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The Enemy Within

“My brother always punches me in the nose,” Brennan said, his voice edged with frustration as he followed me into the house, dragging his backpack behind him.

I turned to look at him, perplexed. “Your brother?” I asked. “You mean – Liddy?”

“No,” he said. “My brother. Will.”

“Will Kaufmann?” I asked, thinking he meant a preschool friend.

“No!” he blew out an exasperated breath. “My brother Will!”

It took me another minute or two to absorb that Will was Brennan’s new imaginary big brother. Over the course of the afternoon, I learned that Will possessed bunk beds, an August first birthday, on which he’d turn the enviable age of seven, and – the thing that Brennan spoke of most – a bullying nature that led him to punch Brennan in the nose or even, when Will was really misbehaving, “in the butt.”

Will’s appearance caught me by surprise. It had been years since Brennan had insisted on an extra bagel or pillow for his imaginary friend Diego. Even three-and-a-half-year-old Liddy had stopped cuddling her invisible cat. I thought we’d left the imaginary friend stage behind. But more than that, I didn’t know what to make of Will’s aggressive personality. Brennan’s past imaginary friends had been, well, friendly.

In the days that followed, Brennan woke in the mornings arguing with Will (“Stop doing that!”), and then wandered out into the living room only to provoke a similar confrontation with Liddy. He complained that Will refused to stay buckled in his booster seat (“My brother’s not being safe!”) after committing the same offense several times himself. Moments of quiet play, alone, ended badly with protests and pleading (“Stop it, Will!” and “I am not too young!”). Big brother Will was not much fun to have around.

One day, I was chaperoning Brennan’s preschool class on a field trip when I heard him talking to one of his classmates. “My brother always punches me,” Brennan complained. “He’s six.” Jonathan, who knew our family make-up, raised his eyebrows and looked at me. I cringed, remembering the teasing Brennan had taken from some kids for bringing a “baby fork” in his lunch a few weeks before. What would another five-year-old think of this imaginary brother?

But Jonathan hesitated only seconds before saying, “I have a girl. She’s make-believe too. And she’s seven.”

“Yours is older than mine,” Brennan observed. They were silent for a moment as we bumped along.

“Look!” Jonathan called out, tapping the bus window. “It’s my fake brother – I mean, sister! She’s running alongside the bus!”

Brennan frowned and shook his head dismissively, disapproving, I thought, of a sibling so poorly imagined that Jonathan couldn’t even keep track of its gender.

“Imaginary friends are the sign of a creative kid,” Brennan’s teacher told me at the end of the school day.

But I wondered if there were more to it than that. Brennan had also spent much of that field trip asking me to carry him in my arms. And Will’s appearance coincided with the onset of heartbreaking tantrums – several episodes a day of Brennan running away, slamming doors, weeping, or hurling himself onto the floor. Getting him back and forth to school, to and from a friend’s house, into or out of the tub – every transition was fraught with potential for fury and inconsolable crying.

“Brennan’s imaginary brother’s putting a lot of pressure on him,” Brennan’s teacher said to me at preschool pickup one day. She mentioned that Will’s behavior might have mimicked some of what Brennan was witnessing among his friends, as a number of his classmates were testing boundaries at school, demonstrating new aggression in confrontations that Brennan only watched from a distance.

Then Will split into twins, bringing us Jack Ackerman Crossarrow. “Jack bothers me all the time!” Brennan exclaimed. “Sometimes Will’s nice, but Jack never is!”

I paged through a couple of the child development books I rarely consult any longer. I found a whole chapter on imaginary friends in T. Berry Brazelton’s Touchpoints. Brazelton held that Brennan’s imaginary brothers could offer him a safe way to find out who he wanted to be, and help him identify with children who might be overwhelming to him. Maybe for Brennan – a sensitive, introverted kid witnessing the aggression of other kids at school and on the playground – those imaginary brothers offered him a way to figure out this social dynamic and how he fit into it.

Paging through the illustrations in his Winnie the Pooh story collection one day, Brennan asked, “Why does sometimes Pooh come alive and sometimes he doesn’t, and no one else sees him?”

“Because,” I said, “Pooh’s in Christopher Robyn’s imagination.”

“What?” Liddy interrupted, moving closer to hear. “What is he?” But she was looking at Brennan, not me. I waited.

The appearance of his twin cohorts/nemeses were tied into Brennan’s anxiety.Brennan answered: “Because Pooh is Christopher Robyn’s lovey,” he explained. “Pooh is his.”

My husband theorized that Brennan’s behavior, and the appearance of his twin cohorts/nemeses, were tied into Brennan’s anxiety about his approaching move to kindergarten. Sure enough, on the day of the kindergarten Open House, as I wrestled Liddy into her car seat, I saw that Brennan had managed to cram his wiry little body in the narrow space between his seat and Liddy’s, work the seatbelt over his shoulder and snap it into place. “Brennan, we’re late!” I said. “What are you doing?”

He snapped back at me: “Well, where are Jack and Will supposed to sit?”

Brennan spent a good chunk of the orientation hiding behind me, squeezing my hand. As we walked out of the building he asked, “Can Will come to my school, too?”

“Your brother Will?”

“No,” he said, his tone suggesting that such a thing would be ridiculous. “Will Kaufmann, my school friend.”

I realized, with all of these Will-and-Jack-related theories swirling through my head, that I would never pinpoint precisely what they represented. They’d pushed me to contemplate Brennan’s changing world and his ability to navigate it, but they’d also helped me to let go of the idea that I would truly understand, or that I needed to. When it came down to it, only Brennan could fully know what fears and troubles weighed on him. And – this was the hard part – sometimes only he, alone, could sort them out. Whatever Will and Jack meant to Brennan, whatever gifts or burdens they bestowed, what mattered was that they belonged to him.

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