Ellis Marks, like many young children, had an imaginary friend who was as real to him as any one of his classmates, brothers and sisters, or cousins. Ellis’ imaginary friend was named Frankly, pulled from his father’s peculiar manner of speaking.
“Frankly”, said Norville Marks, “I would rather be in Philadelphia”; or “Frankly, Esther, I wish you wouldn’t dry your underwear in the bathroom.” ‘Frankly’ was as much a part of Norville’s verbal repertoire as “Actually”, “You know what I’m saying?”, or “Admittedly”.
Ellis’ mother had gently suggested to her husband that he might think of changing his vocal entrance to be more emphatic – stage left instead of right, something more orotund; or better yet, just dropping the word ‘frankly’ altogether. Esther Marks had been brought up in a strict household, one in which manner of speaking had no place. One did not hesitate, hem and haw, or go through orchestral overtures. If you had something to say, you said it.
Now, Norville was by no means a stumbling speaker; and once his cognitive engine had warmed up and the sticky tappets quieted, he was fluent and persuasive. He simply needed a few seconds to gather his thoughts before pronouncement, and ‘Frankly’ was just enough. Over the years it had become a habit, and later on in his marriage an annoying one. “Frankly, the roast could have used a few more minutes, dear” was enough to give his wife fits. ‘Frankly’ in her mind was not a momentary pause of a thoughtful man; but a pretentious shot across her bow. ‘Frankly’ meant that criticism was coming. If it wasn’t the meat or the bras in the bathroom, it was about punctuality, fitness, or manners. He could be insufferable.
So it was ironic that her young son adopted the name Frankly for his imaginary friend. Not only was her husband saying frankly this and frankly that, but her son kept up the irregular roll call all day long.
Not only that but Frankly seemed to take the place of real flesh-and-blood friends. When the boys gathered on the green for after-school baseball, Ellis sat under a tree and talked with Frankly. He never wanted to invite friends over, and never even walked across the street to play with the Popper twins, both boys and exactly his age. He asked his mother to set a place for Frankly at the dinner table, arranged a rack of invisible clothes for Frankly in his closet, and reserved one whole drawer for Frankly’s socks and underwear.
“This is getting out of hand”, his mother said to his father. “What do you think we should do?” She was getting annoyed with having to set the table for four instead of three, to leave extra space in the already crowded hall closet for Frankly’s galoshes, and to ask Frankly’s opinion about the weather and schoolwork. An imaginary friend was cute in The Shining, but Frankly was becoming a pain in the ass.
“He’ll get over it”, said Norville indifferently at the breakfast table. The stock market was getting edgy about recent events in China, and he was more concerned about his overseas investments than his infantile son. Fathers are notoriously indifferent about these things, so Norville’s response was typical. Which was an added source of aggravation for Esther Marks. Not only was her husband responsible for Frankly’s name; and not only did he drive her increasingly crazy with his impossibly predictable speech patterns, he was unaware that Ellis was becoming weird.
Esther Marks hated to use that word about her own son; but there was no other way to describe it. An imaginary friend was OK at three, understandable at five, but totally unacceptable at six going on seven. It was time to grow up and get real.
Ellis, however, had no intention of abandoning Frankly, and when he eventually realized how childish his behavior seemed to others, he simply internalized all conversations with him. His mother, always attentive to changes in her son, noticed that although he no longer talked directly to Frankly, he was moving his lips as though in silent prayer; and she knew that he had simply taken the game indoors.
As Ellis grew older, Frankly did not disappear, but changed character. He was no longer an imaginary friend, but a trusted advisor – not a conscience exactly, but a moral arbiter. By the time Ellis was about to enter college, Ellis had elevated Frankly to a spiritual plane. He had become a guardian angel, and in a final incarnation, the voice of God.
Not all children with imaginary friends have this same trajectory; nor do all people who hear the voice of God start off with them. Although even his very perceptive mother had no inkling that Frankly was or would turn into a revered celestial spirit, she had to admit that she had missed the clues. When Ellis, deep into his religious phase, told her about the very tangible relationship he had with God, and how He was not only with him in spirit, but actually by his side every moment, she was surprised and not a little concerned.
No one in her family or her husband’s had any religion in their makeup. Grandfather Marshall had been an outspoken atheist. Her father was a secular humanist to the core; and all her brothers, cousins, and uncles were dismissively snide when God or Jesus Christ came up in a discussion. So when her own son started oozing treacle about God and Jesus Christ, she was flabbergasted. Ellis had started to sound like a born-again Pentecostal from Mississippi.
Ellis, however, despite his mother’s concern was no different from other deeply spiritual pe0ple who had found Jesus or had a religious epiphany. There had to be thousands of men and women who had had epiphanies – perhaps not as dramatic as Saul on the road to Damascus, but as important to their own much more modest lives. Thousands more declared Jesus as their personal savior.
Battlefield and deathbed epiphanies where the fallen and mortally ill see visions of God, Jesus, and their angels are as common as pear blossoms in the Spring. Ellis had simply been born with a special intimation of the divine. Although he didn’t know it at the time – his companionship with Frankly was as scratched and ragged as any five-year old – he had come equipped with a unique and special set of spiritual gears, wires, and electrodes.
Whether or not Ellis actually had a dedicated line to Jesus was irrelevant. If he felt that he was in heavenly company, that’s all that mattered. Some scholars who study the historical Jesus have concluded that there is too little evidence to conclude that he was who Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John said he was; but have dismissed the debate as irrelevant and unnecessary. If the early evangelists created the Resurrection story out of myth, legend, and Jewish and Roman theology; and if they developed key elements of the new religion (compassion, redemption, remission of sins, brotherhood, etc.) to satisfy the unmet needs of both Jewish and Gentile populations and expand and extend its reach, so be it. It is a moot point whether or not Jesus Christ is God or whether God in fact exists. Billions of people believe both, and for them no proof is needed.
Ellis’s communication with God came not via actual faith but peculiar secular circumstances. If he had not had Frankly as his imaginary friend; had he not had a naturally reclusive personality; and had he not been a very sensitive boy, he would likely have stayed with Frankly until he was laughed out of class. Such is the nature of faith – it comes from places you’d least expect; and it is not less meaningful for it.