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

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

by Abigail Santamaria

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The first full biography of Joy Davidman brings her out from C. S. Lewis’s shadow, where she has long been hidden, to reveal a powerful writer and thinker.

Joy Davidman is known, if she is known at all, as the wife of C. S. Lewis. Their marriage was immortalized in the film Shadowlands and Lewis’s memoir, A Grief Observed. Now, through extraordinary new documents as well as years of research and interviews, Abigail Santamaria brings Joy Davidman Gresham Lewis to the page in the fullness and depth she deserves.

A poet and radical, Davidman was a frequent contributor to the communist vehicle New Masses and an active member of New York literary circles in the 1930s and 40s. After growing up Jewish in the Bronx, she was an atheist, then a practitioner of Dianetics; she converted to Christianity after experiencing a moment of transcendent grace. A mother, a novelist, a vibrant and difficult and intelligent woman, she set off for England in 1952, determined to captivate the man whose work had changed her life.

Davidman became the intellectual and spiritual partner Lewis never expected but cherished. She helped him refine his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, and to write his novel Till We Have Faces. Their relationship—begun when Joy wrote to Lewis as a religious guide—grew from a dialogue about faith, writing, and poetry into a deep friendship and a timeless love story.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780151013715
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 08/04/2015
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 432
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Abigail Santamaria earned an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University and has been awarded fellowships from the Ragdale Foundation, Jentel Arts, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She lives in New York City with her family. Joy is her first book.

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In a recurring dream throughout her childhood, Joy Davidman found herself walking down a road she called Daylight Street. In time, she rounded a corner and followed a crooked, grassy path into an unfamiliar world. Joy ambled through that world, lost but unafraid, until the trail opened onto "a strange, golden, immeasurable plane," as she described it, writing extensively about the dream in poetry and prose. Far in the distance rose the towers of Fairyland. Joy's heart swelled with longing as she beheld a perfect kingdom defined by love, devoid of sorrow, capable of consummating every good desire. "Hate and heartbreak / All were forgot there."

But before she could reach the castle gates, she woke up in the Bronx. Instead of a palace threshold, her round brown eyes saw only items in her bedroom: ballet slippers for the dreaded dance lessons her parents required, crisp dresses that made her into her mother's perfect doll, and books that were her waking sanctuary in what often felt like a foreign land. Among her favorites were Greek myths — she longed to visit the land of the gods — and "ghost stories and superscience stories" by Lord Dunsany and George MacDonald, the Victorian minister whose fantasies evoked the same visceral desire as her dream, suggesting that everything sad could become untrue.

Hope lingered in the morning hours. "If I remembered the way carefully, the dream told me, I should be able to find it when I woke up." For a fanciful child born during the Great War and raised in America's "New Era" of postwar prosperity, a Fairyland on earth — as rich with material resources as her dream kingdom was rich with the immaterial — seemed almost possible. In the distance, automobile motors roared above the clip-clop of horses' hooves on the Grand Concourse, the fashionable thoroughfare two blocks from 2707 Briggs Avenue in the genteel middle-class neighborhood where Joy lived with her parents, Joseph and Jeannette, and younger brother Howard, whom Joy came to call Howie. The rhythm of construction joined an orchestra of street sounds, heralding blocks of brand-new art deco apartment buildings with elegant sunken living rooms, electrical and waste disposal systems, refrigerators instead of iceboxes, elevators, and gracious lobbies adorned with marble inlay. "Every day, in every way, the world was getting more comfortable."

But not the world inside herself, and not the local landscape populated with peers and parents. Joy was a sickly, lonely girl, a social outcast at school and a disappointment at home to immigrant parents who governed according to the goals of assimilation and success. They, too, had been branded in childhood with the shame of otherness. "They showed their affection by almost incessant criticism," Joy told a newspaper reporter who profiled her life. They were "well-meaning but strict." Off the record, she was less subtle. "'Well-meaning but strict' ... is certainly damning by faint praise," she wrote to a friend. "But since the truth would have called for loud damns, I don't know how I could have put it milder." She left the specifics to her reader's imagination.

It would be decades before Joy understood the meaning of her dreams, but for her, Fairyland was never the standard little girl's fantasy of opulence or romance. Joy would come to interpret the dream as a universal quest for eternal life, for a destination that could resolve her unconscious conviction that the perfect version of everything lay just ahead.

"There is a myth that has always haunted mankind, the legend of the Way Out," she would write many years later, "the door leading out of time and space into Somewhere Else. We all go out of that door eventually, calling it death. But the tale persists that for a few lucky ones the door has swung open before death, letting them through ... or at least granting them a glimpse of the land on the other side. The symbol varies ... [F]or some, the door itself is important; for others, the undiscovered country beyond it — the never-never land, Saint Brendan's Island, the Land of Heart's Desire ... Whatever we call it, it is more our home than any earthly country." Joy called it Fairyland, a place she visited in her dreams and searched for in her waking hours.

C. S. Lewis, in his first published novel, The Pilgrim's Regress, calls it the Island. That book — an allegorical revision of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress written shortly after Lewis's conversion from atheism to Christianity — would teach Joy the meaning of her childhood dreams. "By disguising fairyland as heaven," Joy wrote after becoming a Christian, "I was enabled to love heaven." Before this revelation and after, Joy's attempts to reach the castle would determine the course of her brief yet abundant life. In forty-five years she embraced more milestones and worldviews than most people experience in a lifetime twice as long. Her Daylight Street would detour into a romance with the Communist Party, whose propaganda would seduce her into mistaking the Soviet Union for her utopic Fairyland. The route would dead-end in a miserable first marriage to Bill Gresham, a troubled Spanish civil war veteran, Joy's partner in a misguided dance with Dianetics — another illusion. And the road would inevitably lead to C. S. Lewis, Joy's final embodiment of heaven on earth, and the man who would point her in the direction of the Fairyland that would finally satisfy her heart.

The journey to Fairyland was a generational odyssey; Joy's grandparents in nineteenth-century tsarist eastern Europe had dreamed of it, too — a faraway land of peace, where the anti-Jewish regime of Alexander III could no longer threaten their lives and livelihoods with business boycotts, pogroms, and laws regulating the fundamentals of freedom. For Joy's father's parents, David and Tauba Davidman, living precariously along the northeast foothills of the Carpathian Mountains in the Galician city of Drohobycz, Joy's castle took the form of a literal, earthly country: America.

In the summer of 1892, David left his wife and three children — Joy's father, five year-old Yosef, and his two younger sisters, Frieda and Rosa — to join the crush of men establishing homes and jobs abroad before sending for their families. In Antwerp, David boarded the SS Belgenland, bound for the port of New York. On the ship's manifest, his "Calling or Occupation" was listed as "Merchant." He carried no baggage.

The Belgenland arrived in New York on August 1, 1892, delivering its steerage passengers to the brand-new Ellis Island immigration station. Other than the Chinese Exclusion Act, United States law included few restrictions on immigration. Joy's grandfather was among the nearly half-million individuals — including Irish, Italians, Germans, Swedes, Russians, and Canadians — to be processed during that inaugural year. Although the 1900 federal census would list David's occupation as, mysteriously, "Operator Cloaks," the story that was passed down indicates that he worked for a time as a presser in a sweatshop, packing burning coals into an iron until it weighed nearly twenty pounds, then smoothing cloth patches as they passed along the assembly line to produce pants, petticoats, blouses, dresses, and suits. Inhaling particles of cotton, hemp, and flax in poorly ventilated sweatshops may have led to, or exacerbated, the tuberculosis (dubbed "the Jewish disease" by well-to-do WASPs) that would kill him in 1910.

Some ten months after David arrived in America, Tauba and the children traveled to Hamburg, hauling two pieces of luggage among them, and boarded the double-masted SS Dania. At Ellis Island, Yosef became Joseph, Frieda became Frances, and Rosa became Rose. Over the next few years, four more siblings were born — Max, Leon, Nathan, and Ruth — and the family moved to a tenement at 100 Willett Street on the Lower East Side, where in 1900 they were joined by David's brother Ben and his family of four, whom David also sponsored.

A few hundred feet from 100 Willett, just north of what would become the entrance to the Williamsburg Bridge — nicknamed the "Jewish Highway" for facilitating a mass exodus of immigrants from the Lower East Side to Brooklyn — lived Jacob Spivack, a jeweler; his wife, also named Tauba; and their children, Charles, Lena, and Jeannette, called Jen or Jenny. When Jeannette — originally named Yenta — was four years old, the family left their shtetl, Shpikov, outside Odessa. Jacob wanted his daughters to have the education denied them in Russia; he believed that no woman could be free unless she was able to earn a living.

America did not prove to be a perfect Fairyland. At the height of summer 1893, the year Joe and Jen (as they became known) arrived with their families, a reporter from the New York Times toured their Lower East Side neighborhood, collecting impressions for a story. An overwhelming stench spiked the hot air. Fruits and vegetables lay rotting in the gutters; the odor of decay mingled with the stink of raw sewage wafting from backyard toilets that served several families and drained nowhere. "Now the lowest scum of foreign countries has turned [the streets] into pestholes," the reporter declared. The "scum" consisted of men with "thin sharp features and black beards ... dressed in filthy old clothes," women "even less tidy," and "dirty-faced children" playing in "stagnant pools of water." The reporter didn't mention that housing laws required no more than one outhouse — connected to city sewers "if possible" — for every twenty occupants. Landlords cut costs wherever they could, knowing that immigrants had little choice but to endure. Airshafts were clogged with trash because the city provided nowhere to dispose of it. Fire escapes functioned as storage for bedding cleared from floors after dawn to make room for work space. Two- or three-room apartments sometimes housed multiple families by night while serving as sweatshops by day. The article's headline read "Streets Where Once Fashionable People Lived Now Filled by an Undesirable Class; Push-Cart Men and Street Peddlers Abound with Their Unwholesome Wares."

Joe and Jenny, Joy's parents, were among the "dirty-faced children." Marginalized by the greater society, they grew up believing that as Jews, they had to prove themselves through hard work and achievement. Education would be their way out of the Lower East Side. In 1903 Jen enrolled in the Normal College, the city's all-female teachers' training institute and the sister school to the City College of New York (CCNY), where Joe started classes that same year, following a Hebrew education and public school. Both colleges were tuition-free and catered largely to first- and second-generation Americans, particularly Jewish immigrants, who weren't overtly welcomed by Protestant-affiliated institutions.

Slight and lanky at five foot eight, Joe was a goal-oriented, civic-minded, driven young man who translated Yiddish poems into English for local papers and would spend the rest of his life trying to repay New York City for the gift of a free education. In his 1907 CCNY commencement address, Joe, serving as class speaker, exhorted his fellow graduates to "make a proper return to this city whose munificence has made it possible for us to be where we are tonight ... Not by passively accepting present evils, not by sighing over the corruption of our civic institutions but by taking an active interest in politics, by supporting and by leading." His own goal was to become a district superintendent in the New York City public school system. "Joseph the Dreamer," as he called himself in an autobiographical short story, strove to be "at least as illustrious as Joseph the old in Egypt." He started low on the ladder, teaching kindergarten during the day, instructing immigrants in English at night. In years to come, Joy's father would be an active member of the New York City Principals Association, the New York Society of Experimental Study of Education, the National Education Association, and, among numerous Jewish organizations, the People's ORT Foundation, which had been founded in Russia in the late nineteenth century by a group of Jewish social philosophers "interested in the economic and social rehabilitation of their people" through the development of skills in agriculture, arts, and crafts. Joe took on leadership positions as a board member or president of numerous community organizations, including the Jewish Teachers Association, which ostensibly promoted religious, social, and moral welfare in schools, although in practice little attention was given to religion. The organization was primarily concerned with social justice, humanitarianism, championing the advancement of Jewish public school teachers, and promoting vigilance about anti-Semitism in the workplace. "Every real educator," said Dr. Davidman (as he insisted on being addressed after earning his Ph.D. from New York University in 1917, signing letters — even to his mother — "Dr. Jos. I. Davidman"), "should also be a social reformer in the true sense of the word, instead of a narrow, pedantic, iconoclastic visionary."

Joe's activities would never be as selflessly altruistic as they appeared on the surface; an intense self-righteousness pushed away even his siblings. "He was a pompous ass," according to one nephew. The greatest fault Joe himself admitted was awkwardness around women; he was fortunate to find one who saw through to his softer side.

Also a kindergarten teacher, Jenny Spivack was a lush, lovely woman, petite and moon-faced with thick dark hair in soft folds that twirled into a bun at the nape of her neck. The two could not have been more ideologically aligned. In high school and college, the racial and cultural significance of being Jews was more important to them than either religion or assimilation. Both largely discarded the faith of their fathers as if it were an outmoded heirloom but maintained remnants of their Jewish heritage, especially a shared enthusiasm for a Jewish nation. At City College, Joe became deeply involved in Zionist causes, serving first as treasurer, then president of the Student Zionist Society, and eventually becoming president of the New York City Collegiate Zionist League and editor of its newsletter. Jen was a member of the Collegiate Zionist League as well.

Joe and Jen were married by a justice of the peace on December 28, 1908, although the anniversary they would officially recognize was June 29, 1909, the date a rabbi conducted a traditional wedding in Brooklyn. The next day, the New York City Collegiate Zionist League sent a handwritten blessing to its "esteemed chairman" Joseph I. Davidman and "beloved fellow-member" Jeannette Spivack Davidman: "Whereas it is one of the basic principles of the Zionist movement to counteract any tendency towards assimilation, but to encourage marriage among Jewish people ... and Whereas two of our members have agreed to enter the state of connubial felicity ... Be it resolved that the Collegiate Zionist League take the example set by these two members as encouragement for such future undertakings."

Although the Zionist League denounced assimilation, especially by way of intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles, the Davidmans became increasingly driven to achieve societal acceptance. Soon they were economically secure enough to join the ranks of vacationing city dwellers and summer upstate. They booked an extended excursion to Cairo, New York, "gateway to the Catskills." There the couple sat one summer for a strip of sepia-toned locket-size portraits. Jenny draped herself across Joe's lap, covering him with the billows of her skirt. Joe wrapped an arm around her narrow waist and rested a hand on the curve of her hip. Their eyes flashed with flirtation. They kissed for the camera.

Not every upstate tourist community welcomed "Hebrews" — it was not uncommon for hotels and boardinghouses to advertise "No Jews Allowed" — circumstances that compelled Jews to open their own restaurants and lodges. But Joe and Jen, like many young Jewish vacationers, were not interested in kosher menus; they didn't care how their beef was slaughtered, or if the kitchen staff used one set of pots and pans for meat and another for dairy. Rituals and faith conflicted with Joe's paradigm of logic and reason, and clashed with the mainstream Americanization the Davidmans increasingly craved. Above all else, Joe and Jen wanted to belong, to be accepted. Tourism and consumption signified an arrival. They were finally, fully beyond survival mode. A leisure trip to Cairo represented a journey that could not be measured in miles.

Joe and Jen had their own Fairyland in mind: the Bronx. Until late in the nineteenth century, the borough was a placid province of manor houses, cottages, and farms, with self-sustaining villages where locals worked as grocers, tailors, milkmen, carpenters, shoemakers, and piano designers. The subway, opened in 1904, dramatically redefined the landscape, merging urban development with mass migration. At five cents per ride, the transit system offered fast, affordable commutes to Manhattan for work, shopping, and visits with family. Farms, estates, private homes, and vacant lots were transformed into neighborhoods. The population grew by tens of thousands each year.


Excerpted from "Joy"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Abigail Santamaria.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
June–December 1939,
August 1952–January 1953,
January–November 1953,
November 1953–April 1954,
Fall 1954–October 1956,
Fall 1956–Fall 1957,
Selected Bibliography,
Photo Credits,
About the Author,

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Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C. S. Lewis 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book takes you through a period of time long gone in the company of people it would have been wonderful to know.
AbbyGGH More than 1 year ago
Loved it! Joy was not a saint by any means but she was certainly a woman who knew her own mind. Had she been of age in the 60's, I might have been less enthralled - but she was doing her thing in the 30's and 40's. Her relationship with C.S.Lewis, although a bit odd, was still the part that endeared her to me.
bwsmith More than 1 year ago
Literally ZIPPED through this bio, alternately feeling shock, dread, and unbelief as I read about the woman who was glamorized if you will in the movies about her marriage to C.S. Lewis. And the meme came to mind: "don't judge others because they sinned differently than you." Powerful portrait of how the the early XXth century affected people -- AMericans. Glimpses into rise of communism, atheism, alcoholism, and how God finds the most hidden hurting heart and heals. Well-written, well-documented, and a good read proving what my father always said: There are 3 sides to every story: his, hers and the right one.