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Abigail Santamaria ’00: Finding Joy

Abigail Santamaria’s book tells the story of the intricate life of Joy Davidman, the woman who captivated C.S. Lewis late in his life.

Abby Santamaria ’00 (Photo: Katherine Lee ’09)

By Kyle Lubinsky ’17

September 11, 2001, is a day that unquestionably changed the course of history. For Abigail Santamaria ’00, that day changed her life in unexpected ways.

The Manhattan native watched the attacks happen from the roof of her apartment, and she spent the following days volunteering at Chelsea Piers, a sports complex along the Hudson River that served as a disaster relief center. By the morning of Sept. 12, many people came to the center, asking about loved ones. “They begged me to find their fathers, uncles, sisters, wives,” Santamaria recalls.

Watching the pain of those around her affected her profoundly. An English graduate, she was pursuing a master’s degree in nonfiction writing at Columbia University and simply could not comprehend how such a thing could happen. “I didn’t personally lose anyone, but the second-hand grief I absorbed during the aftermath plagued my days and stalked my dreams,” she says. “In my quest to comprehend the incomprehensible, I reached for C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed.”

What she found, though, surprised her. Lewis, a famed theologian and author known for the Chronicles of Narnia series and Mere Christianity, seemed completely lost and in disbelief that God could let events such as this one take place. Santamaria took solace in the fact that a man of such faith was also questioning God in times of despair. But it led to big questions for Santamaria: What had caused Lewis’ suffering? The answer, it turned out, was the death of Joy Davidman, Lewis’ wife. Davidman’s life had only been explored twice before, most notably in the 1993 film Shadowlands, which introduced the poet to mass audiences but did not fully document her life. Santamaria quickly found parallels between her life and Davidman’s—both were born in Manhattan, and both attended Columbia for graduate school.

As she learned more, Santamaria began to realize that she had found an excellent opportunity to profile the little-known wife of one of history’s most prolific theologians. Nearly a year after 9/11, she began work on what would become Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C. S. Lewis, her first book and the first full biography written on Davidman. “A biographer chooses a subject who takes her where she wants to go,” says Santamaria. “At the age of 24 in 2002, I was in part searching for myself refracted through Joy’s life.”

Santamaria’s quest to document Davidman’s life spanned over a decade, filled with many unexpected twists and turns that included a trip to Malta, where she met with Davidman’s son, Douglas Gresham. He was instrumental in getting her access to many of his mother’s personal documents, manuscript drafts and letters. For most of her four days in Malta, Santamaria was in the backroom of an office supply shop, photocopying more than 1,500 pages from Davidman’s personal records. Among them was her marriage certificate to Lewis and her checkbook from her dying days, with the word “Help!” written on one of the memo lines.

At first, Santamaria didn’t pause to read anything; she was intent on making sure she copied as much information as possible. Then during one sleepless night, she found a poem that stunned her. Davidman wrote of a woman who was in her bed freezing, hoping her words could keep her warm. In that moment, it described what Santamaria had worked so tirelessly to find. “I had not set out to unearth the particular realities I discovered behind the Shadowlands tale; they were imparted to me, first in the memories of those I interviewed, and finally in Joy’s own words,” she says. “She left them to be found: she was giving me her blessing.”

Joy is available on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound.org. For more information about Santamaria, visit abigailsantamaria.com.

Keren Rivas,
11/6/2015 1:10 PM