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An Untold Tragedy: Douglas Gresham and C.S. Lewis’s Final Years by Jonathon Van Maren

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Essay

An Untold Tragedy: Douglas Gresham and C.S. Lewis’s Final Years

Douglas Gresham may be one of the most interesting men alive. His father was William Gresham, the American novelist responsible for the 1946 novel, Nightmare Alley. His mother was Joy Davidman, the poet and writer who produced Smoke on the Mountain: An Interpretation of the Ten Commandments. And when his stepfather died, J.R.R. Tolkien offered him a place to stay. That stepfather was C.S. Lewis, the 20th century’s great Christian apologist and creator of the mystical world of Narnia. 

Gresham told me he vividly remembers the frosty December day he met his stepfather. He had just arrived in England with his mother and brother David, and they were to stay for a few days at the Kilns, where Lewis lived with his brother, Warnie. Gresham was thrilled at the idea of meeting the creator of Narnia, and he was nearly shaking with excitement as they walked in through the back porch of the kitchen door.

Lewis at Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1950.

Photo: Public Domain.

“As we walked in, Jack [as Lewis was known to friends and family] appeared from the other side of the kitchen. He was perhaps the most shabby-looking individual I’d ever seen in my life,” Gresham recalls with a laugh. “As far as I was concerned, this was a man on speaking terms with High King Peter and Aslan, and he looked completely scruffy. There was nothing particularly handsome about him: he was balding; he wore clothes that were almost falling apart; he had slippers on, with his heel crushing the heel of the slipper; and he had long, nicotine-stained teeth and fingers. He was a mess, quite frankly.”

That impression wore off quickly and was replaced by a warm friendship that would last the rest of Lewis’s life. Indeed, C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy (1954) was dedicated to the two Gresham boys.

The story of C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman, of course, is well-known. Lewis wrote one of his greatest books, A Grief Observed, published in 1961, on his bereavement after losing Davidman to cancer in 1960. Their brief marriage—they were civilly married in 1956 and religiously married by an Anglican priest the following year—has been both a great source of controversy to biographers, who are torn in their opinions about Joy, and endlessly fascinating to artists, who are drawn to the handful of ‘golden years’ before the two lovers died in quick succession. There was the 1993 film Shadowlands, starring Anthony Hopkins as Lewis and Debra Winger as Joy; and, more recently, a novel by Patti Callahan titled Becoming Mrs. Lewis was published in 2018. (Gresham approves of this book, he tells me.)

Only recently has a darker side of those last years at the Kilns come to light. Douglas’s older brother David Gresham has almost entirely vanished from the C.S. Lewis story, overlooked by biographers and left entirely out of Shadowlands. To many, it’s as if he never existed. Last year, however, Gresham revealed for the first time that his brother had been a violent schizophrenic. Douglas was 11 when his mother married C.S. Lewis and David was 12, and by then he was already used to David attempting to kill him. David died several years ago in a secure Swiss mental hospital, and Douglas is finally telling the side of the story that he left out of his powerful 1988 memoir Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis.

Douglas’s childhood with David was entirely absent from the record at the time, but his brother’s mental illness had a profound effect on him and everyone at the Kilns. “It was dreadful,” Gresham tells me. “It was dreadful for Warnie even more. Jack (Lewis) tried desperately to help my brother in every way that he could.” When David decided to become Jewish, Lewis faithfully shopped for him at the Jewish shop in the Oxford market. Lewis even got David into Cambridge, where Gresham says he did very poorly. In one particularly brutal incident, as Douglas came out of the kitchen door at the Kilns, David doused him with gasoline and tried to strike a match. 

For years, Joy Davidman had attempted to ignore the brutality of her older son. “Just before she died, she realized,” Gresham tells me. 

My mother and father were unable to believe that their eldest son had behaved like this, and I got the reputation of being an absolute liar for a long time. But in the Kilns when my mother was on the verge of dying, she heard about David splashing me with petrol. She called me into her room and apologized deeply for not believing me all those times. All I could do is stand there and cry. I tried to stay away from my brother. Warnie wouldn’t get anywhere close to him. Jack did everything he could to help David in every possible way. He tried everything, and nothing worked. David was a very sick boy—and a sick man.

Amidst all this turmoil, Gresham lost his family members one by one. “My life is based on people dying around me,” he tells me with a wry chuckle. His mother died of cancer in 1960; his father committed suicide after a cancer diagnosis in 1963; Lewis died in 1963. At the end, Gresham recalled Lewis fading in and out of a coma, while he sat at the bedside, talking with Lewis when he was awake. During one chat, he says, “it came to me that he was regretting the fact that he hadn’t died in the coma. I felt it. He was feeling that it was time to go into the next world, and he was looking forward to it.” 

Warnie was the next to go, in 1973, after plunging into alcoholism following the loss of his brother, Jack. Upon his death, C.S. Lewis’s estate went to Douglas and David Gresham. “What happened is that my brother got the money that he wanted and never lifted a finger again, whereas I tried very hard to put Jack’s works more and more into the public eye,” Gresham said. “We succeeded quite a lot. Three movies, for example, and a lot of books.”

Gresham’s own love story is as unlikely as that of Lewis and Davidman. After Lewis died, Gresham moved in with his mother’s friend, the journalist Jean Wakeman. He enrolled in agricultural school and began to work on a large farm in Somerset. It was there that he would meet the girl of his dreams—quite literally. Because his brother, David, had been a violent schizophrenic, Douglas had spent much time alone. This got tiring and he got lonely, and so he invented a little girl in his mind: an imaginary friend that he would play with. As he got older, the girl grew older in his mind. By the time he was eighteen and the girl in his mind was around the same age, he harbored a private desire to meet and marry her. He knew just how she’d look, and behave, and sound. After all those years, she was quite real to him.

One day, the family he was staying with in Somerset sent him off to pick up their niece at the train station with Harry, the girl’s cousin. The two young men were standing on the train platform when it happened. “I saw the girl I’d been looking for since I was six years old,” he tells me. “I said to Harry: ‘You see that girl over there? The one with the long blond pigtail? She’s the girl I’m going to marry!’ He said: ‘Don’t be so stupid. That’s my cousin.’ Within two or three days, I’d fallen completely in love with her, and decided to marry her. It took me three years and several proposals, but she finally said ‘yes.’” 

Douglas and Merrie Gresham married in 1967 and left Great Britain for Tasmania, Australia, where Merrie hailed from. There they bought a dairy farm and raised a family of five children (three sons and two daughters.) Gresham eventually worked in both radio and television. In 1993, Douglas and Merrie decided to move to Ireland to pursue a new mission: a Christian counselling and retreat centre for those struggling with—among other things—post-abortion syndrome. Many sought their help. “Whoever God sent was always welcome. Nobody paid to stay at our house.” The Greshams bought Rathvinden House in County Carlow, a 9,417-square-foot Georgian manor built in 1810, and turned it into the headquarters of Rathvinden Ministries.

For the Greshams, abortion was personal. As a young nurse working in Australia, Merrie had gotten pregnant and had had an abortion, something she later called “the murder of my unborn child.” Before she married Douglas, Merrie had broken down in front of him and told Douglas what she had done. “I think there was only one abortionist in the whole of Australia at the time. It almost destroyed her,” he recalls. Gresham says he felt she was telling him in case he’d choose to break up with her. Instead, she was so horrified by what she’d done that “I wanted to marry her more, to get closer to her,” he says. “She wasn’t hiding anything.” This knowledge of his wife’s ordeal deeply informed Gresham’s own view of abortion, which he tells me he considers a “savagery against the human race.” 

In this one-hour video, courtesy of the Presbyterian Heritage Center, Douglas Gresham speaks at the C.S. Lewis Symposium 2020 about his childhood. He is the last surviving member of the C. S. Lewis family.

In 2006, Gresham sold Rathvinden House to a developer and moved to Malta with Merrie. When I asked him why they chose Malta, he told me he didn’t know, but it is now his “base camp,” he says, where he works tirelessly at the production, publication, and promotion of Lewis’s works. His own 1988 memoir, Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis, is a beautifully written account of the last days of C.S. Lewis and his beloved wife Joy Davidman. 

With David’s death in 2014, Gresham finally began to feel free to tell the rest of the story. He dislikes most Lewis biographies (“complete garbage,” is how he describes them), so is planning to write another memoir—especially recognizing that he is perhaps the last man alive with new things to say about Lewis’s last days. So I ask him if his new book will correct the historical record where he feels Lewis’s biographers have failed. “In some areas, it will,” he replies with a pause. “I don’t know what’s going to happen with this book.” I am looking forward to finding out. 

Jonathon Van Maren has written for First Things, National Review, The American Conservative, and is a contributing editor to The European Conservative. His latest book is Patriots: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Pro-Life Movement.

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