C.S. Lewis as a Stepfather

September 8, 2020 — 14 Comments

Step-parenting well can be a challenge. In many cases it brings great joy to both parent and child. But in some unfortunate cases, parenting the biological child of another can seem nearly impossible.

If you needed another reason to respect C.S. Lewis—and I recognize most readers of Mere Inkling don’t—consider the case of his stepsons. I’ll refer you in a moment to an informative column by Jonathon Van Maren, but first, some background.

C.S. Lewis was a confirmed bachelor. He anticipated living out his senior years in the fraternal company of his brother and close friends. God, however, had other plans. His marriage to Joy Davidman is familiar, in part because of the 1993 film, Shadowlands.

Curiously, the film itself raised a question in my mind that has not been satisfactorily answered until now. Where is David Gresham? Joy had two sons Lewis helped raise. Only David is portrayed in the film. At the time I attributed the absence to cinematic convenience. After all, since the son(s) were not the primary focus of the drama, one could easily suffice for the pair.

Some years later I corresponded (too briefly) with Doug Gresham, who has admirably championed the legacy of his stepfather’s faith and work. When I asked about his brother, Doug shared that he had elected to follow Judaism, and chosen not to be directly involved in the workings of C.S. Lewis Co. Ltd. and associated projects.

Now, following David’s death, Doug is free to share with us another insight into the patience and compassion of C.S. Lewis. The great author did not flinch from the duty he had accepted when he married Joy and brought his bride, and her children, into his home. Doug has previously written about their family in his wonderful book, Lenten Lands. He describes the adjustments.

We became a family. It didn’t happen all at once, but slowly and surely Jack and Warnie and I were building some sort of relationship. I could never claim to have been anywhere near as important to Jack [Lewis] as he was to me, but I really do believe that I did become important to him. In addition, I began to understand a little about Jack and began to be able to see the enormous wealth of compassion in him.

The marriage was too brief, lasting from March 1957* until Joy’s death in July 1960. After that, Lewis was diligent in establishing the best future for his sons. Douglas’ life has been a testimony to that commitment. David’s sadly, was not.

The Curse of Psychosis

Schizophrenia is an ugly affliction. Psychotic episodes, where a person is unable to discern between reality and illusion, can create chaos. While modern medications are helpful, in severe cases, long term hospitalization may be required. In David’s case, his life ended several years ago in just such an institution, in Switzerland. 

While schizophrenia often first manifests between the late teens and early thirties, in some cases its onset begins earlier. Such was the case in the Davidman family. And it was during these turbulent years that Lewis did his best to protect and nurture his new sons. Doug relates a shocking example of how his elder brother “was continually trying to get rid of me.” From the aforementioned column:

“I came out of the kitchen [at The Kilns] one afternoon, for example. . . As I walked out the brick arch doorway, there was a splash, and I was covered in gasoline. My brother was standing there trying to strike a match to throw at me.

I kicked his wrist so hard I nearly broke it. The matches went flying, and I took off.” Douglas told me that this sort of thing was not uncommon. “It was a difficult childhood for me,” he said. “Jack tried his very hardest for David all the time. He tried to help in every way he could—he was kind and gentle and wonderful with him.”

Those of us whose families have been scarred by the scourge of schizophrenia understand how one’s compassion and patience can be tested to their limits. C.S. Lewis passed that test. He neither surrendered to the challenge, nor shirked the burden he had willingly assumed.

After reading “C.S. Lewis and His Stepsons” at First Things, my respect for the man continues to grow. I suspect that yours will, as well.


* Their true marriage took place while Joy was hospitalized on 21 March 1957. Lewis had entered into a civil marriage with Joy a year earlier, to allow her to remain in the United Kingdom.

14 responses to C.S. Lewis as a Stepfather

  1. 

    Sounds like a book that should be on many must read list. A whole different aspect of Lewis
    We have a nephew that has late onset schizophrenia (after 1st year of college). It is brutal and tragic. That wonderful child is in there somewhere – we see glimpses on occasion. Heartbreaking
    Challenge and burden is the correct evaluation. Takes courage for the family.
    Thanks for all the insights you share about this great author

    • 

      Yes, about both comments: (1) Lenten Lands is well worth the read, and (2) schizophrenia is powerful, and destruction. A challenge for the families–who must remain supportive–and even more terrifying, I assume, for the afflicted individual. Sorry about your nephew. I’ll pray that the standard treatment regimens restore his mental health.

      Doug Gresham also wrote Jack’s Life, a biography. It too represents his unique personal perspective.

  2. 

    Wow, I had no idea about that. How awful for all of them

    • 

      It really is a sad tale, Sarada, but it serves to further reveal C.S. Lewis’ deep compassion. And Douglas’ too. We who persist in loving those who (unintentionally) continue to wound us, require a special portion of God’s grace.

      But that merciful grace, God does indeed, faithfully provide.

      • 

        It strikes me how many people around him were ill: Joy Davidman dying, Warnie an alcoholic and now this. It must have been hard

      • 

        Add to that the fact that–like all his contemporaries–he was close up survivor of two world wars. A lot of turbulence there, but I imagine that’s true of most lives…

  3. 

    I already admired Jack more than almost anyone. And now I have yet another reason. Thanks for the information and insights, as always, Rob.

  4. 

    I was not aware of David’s schizophrenia. Now we have more reason than ever to admire and emulate C. S. Lewis–a man of compassion, self-discipline, perseverance, and integrity. Thank you, Rob!

  5. 

    There are so many torturous and trying illnesses, impacting both patients and their loved ones. Satan must hate us almost as immeasurably as God loves us.

    • 

      Oh, the horrors. Another child died this week from that brain eating amoeba that can afflict swimmers in warm bodies of water. Every death is a loss–but worst of all, the suffering of innocents.

      Your observation reminds of a powerful insight I’ve shared many times with people drawn to supernatural power or the occult…

      One difference between God and the devil is that even when you hate him, God still loves you. And even when you love him, Satan still hates you.

  6. 

    Fascinating. Yes, dealing with mental illness is a quiet hell that must often stay that way for privacy issues.

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