It’s completely normal to have an imaginary friend as a child. Studies say that over sixty percent of children have one. It’s a way for children to mitigate loneliness or to cope with a big change in their lives.
A lot of times, children will blame their own behavior on their imaginary friend. It was Benny, the yellow dinosaur, that broke the vase, that hid the controller, that drew on the wall. Sometimes this is a clever deflection on the part of the child. But sometimes, the child really believes it.
As it’s been explained to me, children will sometimes use imaginary friends as a safe way to give in to impulses that they know are wrong, behavior that is often mischievous or even willfully destructive. They can project their actions onto these friends. It wasn’t them who dropped their parent’s phone in the toilet, who threw a toy through the window. It was Benny. The child isn’t bad; Benny is.
I never had an imaginary friend as a child. I met my Benny when I was twenty-five.
Benny isn’t the name that I know him by. But I’ve been discouraged from using his name other than when it’s absolutely unavoidable. And he’s not, in my case, a yellow dinosaur. He’s a handsome, fit guy about my age, blonde hair, blue eyes, and a surfer tan.
We became fast friends. Like an old married couple, we could finish each other’s sentences. It was almost like we shared the same mind. I’m a quiet, introverted person. I’d rather play games than go out and party. But Benny is boisterous, charming, witty. He wasn’t quite the stereotypical drinking game jock, but he wasn’t far from it. After many nights in, he convinced me to go with him, do what he liked to do. Which was go out, drink, dance, and try to get laid.
You’d think that it would be obvious, a grown man talking and laughing to himself at a party. But somehow, Benny didn’t have any trouble bringing the first girl home.
According to police, Leila Matheson received five perimortem stab wounds to the torso, but she was killed by strangulation. More specifically, judging by the angle of the bruises, she was forcibly hanged, and the killer stabbed her multiple times before she died from asphyxiation.
I know that Benny isn’t real. That he’s a construct my brain has built in response to some trauma or due to some chemical imbalance. I guess that’s why it’s called a delusion. I know Benny’s not real, and yet, it’s Benny who killed those girls. I was a helpless witness.
The second girl, Carrie Vance, had sixteen stabs and slashes, but many of those were messier, more rushed, and some of those were postmortem. Police must have wondered if the killer had been forced to kill more quickly. By the time the third victim, Rosalina Franco, was discovered, this time with nine stab wounds, precise and unhurried, the police must have been analyzing the size and shape, the number and placing. Was the killer sending some sort of message?
No. Benny was just competing with himself. How many times could he stab the girl before she died from lack of air. Only stabbing her stomach, could he kill her with his knife before she died from hanging?
I still remember his laughs, his taunting. My pleading for him to stop. My helpless shame at not being able to save the girl, my disgust at my own inability to turn Benny in. Knowing what I know now, trying to imagine what it must have looked like, sounded like, for each of those girls, keeps me awake at night. Did she see an insane man arguing with himself? Or did only one of us make it out of my head?
Victims four and five, Fatima and Mimi, had twelve and fourteen wounds. Benny was slowly ramping up his score. The profile that the police released was of a white male in his mid-twenties, awkward and introverted, holding down a job in some technology-related field and living on his own in a house he owned. Benny laughed when he heard. That sounded nothing like him. With the police that far wrong, I was losing hope that they would catch him without me finding the strength to come forward.
The doctors say that the inability to turn him in was a part of the condition. Children don’t go crying to their parents that Benny wrote on the walls; the parents find the scribbles and confront the child. The doctors say that I was as incapable, mentally, of turning Benny in as I was of stopping him. Of stopping myself.
Victim six, Sari, changed everything. Sari escaped. Police picked me up, and I broke immediately, telling them everything I knew. Even knowing that I would be charged as an accessory, even knowing I’d spend the rest of my life in prison, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. It was over.
Imagine my surprise when they charged me with five counts of murder in the first degree. Imagine my surprise when my lawyer went with an insanity plea. Imagine my surprise when, upon hearing expert witness testimony and the recorded confession from the night I was taken into custody, the jury decided in favor of the plea.
Of course, it all makes perfect sense now. I am less insane than I was then, can see just how unwell I was at the time. Three years in an institution with daily therapy sessions (both private and group), and a pleasant cocktail of chemicals, will do that. I’m not what you might call sane. But I’m making progress.
Now there’s just one little fact that’s bothering me.
Doctors say that the symptoms I present are very similar to those of a child with a troublesome imaginary friend. I suffered trauma or change too large to cope with on my own, or isolation too great to tolerate, and so I created a friend. And sometimes I projected my own urges, my own actions, onto this imaginary friend. Deviant urges. Violent urges.
It wasn’t me that murdered five young women by stringing them up and stabbing them as they hanged. Who teased and taunted them, who competed with himself to be a more brutal killer. It was Benny.
I understand all of that, now. Benny isn’t real, and never existed.
The doctors say that I couldn’t have reported him to the police any more than I could have stopped him from killing the women. That, as a projection of my impulses, he held a sway over me, that as a part of my condition, I was helpless.
But Sari, his final victim, escaped. Because I stopped him. I couldn’t have done what I remember doing, struggling for the knife, cutting her loose, holding him so she could run. That must have been an interpretation my sick mind created. What must have truly happened was that I held the knife all along, that I overcame my urges to kill her, that I cut her loose, that I told her to run.
When I explain this realization to my doctors, they tell me it’s wonderful. That it means I am stronger than Benny, that I don’t have to give in to Benny. And that, realizing this, I’m far out of Benny’s reach.
The doctors tell me it was impossible for me to physically stop him. Just like they tell me that it’s impossible for him to actually make me do things. But I did stop him.
I know Benny isn’t real. But that hasn’t made him disappear. And now that he knows that we can interact with one another… Make the other do things, or stop the other from doing things…
Benny sees it as a game, now. Can he make me drop my spoon? Can he make me choke on a drink of water? Can he make me bang my head against the wall until I’m put in a personal safety room? If he makes me file an edge onto a spoon, how many times can he stab my doctor before I’m pulled off of her?
I hope the doctors figure it out before I kill someone. I can’t tell them about what he’s planning, any more than I can stop him.