Joy and C.S. Lewis

On Messy Love

“I brought a load of pain and dumped the lot upon your willing shoulder.” — Joy Gresham Lewis

I began this book with a strong set of ideals about the life of Joy Gresham Lewis. This biography did not just provide a history of Joy’s life. It forced me to reconsider my high notions of love. In each page of Joy’s 45-year journey I uncovered a truth in my own life that I have chosen to forget over and over again: Real love is messy. Joy’s life was not exempt.

In short, Joy was everything I was not expecting. She was the daughter of two Eastern European Jews, who moved to Manhattan in the late 19th century, and existed mainly on the outskirts of society. As an only child, Joy dwelt somewhere between her father’s unrelenting grasp and her wandering, eccentric mind. Writing was her escape.

Joy’s earliest writings told of visions throughout adolescence that she referred to as “prophetic moments.” They were glimpses of a life beyond the realm of her own physical existence; she called the other side the “Fairyland.” And yet, this far off place was not lost to her childhood, but it would take years to resurface.

College and graduate school seemed natural milestones for Joy, who reveled in literature and poetry and, at times, even her own professors. With some independence and freedom, Joy began to rest in the ideals of Marxism and social revolution as her hope. Writing was her medium. This time she focused her passion on the tumultuous political climate in the US.

After a brief stint in Hollywood, screenwriting for MGM, Joy returned to her lost love, Manhattan, and found a new love, Bill Gresham, whom she promptly married. They shared the story of many other modern couples. The relationship was unfulfilling and floundering right from the start.

Joy and Bill attempted to fix their marriage by searching for the right moral compass. Marxism, Dianetics, and materialism filled temporary voids. Bill and Joy were two lonely people, existing on the brink of disaster.

It was a moment of grace that altered the course of Joy’s life. It was a joy unexpected; a transcendent moment of feeling abandoned by Bill and then filled, all at once. Joy was on her knees, unknowing of who was in the empty space and suddenly, the “Fairyland” she’d encountered as a child was in her own bedroom. Her encounter with God felt more tangible than the other options the world had offered.

The grace came right before another period of seeking. In this search, Joy discovered Clive Staples Lewis, a newly famous British theologian, who’d been transformed from Atheism to Christianity in a similar moment of unexpected grace. Joy fell for a man she knew only through his writing. This admiration fell hand in hand with Joy’s embrace of Christianity. For the first time, Joy had the only true remedy to the chaos of her soul and the deep moral questions that had plagued her.

Lewis had carried his own burdens: he’d been a wandering bachelor who had a strange relationship history. He’d spent three decades tied to an older woman who played the twisted role of mother and a master. When Joy met Lewis, he was an overweight, balding intellectual. Joy was a married woman, who was just hardened enough to have more acquaintances than friends. She also had the early pains of a body about to face massive disease.

Joy’s thoughts about Jack were borderline obsessive. On her first visit to see Jack in Oxford, Joy left her husband and two sons with her cousin, Renee, who was fleeing an abusive relationship. Joy was not shocked when her plan was executed, as Bill and Renee had fallen in love. Joy promptly returned to Lewis, this time with her two sons and a growing hope that Bill would divorce her.

It was this plot that led to a friendship both deep and fundamental to the lives of both Joy and Jack Lewis. They were characters who shared similar story lines: a fascination with the metaphysical, regular slumps in their creative writing, dysfunctional previous relationships, and parallel spiritual narratives. The agape was one that Lewis described, writing “If we had never fallen in love we should have nonetheless always been together, and created a scandal.”

A more profound affection grew between them, slowly at first, but eventually with a force not even health could interrupt. Joy was officially diagnosed with cancer in October of 1956, only a few months after she’d become Jack’s bride. Joy was told she had a few months to live at most, but nine months later she was completely off of pain medications and experiencing a life that was as close to normal as Jack had begged God for in his prayers.

The sweet time they had together, as lovers and friends, developed most fully after Joy’s cancer was temporarily halted. It was during this time, Jack described Joy as “Like a garden…like a nest of gardens, wall within wall, hedge within hedge, more secret, more full of fragrant and fertile life, the further you entered.” Jack and Joy’s approach to this newfound life was strangely invigorating. Joy had gone from being bedridden to wandering the Kilns in a matter of months.

The remainder of their time together could be summed up in a few words: painful, bittersweet, and consuming.

At the end of her life, Joy found Jack to be a earthly mirror of the “land beyond” that they’d both encountered and knew existed. Joy wrote a sonnet about Jack and her love for him:

“When I first loved you / Daylight sang and blazed / With angels; the incarnate miracle / Rang in my heart like ocean in a shell, / The sky was loud with God.”

The love story of Jack and Joy Lewis was a messy one. Their relationship is a reminder that sanctity of human love is not born to be complete on earth. There is a missing piece. Jack and Joy’s love would have been hauntingly similar to former relationships if they had not experienced the mystery of transcendent grace, independently, after both searching in the wrong places.

Joy Lewis was not a woman born to find C.S. Lewis, but rather to discover him on her road to meeting Christ. The myth that human love can fill our deepest voids was never proven more false than in the story of Joy Lewis.

Their love was pure, and yet their pasts were messy. Their love was fundamental to their faith, yet there was no road map.

Thank you, Joy, for your unconventional life and profound love. Thank you, Abigail Santamaria, for telling Joy’s story.

Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C.S. Lewis, by Abigail Santamaria.

Our next book review will be A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra.