By Taylor Poor, NAMI Education Program Coordinator
By Matthew Dicks
Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks, takes the best parts of science fiction, mystery, and memoir and rolls them all into one heartwarming tale of a boy with an undiagnosed autism-spectrum disorder and the imaginary friend who has to save him from a terrible fate.
Budo, the book’s narrator, is not your ordinary imaginary friend. He explains early on that countless “imaginary friends” exist, born when human children imagine them into existence out of boredom or loneliness, visible only to their unique human friend, and to each other. An imaginary friend could be a moving stick figure, as insubstantial as a sheet of paper, or nothing more than a pink bow in a little girl’s hair, which disappears as soon as she forgets it’s there. Budo, however, looks “so real” that other imaginary friends frequently confuse him for a “real” boy—because his human friend, Max, has an eye for detail.
Budo’s also lucky that he’s lived so long. He’s been around for five years, and doesn’t have to worry about disappearing, because Max needs him desperately. Max’s unusual habits and difficulty processing others’ emotions mean he doesn’t have any “real” friends to talk to, except perhaps a wonderful and caring teacher named Mrs. Gosk. Max’s mom wants to find him a good therapist, and his dad wants to pretend Max doesn’t need therapy or special treatment. But neither of Max’s parents is prepared when Max is kidnaped, and Budo is the only one who can save him.
Budo’s central struggle in Memoirs is the fight to help Max escape without helping Max grow up—because if Max grows up, he might stop believing in Budo, and when children stop believing in imaginary friends, they disappear, or “die.” However, especially given Budo’s encounter early on with an imaginary friend who sacrifices her existence so that her human friend can grow up, readers will not worry for too long that Budo might really keep Max dependent on him for Budo’s own gain.
Rather, it is Matthew Dicks’ imagination that makes this adventure story so enthralling and meaningful. Dicks recreates for his readers a detailed world full of challenges and torments for a boy who “has no outside”—only an inside, which few in his life can comprehend. Max’s world is a world of internalized rules and strict preferences, where the most terrible things that can happen are “bonus poops” and getting “stuck”. Max’s world will resonate with anyone who has been close to a child with autism or serious mental illness, and Max’s parents’ struggle will be a familiar one to NAMI Family-to-Family participants as well.
But Dicks is also adept in fleshing out his concept of “imaginary friends” out in many different and satisfying directions. One of the most fascinating of these describes the single adult imaginary friend, Oswald, who seems to be the imaginary manifestation of the frustration and anger of a man in a coma at the local ICU. The brush between adult illness and the idea of “imaginary friend” brings to mind many possibilities Dicks doesn’t explore, such as what happens when adults firmly believe in “imaginary friends” who may not be as kind or benevolent as those Budo has encountered.
However, the concept of the “imaginary friend” remains, at its core, a heuristic for the journey many caregivers have traveled with children with disabilities. At the story’s close, Budo wonders why, despite the extraordinary events he has undergone and survived, Max has hardly changed at all. Budo is the one who has changed—who now appreciates his brave and beautiful friend, “the boy who made me,” in a brand new light.