Imaginary friend

I would find my daughter's make-believe companion heartwarming if my mother hadn't talked to imaginary people too.

Published December 9, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

My daughter's sister can turn herself into a tree. Her name is sometimes Sara Hannah and sometimes Olidia and sometimes, well, it's hard to say. She is a grown-up. She is 6 or 10. She lives in houses all over our Southern town. "It's that one," my daughter will say, pointing at a brick ranch with a dirt yard, or "that one," gesturing to a knock-off of Tara, with columns on the portico and magnolia blooms scenting the estate.

Sara Hannah Olidia's income seems to fluctuate, but this imaginary girl always greets 4-year-old Laurel with a twirl-you-around hug. She can offer expert consultation. "What's a penis?" I overheard Laurel ask in the bathroom. "It's like a stick," came the assured reply, in a voice that sounded like Laurel's but "was really my sister," Laurel explained afterwards.

Best of all, Laurel's sister has experience with virtually any frightening situation, from time-outs to tornadoes. When my husband was taken by ambulance in the middle of the night, my daughter and I rode behind, my tense odyssey accompanied by a back-seat soliloquy. "My sister was in a truck like that one time," I hear over my shoulder. "It had those big red numbers, I mean, letters, on the back and a bed inside and it was loud!" When Laurel saw her dad return home safely the next day, she couldn't wait to tell him what her sister said.

I would find this make-believe sibling nothing but heartwarming and developmentally appropriate if only my mother hadn't talked to imaginary people, too. I never heard Mom say their names, so I don't who they were -- age, sex, hobbies, nothing. I say "they," but I'm not sure if it was a crowd or one frequent companion.

My mother's monologues were more like the drone in a Gregorian chant, a continuous muttering, sort of a background hum to my childhood. If I asked her to look at my book report from school, she would fix her eyes on the page without seeing it. "Oh really? I know what you mean," she would say, eyes glassy as she slumped in her chair, its rust slipcover stylish for 1974. "Uh huh. Uh huh. He won't get away with it." She would hand the paper back to me, her lips still moving.

These discussions with the nonexistent started before I was born, when Mom was in her mid-20s and single. The story goes that my grandmother heard my mother alone and chatting in the living room. "Who are you talking to?" Grandma asked. My mother motioned to an empty velvet wing chair. "It's Dad. Can't you see him? He's right there," she answered. Her father had died in his sleep a week earlier at 59.

Family members tell me that exchange led to Mom's first stay in a psych unit. There is much I don't know about my mother's early life, and most relatives who would know have died or are reluctant to discuss it. For me, the family stories narrow to one stark question: What is the difference between the raving mother talking to her imaginary dad and the creative daughter talking to her imaginary sister? Where does inventiveness end and madness begin?

- - - - - - - - - -

You don't need to haul out Van Gogh to get into slippery terrain here. I once interviewed a famous novelist for a live radio program, starting with a fail-safe question: "How do you get ideas for your characters and what happens to them?" She described how her characters came to her. They whispered in her ear while she sat at the computer, or approached her while she washed the dishes. They told her what would happen next. Sometimes she wanted to quarrel with them. No, this is what we're going to do, she wanted to say. But usually, she acquiesced. They typically knew best.

That's how I remember the conversation, anyway. After the whispering in the ear part, I was blown right back into the suburban split-level where I grew up, when I glanced into my mother's bedroom to find her naked, alone and murmuring, "I see what you mean. They are all in on it."

I tried focusing on the sparkles of the author's suit, the clock indicating 45 seconds left in the interview, 44, 43. But I couldn't shake my panic as I brightly asked how she became a writer. I half expected her to start stripping right there, as my mother often did with no warning. I wanted to bolt out the studio door. Since then, I've heard similar descriptions of creating fiction by other writers. They talk to me.

Sure, I know what scientists and theorists would say about the differences among kids, artists and madmen. "Children have a very lush fantasy life. Most of that is a playful imagining. As children understand what's real and what isn't, that fades normally," Mark Bryan, co-author of "The Artist's Way at Work," once told me.

As for novelists talking to their characters, "It's a controlled fantasy," Bryan said. "Those voices are working toward a goal. There's an organizing ego. If I wake up and hear the voice of a killer in my head, I don't believe I'm channeling that killer. That voice is a culmination of my experiences. The question for a writer is how I continue to contact that voice, visit it again, drop down the creative well."

This sounds plausible. I've felt inspired moments when the writing seems to come through me, not from me. I can also be coldly intellectual, brandishing psychiatric jargon with the best of them. I can describe how schizophrenia is often caused by unhealthy enmeshment with a parent, how there's a difference between the realm of the unconscious, where imagination lies, and the realm of madness.

And yet.

And yet I became a journalist instead of a novelist because I'm afraid of characters I can't interview on the phone. I love storytelling, but I've reluctantly left invention to others. When Laurel talks about her sister, there are moments I drink in this beautiful, happy, imaginative child, but underneath my pride feel the unspeakable. Will she get the family disease? Or if she doesn't, will I, under the stress of parenting? Will the uninvited voices catch up with me?

I tell myself family abuse and violence, not genetics, were the catalyst for my mother's condition. Still, before deciding to get pregnant, I worried. In college, someone I thought was a friend heard my history and remarked, "I'd never have children with you. Bad genes." He recoiled a little at my snappy comeback -- "You weren't invited" -- but we both knew what he was saying. Given the possibility, I wasn't sure I would have had children with me.

I try to reassure myself by contrasting my husband and me to my mother's parents. They were straight out of an abnormal psychology textbook, producing my mother and a son who stuttered badly. Matriarch: Domineering, humorless, possibly prone to violence. Patriarch: Loving but weak. Accrues heart attacks like baseball cards. Rescues his daughter from challenge, whether she needs help or not. But I'm not like any of that. My child's household ain't perfect, but at least it's sane.

I compare the amount of time my mother and my child spend in their fantasies. My mother's life as a parent was one long psychotic episode with varying degrees of intensity. She never left the trance. My daughter's visits with her sister usually last a few joyful minutes. If those interludes are something akin to an altered state, they don't replace normal consciousness, they expand upon it. Sounds like creativity, right?

And I remind myself of their widely different attitudes. My mother never admitted she talked to oxygen atoms. When challenged, she denied anything was wrong with her. It was the people around her who were nuts. My daughter revels in her preschool magic, turning herself into a mom, a frog and a lawn mower within the space of five minutes.

We recently read a bedtime story about a girl named Ruthie and her imaginary friend, Jessica. They eat, sleep and pal around together until Ruthie meets a real girl named Jessica. The real child replaces the illusion. Ruthie and Jessica become best friends.

"Do you know someone like that?" I asked, expecting Laurel to name her best friend. "Yes!" she offered, giggling. "My sister!" My daughter's eyes were mischievous, as if she had been found out.

I might never be sure Laurel has escaped the family legacy. I might never be sure I have. My mother was not formally diagnosed with schizophrenia or any other brain disease. Technically speaking, I don't know what's wrong with her.

Maybe it's simply denial of the possibilities, but when I look at my exuberant child, I feel in my gut she will stay mentally well. As for my own sanity, I'll always have a flicker of doubt about what might happen tomorrow. I imagine myself a 100-year-old on my deathbed, surrounded by family, only then finally able to cheer, "I made it! I didn't crack up!"

Amid all this, something remarkable has happened. The child whose favorite game is pretend, who can imagine a truck out of a cookie and devise a new song every hour, is teaching me how to feel safe with invisible people, and even be their friends. I talked to an empty chair at an outdoor tea party this morning and saw the sister that Laurel loves. "What a sparkly morning!" my daughter said, dancing a little under lacy clouds. If this is madness, count me in.

By Andrea Cooper

Andrea Cooper is a writer in North Carolina.

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