Before we get started with the Torgon excerpts, I thought it might be helpful to talk a little first about what inspired the book – and Torgon – because I am aware many people have found it an unusual story. (Indeed, one of my classic moments as a professional writer was having OVERHEARD IN A DREAM rejected by an American publisher who found it "too novel". A novel that is too novel? Okaaay.)
The story in OVERHEARD IN A DREAM very much revolves around childhood imaginary companions, so I thought I'd give a little background about imaginary companions first. It's actually a remarkably common phenomenon, but for many years it did not receive any serious attention. Stigmatized by Freud and other pioneers of psychology and psychiatry as closely related to insanity, vivid imagination was only regarded as appropriate to small children and, even then, never something to indulge. Consequently, it has only been very recently that any concrete research into these experiences has come to light. (And I might mention, the foremost research on this topic has been done by Marjorie Taylor of the University of Oregon and Stephanie Carlson of the University of Washington. Taylor has a wonderful, readable book out about her studies called 'Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them ' that is well worth reading if you are interested in this topic.)
About two thirds of children have or have had an imaginary companion at some point in their life. At any given time in childhood, about a third of children are likely to have an active imaginary companion. The old theories of Freud and Piaget were that most children abandoned this kind of imagination by six, as they developed more adult-like thinking, but Taylor and Carlson's research indicates that almost as many children at ten have imaginary companions as at 3 or 4. They've simply learned it is not socially acceptable to talk about them (or to them!) in public. Girls are more likely to have imaginary companions during the preschool years, but by school age, boys are just as likely to have imaginary companions. And it isn't related to any particular personality type. It's simply a natural part of childhood.
Some imaginary companions are very simple, such as a favourite toy that is brought to life or a storybook or TV character. Young children are just as likely to have an animal companion as a human one, although as children grow older, human imaginary companions predominate. Older children occasionally develop entire imaginary worlds called 'paracosms' and these can become incredibly complex. Indeed, these complex paracosms often endure well into adulthood. Many well-known writers, such as C.S. Lewis, had childhood paracosms that lasted well into adult life
Why are we so inclined to create imaginary friends? Research indicates this isn't a one-size fits all activity. Some children do indeed create imaginary companions for the classic reason that they are lonely or bored. They creatively fill the gap where real children might have been by bringing to life their own versions of friends. Some children create imaginary companions to deal with stress issues . It is easier to cope with stressful events, like a new baby or a move to a new house, if they are given that little bit of extra distance that 'happening to someone else' provides. Some children use imaginary companions to escape a difficult or unhappy environment. Some children empower themselves through imaginary companions, creating someone they can boss around, but also someone who can take the blame for things they want to do themselves but know they shouldn't. Some children use imaginary companions to express dysfunction, such as extreme shyness or social anxiety, or aspects of themselves that are unacceptable, and not all imaginary companions are benign. Sometimes they express depersonalized aspect of the child that the child can't keep integrated into his own personality and can be quite frightening or upsetting to the child. And some children simply brim with creativity and they bring their imaginary companions to life for no other apparent reason beyond the sheer joy of doing so.
Far from the previously held belief that imaginary companions were always a sign that a child was socially maladjusted, current research indicates that by chatting to an imaginary companion, children gain valuable practice in conversation because he/ she takes both sides. In the same way, children with imaginary companions are often better equipped to see others' points of view from practicing this skill imaginatively. And while it hasn't been shown to be an indicator of high IQ, as was once thought, it is often a good predictor of creativity and adaptability, showing an innovative use of the mind to solve problems.