Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Voices In My Head Have Names

I threw him out of the car window while traveling down I-75. I launched him into our gas furnace. I even ratted him out for taking my grandmother's J.C. Penney card when it's quite possible he did no such thing. And yet he was one of my best friends.

Starting as far back as I can remember, and staying with me until I was in elementary school, I had two imaginary friends who were my constant companions. Their names were Kitty and JoJo, and we got each other into all kinds of trouble.

I've read a lot about children and their imaginary friends in the years since I said goodbye to Kitty and JoJo, and I know that this is completely normal behavior, particularly when a child is an only or has a large age gap with her sibling, as I did. I needed companions, so I made a couple of them up. But because these creatures were born in my brain, they were not your normal, average, everyday imaginary friends. In fact, JoJo was kind of an asshole.

When I was with Kitty and JoJo, I was not a child. We were three young adults hanging out together. We weren't sitting in my living room watching movies on TV; we were transported to JoJo's convertible outside a drive-in. I didn't sit at the kitchen table with them drinking a Coke; we were at a posh supper club sipping Cold Duck champagne. I was even a bridesmaid at their wedding, held in my mother's bedroom. I wore a baby blue beach towel wrapped around my bare torso and tied in a knot below my shoulder; it was a stylish gown years ahead of its time.

They were so real to me as a young child that they had to be accommodated by my patient parents.

"Don't sit there!" I hollered to more than one house guest. "JoJo is sitting there!" And to my mom's credit, she simply asked me to invite JoJo to sit elsewhere, rather than freak out and have me evaluated, which I might have done.

She didn't even freak out the day I rolled down the car window on a trip back from Knox County and made a throwing motion with my little arms.

"What did you just throw out the window?"

"JoJo. He was being bad."

I never knew what Kitty saw in him, but she married him, so she must have been able to look past his constant teasing and wisecracks and being a big meanie in general.

They were tolerated, but not without controversy. When the J.C. Penney charge card that my depression-era-raised grandmother guarded in a bottom dresser drawer disappeared from its hiding spot, every member of the family was interrogated, including me. I denied having ever seen it or touched it, but did offer what I felt was helpful information:

"I bet JoJo stole it and threw it in the garbage."

When Mamaw and Mom and her two sisters thought I wasn't listening, I heard them say that by my saying that JoJo did this, I was clearly confessing to it. Children blame their imaginary friends for the bad things they do, one of them said. She probably sincerely believes he did it, chimed in someone else. They all agreed: I had thrown the card away in an unusual fit of mischief, and I felt badly about it, so my alter ego JoJo became my scapegoat.

What they didn't know, and what I tried to tell my mother for years, is that no such thing happened. I did not throw out my grandmother's sole credit card. I was merely trying to offer a suggestion, and clearly thievery was not out of JoJo's character. I an guessing Kitty eventually divorced JoJo; she was pretty smart and had been taking classes at NKU when I last saw her, and I bet she realized that bad boys cannot be reformed.

I remember one cold winter morning walking to school and realizing I was too old for imaginary friends. I had made real friends at school and no longer felt the need to populate my life with Kitty and JoJo. I also had become very aware that they were not, in fact, real. I was 6, not 16. The TV movie was just a TV movie and the Coke was just Coke. But I felt the need to say goodbye to them just the same.

Midway up our street, where one of the driveways seemed to disappear into the wooded area that separated our street from the next, I stopped. I imagined them right beside me, holding hands.

"I think it's time for you to go," I whispered. In my mind's eye, I watched them walk down the driveway and into the woods behind it. I shed a tear; I might have been a child, but I knew something was ending that I would never get back.

The way my mom told it was that I stopped talking about them, and when she asked where they were, I shrugged and said they went away. She never knew that it was a conscious decision, and never knew just how real they once seemed to me.

When we spoke of it when I was an adult with a child of my own, she confessed that she never worried about it because a psychic she once visited told her that I had two guardian angels. When Kitty and JoJo first appeared on the scene, Mom figured they were angels in disguise and let them be. If that were true, she should have been worried--if JoJo were an angel, he was definitely a fallen one.

I am pretty certain they were not guardians of any sort but were figments of a very active imagination. I even think I know where the names came from. One of the first TV shows I can remember watching was Gunsmoke; I loved the reruns, and greatly admired Miss Kitty. My Kitty was even a redhead like her. (Though Miss Kitty would never have put up with JoJo's shenanigans.) The first time I really listened to The Beatles' "Get Back" with my best friend when I was in 7th grade, and paid close attention to the lyrics, I recognized my JoJo:

Jojo was a man who thought he was a loner
But he knew it couldn't last...

Get back Jojo, go home...

My sister listened to The Beatles when I was very small, and this song could have entered my subconscious and created a character so vivid that his star completely outshone Kitty's.

Or maybe I could see dead people. Either way, it worked out fine.

A friend recently asked for advice dealing with her daughter, who is engaging in epic power struggles with her imaginary friends. This is a non-spanking home, and yet her young child is bossing her imaginaries around, threatening them with spankings, and getting so frustrated with their bad behavior that she's asking her mother to intervene.

Do not worry, I assured her. Imaginary friends are a normal part of childhood and a sign of a vivid imagination.

And sometimes, they misbehave.

1 comment:

DRoss said...

My imaginary friends were Starsky and Hutch. We were a crime-fighting force, y'all. Later, with some help from my cousin Charlie, we created Adam and Shooter - a deadly spy duo. I seethed with fury at being excluded from playing Barbies with my sister and his sister. (I was deemed "too bossy") We made several commando raids on the playroom. Plastic weaponry and ninja costumes are the best revenge.