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

Writer Abigail Santamaria’s biography of Joy Davidman, Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C. S. Lewis, takes us beyond Joy’s relationship to C. S. Lewis. She examines the whole of Joy’s life, which “embraced more milestones and worldviews than most people experience in a lifetime twice as long.” Davidman embraced atheism, communism, scientology, and, finally, Christianity before she ended up in the arms of Lewis.

Joy, born in 1915 to Jewish immigrants in New York City, defined her life goal early onshe wanted to be a writer. She majored in English, pledging: “I devote a single heart to literature.” Santamaria distributes samples of her poetry throughout the book. They reveal a woman of deep thoughts and dreams, one “absorbed in matters of the heart.” They reveal an aesthetic passionate about beauty—about finding it, delighting in it, and deploying it as a tool to heal what had been broken. She had “a sonnet for every wound.”

And wounds were plentiful: exclusion and isolation during her adolescent years; a troubled relationship with her parents; periods of serious illness; and a turbulent marriage to writer William Gresham (from 1942–1954) marked by alcoholism, distrust, incompetence as a mother, and almost constant financial distress. All of this created a great longing for something better and more beautiful. The Great Depression only added to Joy’s longing and zeal to seek out redemption, a search she described in an essay titled “The Longest Way Round.” It sure was a long way round.

Curious Journey to Faith and Marriage 

As a child, Joy told her father she was an atheist. But after “waking moments” of strong beauty, typically when writing or in nature, she came to acknowledge that something existed beyond the material world, a “metaphysical depth.” During college in the 1930s, Joy became a “devoted materialist” and joined the Communist party. Communism didn’t solve her problems, though.

Her husband, William, went missing one night in 1946. Aware of his drinking problems and poor health, Joy became anxious. Alone in her room and at her wits end, she encountered God, later saying it was “like waking from sleep.” William was eventually found, and the two started exploring Christianity, guided by the works of Lewis. The family eventually joined Pleasant Plains Presbyterian Church, where Joy and her two sons, Dough and David, were baptized. Their newfound faith did not, however, prevent them from engaging in (Scientology founder) L. Ron Hubbard’s “dianetics,” a system that seeks to relieve psychosomatic disorder by cleansing the mind of harmful mental images. Both Joy and William performed auditing sessions on each other and others in order to combat health and mental problems, and to raise money.

Joy’s journey into Christianity aligned with a mail correspondence with Lewis, whom she—according to friends and passionate poems—fell deeply in love with, fantasized about, and longed for. With the conviction that her husband had been unfaithful, Joy and Bill drifted apart while her newfound friendship in Lewis—or “Jack,” as he insisted being called—grew. In 1952, she traveled to England to meet him.

At first, Joy’s attraction to Lewis wasn’t reciprocated. But over the course of two trips and several years, during which her marriage deteriorated and ended in divorce, Joy and Lewis grew closer and got married. They remained married, growing happier with one another and intimately so, until Joy died of cancer in 1960.

Complex and Beautiful Portrait 

What mainly drove me to read Joy was a desire to figure out what drove Lewis to Joy. What was that “something” that attracted him to her? I anticipated her searching and wandering culminating in some destination where her refined side would come out, and then I’d know exactly why Lewis loved her. 

That did not happen.

Santamaria could’ve made Joy someone extraordinary. She could’ve painted her as a feminist martyr—a victim of an alcoholic husband, a woman trapped in the home-versus-career grip. She could’ve painted her as a heroine portrait—a virtuous fighter in the name of love, art, and truth. She could’ve painted her as the romantic convert, turning from the land of lostness to godliness and marriage, in the style of Ruth or a Francine Rivers novel. That would’ve been redeeming and simple.

Instead, she includes Joy’s ego and narcissism, her lying to Lewis about Bill in order to cast him in a bad light, her overspending habits, and her negligence of her children. Even after Joy appears to have found Christ and have “peace with God” in her final hours, her faith is never carved firmly enough in stone for me to be sure what she actually believed. All facets are included, which is confusing and somewhat frustrating. But this just points to the beauty of Joy’s complexity, which is often the best way to describe anything good and true. 

The complexity with which Santamaria conveys Joy’s life, love, and faith, as well as her refusal to put Joy in a box, leaves her story unresolved. I’m still wondering who Joy really was and what made Lewis love her. But it’s also what makes me appreciate this biography as a believable portrait. Humans are complex, and Santamaria has the guts to sacrifice simplicity and resolution to expose that truth.

Joy is a story about longing and searching, hope and heartache. Every now and then, it’s about seeing. More than anything else, then, Santamaria’s portrait of Joy showed me the complexity of faith. It’s a tough complexity, but a beautiful one nonetheless. 

Abigail Santamaria. Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C. S. Lewis. Orlando, FL: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. 432 pp. $28.00.