Archives For Mental Illness

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.

narcissusThere is a very important mental health tome that describes psychological disorders in detail. It’s called The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Since the American Psychiatric Association is constantly discovering new mental ailments—and they occasionally recognize that previously unhealthy mindsets and behaviors have become so pervasive they can no longer be considered aberrations—the DSM requires periodic revision.

The current authoritative version is DSM-IV-TR, or DSM, fourth edition, text revision. That means that if you were diagnosed with a defect according to the third edition standards, you may now have a clean bill of health. And, for those of you whose diagnosis is still included in DSM IV, don’t despair; they are currently consulting about version five, and who knows what psychoses may soon become “normal.”

I had to study these things during my seminary training, for my counseling work as a chaplain and civilian pastor. I was thinking about the manual recently as I pondered the spirit of Narcissus that seems to hold sway in our age. Like C.S. Lewis, I understand there is value in studying Greek and Roman myths, as many contain seeds of Truth. (Lewis’ appreciation for myth is most evident in Till We Have Faces, which is a reworking of one ancient Greek tale.)

Narcissus, of course, is the mythological Greek who was so consumed by his own handsomeness that he perished because he was unable to tear himself away from gazing at his own likeness. (The image above was painted by Michelangelo Caravaggio in the sixteenth century.)

Narcissism, which echoes his name, describes the unbridled vanity and self-concern (i.e. selfishness) that motivates growing numbers in our individualistic and hedonistic world. Since narcissism has become so rampant, the DSM now concerns itself only with “pathological narcissism.” That distinction will probably remain, even if Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is eliminated from the fifth edition as a distinct illness, as many have recommended.

God Save Us from the Narcissists

Pathological narcissists are terrible indeed. Their characteristic arrogance, envy, sense of entitlement and lack of empathy make them unhealthy members of society. In fact, large numbers of sociopaths and psychopaths are also narcissists.

But here’s the problem. At the rotten core of the disorder we find a putrid seed that negatively affects many of us who appear otherwise to be so normal. The source of the corruption is, in part, sinful pride.

Let’s take a look at the “diagnostic criteria” for NPD which confronted me when I first studied DSM III. (Perhaps you may wish to skip this section, since modest hints of some of these traits may strike close to home.) I’ve added my own introspective comments in italics.

Diagnostic criteria for 301.81, Narcissistic Personality Disorder:

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior) hypersensitivity to the evaluation of others, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by at least five of the following:

(1) Reacts to criticism with feelings of rage, shame, or humiliation (even if not expressed).

— I’ve never “raged,” but it’s embarrassing to be criticized in public

(2) Is interpersonally exploitive: takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.

— Never. I won’t tolerate manipulation–either as the manipulator or the manipulatee.

(3) Has a grandiose sense of self-importance, e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be noticed as “special” without appropriate achievement.

— Have I told you lately about being Thespian of the Year when I graduated from high school . . ?

(4) Believes that his or her problems are unique and can be understood only by other special people.

— Not this trait, I’m aware everyone in this fallen world is faced with challenges . . . many of them worse than my own.

(5) Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, beauty, or ideal love.

— I do daydream about accomplishing special goals, although I never lusted after power and I accepted the facts about “beauty” long ago. I have, however, found ideal love, and we’ve been married 37 years!

(6) Has a sense of entitlement: unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment, e.g., assumes that he or she does not have to wait in line when others must do so.

— I’m the opposite. I always pick the longest and slowest line to stand in.

(7) Requires constant attention and admiration, e.g., keeps fishing for compliments.

— If people weren’t so frugal with compliments, I wouldn’t need to.

(8) Lack of empathy: inability to recognize and experience how others feel, e.g., annoyance and surprise when a friend who is seriously ill cancels a date.

— Nope. I really do care about others. That’s the reason good clergy and caregivers often suffer compassion fatigue.

(9) Is preoccupied with feelings of envy.

— Well, what about those cases where the person doesn’t deserve the honors they’ve received . . ?

There, I feel much better, having made a public confession of my almost-narcissistic human self-centeredness.

In his essay “Christianity and Culture,” C.S. Lewis warns that “A man is never so proud as when striking an attitude of humility.”

When we admit, instead, that there remains much in our soul that is base and prideful, we’re on the proper path. The course that leads to a rejection of Narcissus-in-us, and the embracing of what is precious in our neighbors and our world, is the road that leads to contentment.