From her pillow, in the late evening hours, Kailey Caldwell settles down to write. This nightly practice has become an anchor for her—an opportunity to re-center and process the day’s thoughts and events. A survivor of abuse, Caldwell crafted this ritual as a means to move forward on a path of healing from her experiences through journaling. What started as a meaningful yet solitary practice amounted mostly to what she describes as “word vomit,” but eventually morphed into a highly accessible and therapeutic piece of literature to be shared with other survivors.
Caldwell’s debut book, From the Pillow: Tiny Proverbs and Vulnerabilities, seeks to connect other survivors of domestic abuse with Caldwell’s prescribed journey of healing after her own experiences in abusive relationships. Framed as a book of wisdom and guide to empowerment, From the Pillow’s brief, but powerful, lines of verse speak directly to the reader with specific directives and guidance for reconnecting with our own intuition and moving on after traumatic experiences— in particular, the trauma from manipulative relationships. Caldwell empowers her reader to, “Take your time back by trusting yourself.”
In conversation with Flat Ink, Caldwell explained the transformation of this piece from a private journal to a work of literature. “The first draft of this book was actually just a lot of one-liners and tiny lines of wisdom. For me, it was just an outlet to get it all out of my head and onto paper where I could make sense of everything that had happened to me. It was crucial in my healing process.”
From the Pillow is a book to read with a pen in hand—it’s simple and spare, but ultimately powerful. The pages of text are interspersed with stark black and white sunprint images from artist Zoe Minikes, adding to the meditative and eclectic feeling of the work. The weaving of poetic verse, proverb, and quite direct advice to the reader is unusual, but Caldwell’s earnestness and experience shines through and holds the reader to the end.
It’s concise, but full of lines and couplets that make the reader pause to absorb, like this one in her section on “Manipulations,” which gives the reader a peek into her own experience with abuse:
“As you prepare to exit your cage you’re presented with two paths: One path, buried in bramble and hidden by fog, looks unattainable. The other path is paved with gold and well-maintained. It even has rest stops that have your favorite refreshments and a cozy place to sleep. You’re too weak to attempt to clear the first path so you head towards the open one. But that bright, golden path doesn’t go anywhere different. It makes a big loop and eventually leads you back to your cage. The path was designed to keep you running in circles, to exhaust you, and to keep you in submission.”
This journaling took on an introspective, ritualistic importance for Caldwell as she worked through her most difficult experiences and processed the guidance she had received from friends, family, and counselors. “In the first draft, there was more advice in there from my loved ones—but that was probably five or six drafts ago. It inspired me to think about the advice they gave me, and to launch my own thoughts on it.”
In this way, From the Pillow gradually transformed, draft by draft, from an amalgamation of others’ wisdom and Caldwell’s personal contemplations on the healing process to a fully integrated work in which the author synthesizes these disparate thoughts into meaningful and actionable guidance through traumatic experiences. She did however, choose to leave in one direct quote from a close friend named Sandy which stuck with her throughout each round of editing, and helped her reframe the concept of the book and her ideas about healing in general—”What’s so wrong about being wrong?”
This trajectory from an inward, self-reflective writing process to an outward sharing of ideas shifted the purpose of the work in Caldwell’s mind, and her own creative motivation. Sharing this book with other survivors gradually became the primary reason for its creation. As Caldwell put it, “At first it was just for me to be able to process my own thoughts—and then as I was revising and making new thoughts I started to share it with other people [and got great feedback]. It got me thinking that it could be helpful for more people than just myself. After that I spent a whole year trying to make it [more accessible] for others. Just sharing that little bit is a way to connect. I think that’s really helpful for people, when they’re healing, to know that there’s someone else out there going through something similar.”
In order to make the piece more accessible to the reader, Caldwell reorganized her thoughts from a relatively stream-of-consciousness collection of verses and pieces of wisdom into a cohesive narrative that “flowed in the direction of healing.” The book is divided into sections according to its relative place in the healing process. She starts with sections titled “Being Human” and “Defining Your Own Success” that present a ground floor from which to start.
Caldwell generally accomplished her goal of making her piece accessible—as long as her reader is a part of the intended audience of abuse survivors. Within this particular in-group, this book is extremely relatable and practicable. It’s easy to bookmark useful passages and return to them later, or incorporate this book into one’s own meditative or creative practices. To a reader without this shared past, the subject of From the Pillow may seem unapproachable at first glance. At times, the book is overly simplistic and could benefit from some more context around the dynamics of toxic relationships and abuse. From the Pillow introduces manipulators and abusers, but does not give the reader a basis for understanding what abuse is and when a relationship crosses the line into toxicity.
However, since this book is not necessarily meant to cater to readers without a shared understanding of abuse, it presumes that the reader does not want to litigate the details of their trauma but rather seek this book as a source of calm and inspiration. In fact, the majority of the book focuses on highly actionable and universal advice on what the reader can control and change in their own lives to feel empowered. As Caldwell writes, “Your life is going to change anyway. Will it be the changes you want or the changes someone else wants?”
The author’s voice connects with her reader as with a close friend, or, perhaps more accurately, a senior member of a peer support group with a newcomer. The tone is comfortingly conspiratorial, as if projecting to the reader that these pages are a safe space to process one’s trauma and difficult memories because the author has been through similar challenges and persevered—she really gets it.
Caldwell holds space for the reader to reflect on their experiences while disclosing just enough of her own to bring her directives and guidance the credibility of personal experience. Her language is plain and accessible—less so is the format and flow of the piece between Caldwell’s more poetic voice and her more prescriptive voice. This unique blend of voices, however, is what makes this book shine among those meant to be used as therapeutic healing tools. It’s so much more than a therapy tool—it’s a meditative work of verse that is as versatile as it is useful.
The emotional resonance of this book lingers. From the Pillow brings the reader along a path of healing, with each step of the process laid out for accessible reference, no matter where in the healing journey they happen to be. This book is most useful if re-read at each step along the healing process, and it will have something new for the reader each time they return. As From the Pillow reminds us, “Don’t take for granted your ability to heal.”
Kailey Caldwell’s next project will be a full-length memoir, or a collection of personal essays centered on her experience with adoption, living in a transracial home, and surviving trauma. Caldwell’s personal history and courageous vulnerability continue to offer the literary world a bridge between therapeutic utility and creative expression, and connect readers sharing often-alienating experiences with a greater community.
Buy From the Pillow: Tiny Proverbs and Vulnerabilities Here
Mckenna Saady (she/her) is a writer and nonprofit communications specialist, currently serving as the staff writer and digital content lead for ParentsTogether Foundation. She also writes poetry and short fiction, and has her work featured in the Skre.ws Syndication poetry zine. She is originally from Richmond, Virginia and now lives in West Philadelphia with her dog, cat, and backyard vegetable garden.