Given the themes of my book, namely fantasy and gaming, the subject of imaginary worlds is often on my mind. Indeed, for much of my childhood and even adulthood, when I wasn't playing a game, drawing a picture or reading a book, I was and am often seeking those fleeting "magic moments" when I could feel like I had shaken off the weight of the present day to travel to another era in history. Or to another world entirely. Just last week, on walk in the woods, I pretended to see hobbits, dwarves and elves.
In my book Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, I talk about how the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) helped an adolescent me escape the trauma of my mother's debilitating brain injury. To cope, my siblings and I called her "the Momster." Turning her into a creature, in my mind, saved me from having to deal with emotional pain.
In her new memoir, Jessica Handler covers similar territory. Handler is an Atlanta-based writer and author of Invisible Sisters: A Memoir, her chronicle of growing up as the oldest of three sisters and being the "well sibling," learning to redefine herself after her sisters' deaths. I asked her to contribute to Geek Pride her take on "escaping," role-playing and the power of the imagination. Here are her thoughts:
I've been thinking a lot lately about imaginary friends, maybe because I've recently started Twittering. I've never met most of the people who are my social media "friends" and "followers." They're real people, but the intensity of our interactions and the presumed the 24/7 nature of their interest in me (and mine in them) makes them a little like imaginary friends.
I had a constant relationship with imaginary friends when I was a kid. My sister Susie, eight years old to my ten, had just died of leukemia. Our little sister Sarah, four, was terminally ill with a rare blood disorder. Our parents kept our lives as normal as possible, but we were rigid with terror, captive to hospitals and medical bills, and frantic with love. No one spoke about the death that came and the death that was coming. Our parents' marriage dissolved, as they often do with the loss of a child. Sarah died in her twenties.
When I was a child, my imaginary friends were imaginary selves --- my alternate lives. Like D&D for Ethan coping with his "Momster," they were ways to escape my actual life.
Kids are generally pretty powerless. A serious illness renders everyone involved powerless. Parents, whom kids presume all-powerful, become tragically fallible. A kid seeing her parents' frailty for the first time turns away. Unable to help, kids are ashamed of their lack of power.
And so we turn to a safe place inside ourselves.
Imaginary friends allow a kid to take control of her life. With imaginary friends and imaginary selves, a child recreates herself as visible and vital in a world of her making.
Every good-weather afternoon, all I wanted to do was get home from school and get outside. There, I walked in a circle for hours, silently telling myself stories in which I was the heroine; someone who wasn't me. Thinking back now, I'm amazed at how unselfconsciously I tamped down a ring of grass in our front yard, in clear view of the neighbors, and disappeared wholly into a story - and an imaginary self.
My grandmother once remarked that she saw me in the yard, "pretending to be a horse." I wouldn't dream of correcting my beloved grandmother, but no way was I pretending to be a horse. I was pretending to be Elaine, a girl who looked like Katherine Ross in The Graduate, the new movie with ads everywhere. Or I was a popular, athletic, blonde pre-teen who climbed trees and slugged boys and was surrounded by friends. Sometimes I was a girl who survived the atomic bomb at Hiroshima. All of these characters were survivors.
Escapism and fantasy helped me survive a traumatic childhood. I had real friends and real responsibilities in my household. My sisters and I loved each other, and our parents loved us. My imaginary selves killed our lawn, but they also took me to a world I owned. In its way, this is similar to gaming, so I guess I can claim bona fide Geek Pride.
Does it explain my fascination with social media? Maybe a little.
Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of the new travel memoir Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms.