C.S. Lewis tried to help his schizophrenic step-son

This article was first published in First Things last autumn.

By Jonathon Van Maren

Douglas Gresham is the last person living who knew C. S. Lewis well. The son of Joy Davidman, Douglas watched his mother and “Jack” fall in love and marry. He wept with his stepfather when Joy died of cancer, and led the mourners behind the casket when husband followed wife to the graveyard.

In a recent interview, Douglas told me that many biographers have misunderstood Lewis’s marriage. Lenten Lands is Douglas’s memoir of his life at The Kilns in Oxford with his brother David, his mother, Lewis, and Lewis’s brother Warnie. A poignant and powerful account of his mother’s death as well as Lewis’s last days, the memoir recounts the intimate details of his childhood, the move from America to England, and the blossoming relationship between Jack and Joy. Contrary to prevailing theories, Douglas says, the marriage was first and foremost a meeting of two magnificent minds. “There wasn’t much in the world that my mother didn’t know about,” he told me. “There wasn’t anyone on the same level as herself until she met Jack. They just sort of clicked together. It was inevitable, I think.” According to the man who knew them best, his mother’s intimidating intelligence was one reason many of Lewis’s friends disliked her. Warnie, on the other hand, adored Joy.

While the relationship between Lewis and Joy Davidman has been a matter of endless fascination to Lewis fans and academics alike, many have ignored the fact that the marriage made Lewis a stepfather. But Davidman’s boys (ages 11 and 12 at the time of the marriage) became Lewis’s stepsons, and these relationships shaped the last decade of his life. Lewis dedicated The Horse and His Boy to Douglas and David Gresham. While Douglas has weighed in with two books—Lenten Lands and a short biography of Lewis—David has virtually vanished from the historical record. In the 1993 film Shadowlands, for example, David Gresham is nonexistent. Even in his brother’s memoir he makes only a handful of brief appearances.

David died several years ago in a secure Swiss mental hospital, and Douglas has finally broken his silence about a hitherto unknown aspect of life at The Kilns. His earliest memories, he told me, were of his brother, who was later diagnosed as schizophrenic. “When I was a small child,” Douglas said, “he was continually trying to get rid of me. This went on into our teen years.” Douglas said he recalls “running like crazy or defending myself from my rather insane brother. . . I would never have said anything to harm him or upset him while he was alive, because oddly enough I still loved him as a brother. In fact, I wept when he died.”

For decades, despite a booming cottage industry of Lewis biographies and endless academic theorizing about the last years of Lewis’s life, Douglas kept to himself the fact that Lewis struggled mightily to help his mentally ill stepson. “We didn’t tell anybody,” he told me. “The only reason I’m releasing it now is because people should know what Jack put up with and what Warnie put up with and how heroic they were to do it at all.” It is time, he added, “that people understand what Jack and Warnie went through. Jack and Warnie didn’t know what the heck to do.”

“Our uncle, my mother’s brother Howard in New York, had allowed David to come and stay with him for awhile,” Douglas told me. “He didn’t know what condition David was born with, but he was a very talented and renowned psychotherapist and psychiatrist in New York.” When David went to stay with Howard, they had difficulties and eventually David left. Years later, Douglas said, he went to visit Howard. “Howard took me aside and said, ‘I think you should know that I did diagnose your brother as being a dangerous paranoid schizophrenic.’” Howard had offered David treatment, and David had refused. David was not welcomed back.

Douglas recounted some surreal stories. “I learned how to fight very fast; I learned how to run very fast,” he recalled. “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.”

“Jack helped my brother through all sorts of difficulties in education and so forth,” Douglas told me. “When my brother decided to become Jewish rather than Christian—he’d already been through Islam and tried Buddhism—Jack went out of his way to get special pots and pans for him so he could cook his own kosher food and get kosher food from the Jewish shop in the middle of the covered market in Oxford.” “Jack went out of his way to do everything he possibly could for that lad, and none of it was accepted,” Douglas said. “Well, it was accepted, but he was never grateful about it. He was just very badly damaged mentally and emotionally, and he stayed that way.”

In a letter to the boys’ father, William Gresham, in America, Lewis was less than forthcoming about these difficulties: “They’re a nice pair and easy to get on with—if only they got on better with one another.” William—a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and an accomplished writer in his own right—came to visit the boys at The Kilns shortly after Joy’s death in 1960, at Lewis’s urging. But David had no interest in spending time with his father. In the U.S. shortly thereafter, William killed himself after being diagnosed with tongue cancer. With Lewis’s death on November 22, 1963, Douglas and David had lost their mother, their father, and their stepfather within three short years.

After Jack’s death, Douglas went to live with journalist Jean Wakeman. (J.R.R. Tolkien, whom he’d met at the Inklings meetings Lewis often took him to as a boy, also offered to take him in if he needed a place to stay.) Warnie, grieving for Joy and his brother, finally succumbed to the alcoholism he had fought so long to defeat. Gresham says that after Jack’s death he never saw Warnie sober again. David struck off on his own, and his mental illness plagued him for his entire life.

“Nobody seems to know that David was ever there,” Gresham told me. “He seems to have faded out of existence. . . the biographies that I’ve encountered about Jack, for example, hardly mention my brother.” For Gresham, it’s a signal that the biographers haven’t dug deep enough. “I grew up with him, and I can tell you a great deal more than any of the biographers.” Perhaps it is time that Douglas Gresham put pen to paper and did just that.

One thought on “C.S. Lewis tried to help his schizophrenic step-son

  1. Paul Woollard says:

    Thank you. A vital facet of family life and mental health. Its incredible how well Douglas came through such a dangerous childhood.
    I love that the story lives on through Douglas. I think we all fell part of this beloved family.

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