Archives For Doug Gresham

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.

Thanksgiving is a very special holiday. In truth, it’s a “holy-day” for all those who offer their thanks to a benevolent God.

Like all holidays, it can be good or bad, depending on the way it is perceived by each individual, and the unique circumstances in which they find themselves. Most of us are thankful, for example, for our loving families. And, even if we can’t be together at these special times, we draw warmth and strength from their love. Tragically, others have been victimized by those who should have protected them, and “family” in their eyes is not something to be thankful for at all.

I was not a perfect son. I strove to be a better father. And, now that I’m blessed with seven grandchildren, I’m trying to be the best grandfather I can be

Many years ago, shortly after having our first child, I gave myself a Father’s Day gift. (That’s not a typo. I purchased for myself a modest plaque with a priceless message.) It reads: “the greatest gift a man can ever give his children is to love their mother.”

I displayed this proverb in my office through the years, as a reminder to myself and others of this profound truth. It’s easy to love one’s spouse as a newlywed in the hot flush of youth. It’s also easy, I’m learning, to love my wife in the snug and warm autumn of life. For many, however, the trials and tribulations that are a natural part of all relationships appear insurmountable. Between the newlywed and maturelywed days, it’s not all easy. While our hormones still surge and familiarity breeds corrosive contempt, we may take for granted the person we once vowed to cherish above all others.

The desire to be a decent father greatly amplifies the importance of being a devoted husband. Knowing this made my reading of a recent article quite painful. I had known for years that President John F. Kennedy was rather promiscuous. Yet a recent article in The Atlantic reveals just how debauched the man was. The article, if you have the stomach for it, praises the strength of his wife Jackie, and is available online here.

It describes just a few of his disease spawning liaisons, and noted that he often traveled with one of his so-called secretaries, should there be “any trouble scaring up local talent.” One imagines the dirtiness felt by the Secret Service agents tasked with protecting him during his sordid escapades in the White House pool. The saddest tale for me was his deflowering of a sophomore intern from Wheaton “right there on his wife’s bed.” I won’t sully you with any more accounts.

When I read the article, it nearly made me sick. He was a vile husband. I recalled the numerous famous pictures of him playing with his children—the doting father, one would think. Yet, in reality, just because he was such a malignant husband, he was also an appalling father. To mistreat his wife so badly, was to dishonor his children as well.

The image that came to me as I looked again at the pictures of Kennedy’s glorious Camelot brought to mind Jesus’ words about whitewashed sepulchers “which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.” (Matthew 23:26-28, ESV). The verse which follows could be JFK’s epitaph: “So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”

A More Godly Alternative

C.S. Lewis experienced neither the normal, nor ideal, form of fatherhood. While he loved and respected his own father, theirs was not a close relationship. And then, at the end of his life, the death of his beloved Joy caused him to transition from the already tentative role of stepfather into the fullest demands of single parenthood. Lewis loved his two sons. He was the best father he knew how to be.

Despite being ill equipped, he did the honorable and right thing—he could do no other. He provided for all the physical needs of his sons, and did his best to meet their emotional needs as well. In Lenten Lands, his son Douglas Gresham describes how painful it was to be at The Kilns following his mother’s passing.

In cowardice and self-pity, I deserted the home and the two men whose company and loving support had for so long been all that had preserved my sanity. When at home from school, I was rarely at home. I know now that I could have done far more than I did to help both Jack and Warnie to bear the burdens which were their lot, but with the blind selfishness which is characteristic of egocentric teen-aged boys, I was too wrapped up in myself to spare time for others.

Strangely, Jack and I had, through these difficult years, become very close, and I think that he understood quite well the reasons for my reluctance to be a part of The Kilns at that time. At first, after Mother’s death, with almost unbelievably naïve complacency, I never doubted that The Kilns and Jack would always be there for as long as I needed them. Then, when it began to dawn on me that there was an increasing likelihood of Jack being snatched away, and with him The Kilns, I reacted by rejecting The Kilns entirely and by not daring to love Jack any more than I already irrevocably did.

For his part, Lewis comprehended just how important understanding fatherhood was. In his tribute George MacDonald: An Anthology, he says this about his mentor:

An almost perfect relationship with his father was the earthly root of all his wisdom. From his own father, he said, he first learned that Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe. He was thus prepared in an unusual way to teach that religion in which the relation of Father and Son is of all relations the most central.

Lewis concurred with MacDonald that “Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe.” And, if this is indeed true, our emulation of it in this life possesses even more importance than I ever imagined.