There is always a reason for an imaginary friend

Someone invented Manti Te’o’s imaginary girlfriend. Whether he was the victim of an elaborate hoax or the perpetrator of the scheme, the fact remains: Te’o professed to loving a woman who did not exist. He had never held her hand, kissed her on the lips, or assured her that she was the best looking woman in the room. How could he? He had never laid eyes on her. Yet Manti Te’o had called Lennay Kekua “the love of my life.” She was an imaginary girlfriend in an imaginary world.

Only in an imaginary world would Te’o’s grandmother and girlfriend die within five hours of each other at the onset of a possible Heisman Trophy winning season. Only in an imaginary world would a star football player skip his girlfriend’s funeral, defeat an arch rival, and dedicate the game ball to her memory. And only in an imaginary world would the captain of a football team use the death of his grandmother and girlfriend to lead his team to an undefeated season and a shot at the national title.

This is the stuff of fiction, the stuff of invention. But it doesn’t come out of nowhere. There is always a reason for an imaginary friend.

I had an imaginary friend as a child. His name was Johnson Johnson. A friend and confidant, Johnson Johnson spent hours riding on my back, whipping his cowboy hat into the air and firing his pistols at traitorous Indians, the Lone Ranger to my loyal Silver. When my parents fought (which happened a lot), Johnson Johnson hid in the basement with me, keeping me company, keeping me safe.

It wasn’t until I was ten that I discovered that he wasn’t real. My parents occasionally took in foster children and I had made what I considered to be a natural assumption—that Johnson Johnson was just another temporary sibling. My mind had created Johnson Johnson and conveniently bestowed upon him all of the attributes that my younger brothers and sisters were lacking. Johnson Johnson didn’t depend on me. He didn’t insist that I wear a house key around my neck every day or that I make sure my siblings boarded the school bus safely. Johnson Johnson was the one person in my life who gave me what I wanted: the opportunity to be a kid. I wanted to ignore my parents’ battles and my siblings’ needs and just think of myself. Johnson Johnson allowed me to be irresponsible, unkind and selfish, and I loved him for it.

There is always a reason for an imaginary friend.

Twenty years ago, I knew a woman I’ll call Nancy. Nancy was a small in stature, high energy, uncommonly tolerant woman who called everyone she met “Honey.” Nancy was also gay and very much in the closet. In order to avoid the inevitable questions about boyfriends and marriage, Nancy invented an imaginary fiancée who had died in a car accident years before. This imaginary, deceased fiancée silenced nosy aunts and well-meaning acquaintances, and gave her a graceful excuse when it came to occasional offers of set-ups and blind dates. Her tragic loss kept the curious at bay.

There is always a reason.

As an elementary school teacher, I’ve known many children with imaginary friends. Some children possess an overactive imagination that requires an outlet. Others have a difficult time making friends and require close companionship. Imaginary friends fit the bill Always present, always supportive, they are allies and accomplices, that safe person to whom a child can always turn.

Imaginary friends serve many needs and they take many forms: small animals, paper dolls, ghosts, spots on the wall. Real children, too. Some of kids have adult-sized imaginary friends. These imaginary adults typically fill the roles of absent fathers and mothers. They’re often dressed in formal wear and carry umbrellas, handbags and briefcases. They’re called Mr. Bruno and Mrs. May—names that suggest authority and a certain order.

Imaginary friend exist for a reason, and it’s often a good one. But not always.

In September of last year, American voters watched Clint Eastwood invent an imaginary version of President Obama in order to debate him at the Republican Convention. Speaking to a chair, Eastwood created a stir by posing questions that Imaginary Obama could not answer. Like any good imaginary friend, Imaginary Obama served his master well, refusing to refute any of Eastwood’s claims. He just sat there, invisible and agreeable.

Hardly surprising.

After all, imaginary friends serve their imaginers at all times. That’s their job. They fill the gaps in our lives. The spaces of discomfort. In Eastwood’s case, Imaginary Obama served as the mute prop that he required. Lacking the courage to debate the real President Obama. Eastwood chose a straw man over the real one.

An imaginary president.

In the coming days and weeks, the reason behind the creation of Manti Te’o’s imaginary friend will likely be revealed. For Te’o’s sake, and for the sake of an American public that does not need another sports villain, I am hoping that Manti Te’o was naïve and gullible rather than nefarious and calculating. As tragic and mystifying as it may seem to fall in love with an imaginary girlfriend, at least there is innocence behind this idea. An understanding that we all want to believe in something. Perhaps Manti Te’o simply needed this more than most of us. Perhaps he needed something else.

There is always a reason.