I had imaginary friends when I was young, as I'm sure most if not all of us did. Some kids' imaginary friends take the blame for broken cookie jars and messy rooms; others go on grand adventures across the world and the universe while safely tucked into a warm bunk bed. My imaginary friends, however, used to watch me masturbate.
They weren't completely imaginary, either. These make-believe friends were kids from school who lived nearby but were not friends of mine in life. I have no memory of how they managed to become my made-up friends, but I do have an idea.
I grew up in a home where no one talked to anyone about anything relevant. Topics of conversation were limited to television sitcom plots or sale pricing at local department stores. For whatever reason, my parents were obsessed with saving money; my father was especially guilty of this. He spent much of my childhood unemployed or underemployed. Our family was broke and had very little much of the time. Once in grade school, playing catch with three or four other boys, I was hit in the face, right between the eyes, with a baseball. Other than my pride, I wasn't hurt; my eyeglasses, already held together in several spots with adhesive tape, took the impact. The frames shattered into a dozen pieces. The lenses, however, were intact, and - lucky me - fitted in a new frame. I truly needed a fresh prescription, probably two years overdue by that point, but we didn't have the money.
Sex was never discussed. The only time my father ever talked to me about it was to ask me if I had watched an after-school mini-documentary about puberty. I had, but I lied to him, because I didn't want to talk to him about it. I told him I had watched The Flintstones. That was the entirety of the conversation.
I learned about sex, I suspect, the same way many children do, by reading about it in the library. In the downstairs Juvenile room of our local public library was a book called something like Where Do Babies Come From? It contained many cutesy-pie drawings, large print text for children and small print for adults. I read the small print, of course, which told me that sex was the act of a man inserting his penis into a woman's vagina. The book advised parents not to tell their children the technical bits if they thought it would "frighten" them. Instead, parents should just say that babies are "made" when a mommy and a daddy who love each other get very close together at night.
At eleven or twelve, whatever age I started going through the early stages of puberty, vaginal intercourse seemed peculiar to me. I didn't find myself attracted to girls in any way. I was fascinated with adult men, though. At that age, I didn't like the guys at school, unless they had body hair and deep voices. Even in grade school, some of the older male students fit that bill.
Perhaps my predilection for fully developed men began with my brother's magazine collection. I specifically remember finding a muscle mag in a drawer with other neutral periodicals. Those guys were maybe too bulbous for my taste. When Playgirl made an appearance, I was much more interested. Then came other, very gay and very sexual magazines with names like Honcho, Inches, and Torso. They showed men - mostly in their mid-20s or older - photographed in explicit poses exposing every nook and cranny of their manhood, front and back.
My parents had also strategically placed a copy of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*but were afraid to ask) by "Doctor"~ David Reuben in our living-room book collection. The book (and its author) have since been panned widely and labeled inaccurate and ridiculous; at the time, however, many revered it as a sex bible. Although the section on homosexuality was obviously meant to terrorize young men into staying away from the lifestyle, it had the opposite effect on me. (Not to mention teaching me about important queer concepts such as cruising and anonymous sex. But, I digress.) Some of the stuff I read excited me more than a shirtless Tom Selleck did at that time.
Between Reuben's book and my brother's porn collection, I began masturbating compulsively, though this is probably common enough for young men at that age. What probably is not, however, is that over time, I created an imaginary audience to watch, an entourage of local kids who were, like myself, going through puberty or had just past. At this point of my dotage, I can only remember two specifically, Steve and William*, who were brothers a few years apart in age. In my imagination, though, they were not brothers, and William was as old as Steve. As for the rest of them, of which there were three or so, I can't remember names. My scant recollection is that they were in the same group of friends as Steve and William and therefore part of my invented audience.
At first, this was all relatively harmless. After school, I went into the bathroom to wank, and those guys were just "there" to watch me do it. When I was home alone for any length of time, I tried all sorts of odd things that teenage gay boys might: using butter from the fridge or oil from the cupboard, cutting holes in melons, lubing up the cucumber. (I must mention that some of my ideas came from Reuben's book.)
But mostly it was my imaginary friends who soon gave me instruction and suggestions what I should do. In retrospect, I can see this as a teenage boy's way of dealing with some of the things he was doing to himself; I wasn't telling myself to do these things, those guys were. Instead of lying to my parents that "Mr. Buggles" blew up the vacuum cleaner, I was lying to myself that my friends were making me do all that stuff.
This is important in that, as was and is the case in many American households, our family suffered Christian guilt. We went to church a lot when I was a kid, sometimes Sunday mornings and evenings. My parents didn't talk much about God themselves, but Dad's parents surely did. I knew from Nanny and from Brother Frank, my Bible School Teacher, that I wasn't supposed to do these things and would probably burn in Hell for them. Instead, I clearly scapegoated Steve and William and the rest of the crew into taking the blame for my misbehaving ass (as it were). A devil in the guise of imaginary friends made me do it; therefore, I couldn't be held accountable. At the time, of course, I was oblivious to this, and just masturbated to my libido's content and slept easily.
Unfortunately, as time went on, my imaginary friends started popping up every time I went into the bathroom, whether I was in there to pleasure myself or not. Just going to take a pee, the guys would march out of the closet and start talking about sexual stuff I had done or should do. This all occurred in my head, and it went on for at least a year. By the time I was fourteen and about to enter high school, it started freaking me out in a big way. I wondered if I needed a shrink. I was scared, terrified to tell anyone about it, for fear I'd be put in a hospital. I didn't know what to do, yet I knew I needed to do something.
One summer morning spent in front of the television, I watched a talk show, probably Donahue, which was my favorite. The topic was children and behavior, and a female pediatric psychologist described a method for parents to use to help their children overcome nightmares, insomnia, and fear of the dark. She said that the child should identify whatever it is that frightens him as clearly as possible, if it means describing it physically or even drawing it. Then, just before bed and "lights out," he should tell those monsters or boogeymen or whatnot to get lost! The doctor concluded by saying that some children acting out such a scenario, with or without a parent's help, will have relief and fall asleep easily where they once could not.
I watched the show intently and wondered. If that technique could help kids get rid of a monster under the bed, could it help me get rid of inappropriate imaginary friends from a bathroom closet? Perhaps I was too old and beyond help. I had nothing to lose except my sanity, so I tried it. I went into the bathroom that day and mentally forced those guys out into the open, telling them to get out of the closet and out of the house and out of my life.
They did, but the next time I had to use the bathroom, they were back. So I kept at it, consistently and firmly. It took some doing, probably over the course of a few months. By the time I was fifteen, I was finally able to walk into the bathroom and not worry about imaginary people dropping in and giving me sexual instruction whenever I needed to take a dump. Soon I was reading National Enquirer or nodding off like normal folk. I also took to masturbating less frequently in my bedroom away from prying eyes (real or imagined), and my adult sex life seems as normal (or abnormal, depending on what color state) as anyone else's.
There are several events in my life that I believe tested my sanity: falling in love for the second time; the death of my father; a serious car accident. This drawn-out portrait of mental creation was probably the first. Out of fear, I forced myself not to think about any of this for two decades. What if the imaginary friends returned? What would happen to me then? But they never did. Now when I think how close I came to crossing the edge, that boundary between sane and not, I realize how lucky I am that I made it. I also feel quite good, even all these years later, knowing that I did it on my own.
~ I couldn't call him a doctor any more than I could call Hitler a Humanitarian. Doctors take an oath to do no harm; I can't imagine how many lives Reuben ruined because of his puritanical ravings.
* Not their real names.
©2006, Robert A. Geise - May not be reprinted without express permission. Hot-linking welcome.