Her Legacy, Her Light
Kelly Caldwell, my lover, best friend, life partner, and the founding editor and co-editor-in-chief of The Spectacle, passed away on March 23, 2020.
Born on December 26, 1988, in South Carolina, Kelly grew up at numerous addresses in New York State, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Mexico City, spending the majority of her early childhood and adolescence in rural Mexico with her missionary parents and five siblings. In her accounts to me, she dated those years by The Lord of the Rings movies, her early creative pursuits, her many injuries (for she was always highly active), and the birth of her younger siblings. She was the second eldest of six children, in a family whose evangelical culture and values she would depart from sharply in the last years of her life.
As an undergrad, Kelly attended College of the Ozarks, a small Christian college in Missouri, where she fell in love with Sashanna Stefan (now Sashanna Hart) and got married at nineteen. The couple spent a decade together, with Sashanna pursuing culinary arts and photography, and Kelly pursuing literature, music, and visual art. Their son, Jack Caldwell, was born in 2013, in Charlottesville, where Kelly earned a master’s degree in English at the University of Virginia. Kelly then began her PhD at Washington University in St. Louis, where I met her during my MFA when we established The Spectacle from scratch with our editorial team.
In 2016, at the age of 27, Kelly’s life was upended when she came out to her wife and family as queer and non-Christian, went through a separation and eventual divorce, and was diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder, enduring her first two hospitalizations that year, one for mania and one for depression. That tumultuous year was also the year we fell in love; we were each exploring gender and sexuality in new ways, and our future paths became braided together.
“In any act of thinking,” Anne Carson writes, “the mind must reach across this space between known and unknown, linking one to the other but also keeping visible their difference. It is an erotic space.” Eros, in my relationship with Kelly, stemmed in no small part from thinking, as we spoke to and wrote toward each other across that unknown space between us, curious about where our lives would go. We savored our difference, enchanted by the ways we could surprise each other, never fully predicting the other’s actions, thoughts, or words; we built a life around the intimacy not only of our bodies, but of language. Our life together was a constant conversation.
In 2019, having come out as trans, Kelly was living with me in Columbia, Missouri, where she was writing her critical dissertation. She also wrote a brilliant manuscript of poetry, worked on a visual art series, drafted essays, and composed songs. When we had Jack staying with us, she built Legos with him, took him to parks, read with him, and cooked with him, never missing an opportunity to teach him something she knew he would find exciting. She made delicious meals for our friends, and hosted dinners and dance parties. She worked out at the gym, played ultimate frisbee, and coached Terror, the women’s ultimate team at Mizzou. Sometimes I teased her about the fact that she didn’t have “hobbies”; anything she took on became a serious pursuit. And yet, it didn’t become too serious; she wasn’t a perfectionist. Instead, she truly derived joy from learning of all kinds. The list of things she wanted to accomplish seemed endless, as did her mind’s capacity for knowledge and her ability to apply her knowledge of a given subject across other areas. Kelly’s interests were so wide-ranging that any person who met her became delighted by how much she had in common with them.
I need to say explicitly that Kelly’s brilliance and her capacity for creativity were how she was when stable. Her bipolar disorder was a severe medical condition, and it impeded her life and work. It didn’t enhance them. We often discussed the problematic cultural associations of mental illness with the monstrous, or with the supernatural, or with genius. Kelly was brilliant not because of her illness, but in spite of it.
Kelly was energetic, dazzling, dynamic. She could light up a room with a single quip, with a knowing smile, with an insightful comment; with her elegant and unique sense of style; with the playful way she scolded and teased her friends. She lived with indelible passion, humor, and courage, and she was incredibly beloved. She sparkled, and people responded to her so warmly and positively. I think this was more and more true as she began living more and more as her authentic self.
In the last year and a half especially, as her gender expression became more and more public, she absolutely loved getting to meet people in our Columbia community as a woman. She experienced the deliciousness of growing her hair long, wearing subtle or bold makeup (everyone was obsessed with her eyelashes), expanding her wardrobe, dancing at parties at our house, and baking perfect pies (with her pink tea towel that says “Bitch I Am the Secret Ingredient”); but most of all, I think, she loved and needed femme friendships and queer community. These were experiences she’d craved all her life, but she hadn’t been able to voice her desire. It was nothing short of the desire for real intimacy with others. She had been hiding parts of herself from others for a long time, and in the last years of her life, honesty and intimacy became vitally important to her, her highest values in her relationships.
Kelly’s chosen family and community made her feel accepted and beautiful—and seen. It might sound strange to say this, but I feel that she was never as happy as she was in the last year. She often told me how happy she was with our life. Yet this wouldn’t sound strange if our culture understood that mental illnesses are like other illnesses, “physical” illnesses. We were open about her condition; everyone knew, and our friends and family were supportive. She did absolutely everything she was supposed to do, working harder than anyone I’ve known in attempting to live with her disorder. She never skipped her meds, went to bed early, didn’t drink, and was extremely disciplined about her daily routines. But her condition was complicated and treatment-resistant. I saw her experience terrible suffering, both from her disorder and from dealing with treatments and their side effects. Her health never seemed to turn a corner. In 2019, while she accomplished so much, she was also hospitalized six times, spending a total of more than two months in the hospital.
In the last months of her life, Kelly occasionally brought up Virginia Woolf’s suicide note to her husband, and how she’d taken her life not in the middle of a full-blown episode, but when she felt one coming on. Kelly said she understood this. Virginia wrote to Leonard, “Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times.” She wrote, “You have given me the greatest possible happiness.” She wrote, “I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.”
In the note she left me, Kelly said, “Don’t be afraid for me. This isn’t a fall or a fail, it’s just a stop in midair. I want to hold you to me one more time, crazy dear heart. Our love has never left. It is here. It is here with me always.”
Losing her has been unbearable. When a person ends their life, the notion of agency is called into question, as the person’s community wonders what they could’ve done differently, as we try to think through the ways in which societal norms and structures put pressure on that person. Kelly was a trans woman living with a severe iteration of bipolar disorder. She was living in a transphobic, ableist culture that stigmatizes mental illness. The medical bills from her hospital stays were rolling in at a moment when neither of us, as writer-academics, had a stable future in terms of jobs and income. The pandemic hit, putting extra pressure on everyone, and stripping away many of her coping mechanisms such as socializing with friends, going to the gym, and playing and coaching ultimate. It became harder for her to imagine the future, which already felt precarious.
So what are we to do with all of this? What would Kelly want us to do?
I believe she would want us to live, as best and as creatively as we can, according to our values, as she tried her hardest, with every single ounce of her will, to live according to hers.
And I know she would want The Spectacle to continue its mission of foregrounding marginalized voices and literary excellence. She would want her friends and community to speak, write, and act against bigotry, violence, and oppression of all kinds, both in the literary world and in the broader culture. #BlackLivesMatter #BlackQueerLivesMatter #BlackTransLivesMatter
Kelly was a radiant light. Each day, I miss her unimaginably, and I continue to reach across the space between my experience and hers—though that space feels vaster, even more unknowable now—linking one to the other in the reaching.
For all of us who knew her, the question now is, what are we going to do with Kelly’s example?
What are we going to do with Kelly’s light?
Comments on Kelly’s Life
I knew Kelly officially as her dissertation director, though “director” is a word I put within quotation marks, for reasons that I think will be clear here. I’ve started this brief piece a number of times. And Kelly started her life a couple of times. There is one person, we know, but there are so, so many lives within Kelly, lives so vibrantly lived out and, now, it seems, by us outlived.
I knew a person who invented herself at every turn, and by “invented” I mean “discovered,” not “made up.” I mean someone who not only found what was lost to plain gaze, both in herself and in the world, I mean someone who made that discovery real, who embodied it, who challenged and overturned the rule of the plain gaze in her life, her lives.
I knew her first, and mostly, as a literary intellectual, a brilliant literary intellectual. For Kelly couldn’t just write a paper, she had to find a reason for doing so, she had to find an understanding to challenge, and to make that a meaningful act on her part, it had to be a substantial understanding: there were no shadowy antagonists, no phantom enemies. She needed to engage and overturn a mindset that mattered. And she did that. Again and again she did that.
All of this work culminated in a dissertation that promised to do nothing less than tell time anew. Kelly was following the impact of climate change on our understandings of temporality, both within literature and in our ways of telling the times of literary history. This was a challenge to standard time, as her own lives challenged any standardizing idea. And, unfinished though it was, it lives, somehow fittingly, in the multiplicities of its own possibilities, which is a Joycean turn I think Kelly would smile at if she were here.
If she were here. . . I think it is fair to say, as I feel bound to say, that there is, even in this memorial, which is meant to console as well as to memorialize, something not consolable in our loss. For myself, at least, I need to work in the elemental clarity of that fact. “After the first death,” Dylan Thomas wrote in the last line of his “Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London,” “there is no other.” One life, one death.
I don’t know what an afterlife might look like. A 15th century writer, Sir John Mandeville, wrote: “Of Paradys ne can I not speken propurly I was not there.” So, on an afterlife, not I to say. But afterlives, yes. In each and all of us, in the all that each of us is, in our wonderful variety and particularity, we are joined in living mirror as well as loving memory of Kelly Caldwell. And if, in her wonderful multiplicity, she is present in us, she is also an idea, a vital idea, the idea of Kelly. The idea of living something forward beyond the plain gaze, something vital, something untrammeled.
What Will Survive of Us Is Love
There’s a moment in Augustine’s Confessions when Augustine grieves the death of a friend—one so close that he says they were “one soul in two bodies.” Trying to console his younger self, Augustine argues that life and death are like speech and silence. A sentence can’t exist unless an individual word ends, giving place to the next one, until there emerges a linguistic whole possessed of greater meaning than its constituent parts. Just so, Augustine contends, beings live and die, allowing the whole universe of beings, in its splendid variety, to come into existence.
This is a beautiful thought. But it gives me no solace. It wouldn’t have worked on the young Augustine, either, in the days and months that followed the death of his friend. Still, I’ve been thinking about this passage and its metaphors of speech and silence as I live with the death of my friend Kelly Caldwell.
I suppose every relationship consists in a tissue of language, but the love Kelly and I shared was peculiarly wordy. Like the love of Augustine and his friend, ours “ripened by the fervour of similar studies.” Kelly and I met when I picked her up at the St. Louis airport for her visit to Wash U as a prospective PhD student. On the drive home, we started talking about the science-fiction writer China Miéville, and we just never stopped. For years afterwards, as our media of communication changed from personal speech to phone call, text, and email—as her name and pronouns changed—as the spiritual and relational contexts of our friendship changed—we kept that one conversation going, growing, and transforming. Like the Argo, every piece of it was swapped out for something new, but still the conversation sailed on.
Except when it didn’t—but more on that in just a moment. I want to remember her speech before I recall her silences. If you ever talked with Kelly, you know what the thrill of that felt like—the sweet rush and tingle of intellectual exertion as you hashed out the poetics of elegy or swapped your new favorite songs. She could be competitive, show-offy, like a flashy athlete in words. Especially when we talked about music, I often had to admit my ignorance, puncturing the hot-air balloon of her knowing references. But she was always so sweetly generous in those moments, happy to share something she loved with you. She was an attentive and incisive listener and reader, not just a lithe talker.
As her illness deepened, however, rifts opened in our ongoing conversation. There were days when grief or medication left her unable even to form the words that had kept us afloat. Other times, there were too many words. I remember standing with her in the emergency room at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, listening to her talk about a book club she was leading at a local public library. Her analytical chatter grew chaotic, disconnected—a manic travesty of her high-octane intellect. One of the worst things about her illness was how it mimicked precious aspects of her personality, her fecundating energy and probing melancholy mocked by mania and depression.
In the summer of 2017, I took a teaching job at the Air Force Academy and moved from St. Louis to Colorado Springs. Kelly visited me there once, staying with my family for a few days. We set up a makeshift recording studio in my kid’s playroom and laid down some tracks for a song—a cover of “Graceless” by The National. That’s the only extended time I spent with her in person after she changed her name to Kelly. We never laid eyes on each other in person or hugged one another after that visit. Our love that had always lived in words was transfigured into in digital codes—bits and waves, points of light. But we still felt like one soul in two bodies to me. Maybe we still do.
Cassie Donish is a queer writer and editor-in-chief of The Spectacle.
Vincent Sherry is chair and professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis.
Jonathan McGregor is assistant professor of English at Newberry College.