Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, Matthew Dicks, author; Matthew Brown, narrator
When I noticed this book, I thought it was about the struggles of the family and child with autism to adjust and to fit their world into the universe. However, the diagnosis of autism, never actually occurs; instead it is presumed. The book turned out to be so much more than I expected because it sensitively and brilliantly, I think, touched on how often we humans, as well, misread each other because we cannot communicate appropriately. It opened my eyes to the challenges faced by a child who does not fit the expected mold and to the trials of the family that is sometimes in denial, sometimes can’t face the child’s shortcomings and so does not concentrate on the child’s gifts. Using Max’s imaginary friend, Budo, the author deftly illuminates the trials of life, real and imaginary.
Max imagined Budo five years ago. He is defined by the way he was imagined by Max. Max gave him the ability to think logically, assess situations, move around and interact with other imaginary friends while at the same time these abilities Max has endowed upon him also give Max the ability to function more readily in the world. Max has a protector; Max has a friend, a friend that warns him of danger, even if he doesn’t always listen to that advice. He has a friend that will not abandon him, will always be loyal to him and will always help him in his time of need. He has a friend with whom he can communicate although he lacks the skill to communicate with other humans. When Max encounters situations that threaten him, from which there is no escape, he may begin to scream and eventually become blocked. When he is blocked, he is no longer present and remains unreachable until he recovers. Often, Budo can calm him down and keep him safe and comfortable preventing the crash. The reader will identify with Budo and worry with him, rejoice with him and suffer with him when his helplessness as an imaginary friend causes him to fail. The reader will see the parallels with real life as they often are frustrated and unable to change situations even with the best of intentions.
The imaginary friends in this book come in all shapes and sizes. They recognize each other and understand the purpose they serve for their humans. They love their humans and are extremely loyal to them. There are puppies, fairies, giants, pop sticks and paper dolls to name a few. All exhibit different powers. Budo can walk through walls and travel around by himself. Some can fly, some can move things, some are smarter than others, some are small and some are huge. It really depends on the qualities the human bestows upon them with their imagination.
Using Budo, it becomes clear that the emotional detachment of Max, coupled with his lack of guile and need for structure and repetition, makes interacting in his real world very difficult. His social and emotional skills are undeveloped. Budo does well socially with his “friends”, and Budo even learns to feel emotion, slowly and painfully, in the same way as Max does, but Max always reverts to his state of distance while Budo seems to continue to develop a little more. Max learned to react to situations from what he learned in school and read in books. He was bright, but often froze in fear and could not behave appropriately. It was difficult for him to adjust his needs to the world around him, and those around him had to do it for him if he was to succeed. Sometimes his imaginary friend seemed to enable the behavior that he was incapable of performing. Just as Max’s parents struggled to understand his needs as they loved and cared for him, Budo had to deal with his own shortcomings when it came to helping Max. Through Budo, we also viewed a window into a world of human frailties. Max’s world and the human world were both fraught with danger requiring certain skill to navigate well.
Max, in third grade, is well loved and well taken care of with his various special needs addressed. However, his world is complicated for him, his parents and his teacher. His mother wants to kiss him, but he does not like to be touched so she does it after he is asleep. Although his father wants him to go sledding or swimming, he simply can’t engage in those activities. Intellectually he seems gifted. He loves reading and has the ability to completely focus on his task. He loves organization and operates his life on a strict schedule. He follows rules carefully. He wears only 7 items of clothing each day and will only eat breakfast before 9:00 AM. He can only play video games for a certain amount of time after a certain time of day. He loves and relies on Budo; he believes Budo is real.
The unending questions that children have and the difficult concepts they need to learn about, are dealt with sensitively and with great insight as the relationship between Budo and Max is thoroughly explored and examined down to the most minute detail. As Budo travels on his own, day and night, even when everyone sleeps, because Max didn’t imagine him with the need for sleep, the very real dangers of the world are cleverly illuminated. He visits gas stations, hospitals, and attends school with Max. He cannot do anything that requires physical interaction, but he can think and feel to some degree. He witnesses violence, a robbery and a shooting. He witnesses bullying. He experiences loss when his friend Graham disappears. He is attacked by another imaginary friend, he thinks about illness and death, and the events he witnesses makes him wonder and fear the loss of Max’s friendship and his “life”. He watches the disappearance of imaginary friends as their humans no longer need them and he wonders if it hurts, are they afraid.
When Max is kidnapped, the author deals with the fears, hopes and expectations, in the wake of trauma, for humans and imaginary friends, cleverly and with a sensitivity that is perfectly appropriate for all ages.
This touching tale offers a conclusion that even imagines a vision of life after death. The author intimates that Budo, the imaginary friend, will meet a human he had once visited stealthily at the gas station, of course, unbeknownst to her, whom he missed greatly after her death. They will finally be able to interact with each other. The author explores many of the important issues of childhood and examines them with insight and a true depth of emotional connection, even though the child, Max, is disadvantaged when it comes to emotional connection. It points out the enormous divide that exists in the world for a child with autism. The imaginary friend provides that necessary link for Max, throughout the book, as various issues are confronted. How does one deal with questions of life and death, friendship and loyalty, compassion and courage? All of these issues are explored, as each of these topics is featured in some way in the story, using Budo’s travels and encounters, since Max is not able to navigate the world freely. The imaginary friend compares the real world to his and he notes that even grown people can get locked like Max, grown people can have the same reactions as Max, but in certain situations it may seem more, or possibly less, acceptable for adults to behave in the same way. For instance, during a robbery, the adult, Sally, crippled by fear, curls up on the floor and remains there, unable to move. There are many parallels between the worlds of Max, Budo and humans.
There are so many characters but the narrator defines each so well, so singularly, that it is a pleasure to listen to him read. Oswald sounds like a tough guy, Graham sounds like a sweet little girl, Teeny sounds like a gentle and kind fairy. Each is defined by a specific voice and personality for the listener, and I think the book is best as an audio because it comes to life with the narrator’s portrayal.
***An imaginary friend is created by a human to help him navigate the world when it seems too difficult to do it on one’s own. Children and adults create them, although I think, in an adult it would be viewed more as mental illness. Many years ago, my nephew created Bingo. Bingo lived in the ceiling of the rooms he entered, but especially his bedroom. He would throw down “gings” to attack anyone who might threaten him. He would warn you that Bingo was present if you entered his room. Bingo didn’t last long, but it got him through the night safely and happily. Mostly, he was viewed with amusement by his family and my nephew was not ridiculed. This book makes it clear that an imaginary friend serves a more serious than humorous purpose for its creator.