Published author and Elon University alumna Abigail Santamaria spoke to an intimate group of students and adults in Johnston Hall Monday evening about the process of researching and writing her biography, “JOY: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C.S. Lewis.”
Santamaria spoke as international English honor society Sigma Tau Delta’s annual guest speaker. She was introduced by Elon English professor Kathy Lyday.
“JOY: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C.S. Lewis” is Santamaria’s first published book that came out in August 2015. The biography explores the life of Joy Davidman, poet and wife of author C.S. Lewis, commonly known for his work, “The Chronicles of Narnia.”
Santamaria graduated with a degree in English from Elon in 2000. She attended Columbia University for graduate school, where she received an MFA in non-fiction writing. Although she never thought she would write biographies, she became intrigued by Davidman’s life while reading Lewis’ book, “A Grief Observed” during her senior year.
“A Grief Observed” is a collection of Lewis’ reflections while grieving the death of Davidman, who passed away from bone cancer just three years after they were married. Lewis was known for being a bachelor until he reached his 50s, when Davidman somehow won his affection.
“She was the least likely wife — a Jew from the Bronx, and he was a Christian,” Santamaria said. “I was struck by how shattered he was and I wanted to know more about the woman who made this type of man feel that way.”
While working on her senior thesis, Santamaria felt the need to incorporate Davidman in one of her essays. The only prior research ever done on Davidman’s life was a small 150-word biography Santamaria found in the Columbia library. She felt as though the story did not do Davidman’s life justice and referred to it as a “glossy-eyed portrait.”
Santamaria went as far as to contact the author of the biography, who replied with his own research notes, which included interviews with people who had recently died, that Santamaria would later use to help create her story.
After more research, Santamaria found that Davidman, although a rather dull and unrecognized person, was a very accomplished woman and an award-winning poet in the '30s and '40s.
Santamaria began to feel a personal connection to Davidman, who also attended Columbia for her master's and was an aspiring writer living in New York. Realizing she had resources at her fingertips, Santamaria pulled Davidman’s thesis from library records at Columbia.
As she delved further into her research, Santamaria looked heavily into Davidman’s life as a student at Hunter College and her life as a communist and political activist. She often questioned Davidman's decisionsand found her to be a very disagreeable woman.
Santamaria contacted Davidman’s sons, one of whom found a box of Davidman’s writings in her old home, dating all the way back to when she was 12. The box also contained letters she exchanged with Lewis, which revealed her love for him. Santamaria traveled all the way to the small European island of Malta, where Davidman’s son lived, to document and read the letters for her research.
“The research made C.S. Lewis more human. I’m a little surprised he wasn’t taken in by Davidman’s manipulation, but it was many years of developing a friendship before he reciprocated her affection,” Santamaria said. “There were times I did doubt his judgment, but I also think love can do strange things.”
During a Q&A session at the end of her talk, Santamaria was asked what her attitude was towards Davidman.
“It was not good. I started out thinking she was going to be a heroic woman of faith and some inspirational story I could tell,” Santamaria said. “I was 24 and I was hoping to find someone I could model my own life after. After a while, I realized she was a human being and had faults just like everyone else.”
Her advice to any students researching unrecognized topics would be to go beyond articles and find the true sources, and once you find those sources, figure out if they are reliable and then continue to trace back your information.
Although Santamaria spent nearly a decade researching and studying the life of one woman, she wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“I would love to do it all again. If writing biographies paid a livable wage, that is all I would be doing. It’d be on to the next,” she said.
Santamaria currently lives with her son in New York City, where she works with Hunter College as a consultant, writing some of the college’s history.