

David J. Halperin is a former professor of religious studies. He blogs at David Halperin.