Words That Restore
Leah Guaglione always wanted to make art that spoke truth. Spending months in recovery after a severe accident gave her new insight into what that could mean.
Four years ago, Leah Guaglione (MCA ’11) didn’t think she would ever engage in creative work again. In early 2016, Guaglione was bed-ridden after a severe car accident. Her traumatic brain injury, coupled with pain, nausea, anxiety, and depression, made the simplest of tasks nearly impossible. But healing came from the very place she was afraid might have been lost forever: through creativity, imagination, and a realization of the power of words, three concepts that are at the crux of her artistry today.
Before starting at King’s in 2008, Guaglione had attended music school for a year, but while she loved music, becoming a professional songwriter wasn’t on her agenda. “I didn’t know anyone who did that,” she explained. “And I didn’t know you could make money doing it.” What Guaglione did know was that, as a creative person, she valued both the intellectual and artistic side of her brain.
She was drawn to King’s because the PPE core provided a path that would develop both of those sides. Guaglione knew that if she was going to make art, she wanted it to do more than to make people feel good or to make herself appear interesting. She wanted her art to say something true.
After graduating from King’s in 2011, she found her first job in the film industry. Although her interest in film wasn’t as strong as her passion for songwriting, her work in documentary film-making was fun and adventurous, allowing her to travel across the country and even to international locations. But in one day that was all taken away when Guaglione was hit in a car accident on Christmas eve in 2015. As the car crashed, her head slammed into the window, resulting in a traumatic head injury. Gauglione had no choice but to relocate from New York back to her parents’ house in Pennsylvania where they could take care of her during the recovery.
The doctor had two diagnoses: post concussion syndrome and Postural Orthostatic Tachy-cardia Syndrome. In other words, Guaglione’s body was suffocating from a flu-like lethargy. She was living the pain-ridden, immobile life of a ninety-year-old in a twenty-four-year-old’s body.
The doctors’ predicted recovery time of three weeks became two months and Guaglione was still, for the most part, bed-ridden. On a good day, she would go to lunch with one of her mom’s friends and then return to her curtain-drawn bedroom. She wasn’t sure if she would ever be able to hold a normal job again. With slow improvements, but also increasing uncertainty about whether her condition could improve, Guaglione would spend her days reading books and trying to enjoy as much of life as she could. Still, she understood this was nowhere near living a normal life.
One of the books Guaglione picked up during this time came at her mom’s recommendation. It was called Words Can Change Your Brain by Andrew Newberg. The book sparked an idea: “Everything I say today will be positive,” Guaglione resolved. Guaglione decided to take the statement as literally as possible. It became a kind of game for her. If she was feeling nauseous in the car, she would tell herself, “But isn’t driving kind of like an amusement ride?” If her back was hurting and she wanted to go home, Guaglione would say, “How lucky are we to be out and about in this town—this is beautiful.” Forgot something in a restaurant? “I love that restaurant; how fun that we get to see it twice.” Guaglione was telling herself truths that were so far from how she felt, that they sounded like lies.
After a few days of this playing the “positivity game,” as she called it, Guaglione felt a tiny difference in her body. This was something new. Supplements, therapies, acupuncture: none of these had helped. But a few weeks of the positivity game was decreasing her pain levels in a noticeable way. After a few months her body was completely back to normal. “Before that experience, I would have said that I believe in God, but functionally, I lived more like a materialist. I didn’t really have faith that I would get better, ” Guaglione said. She describes the experience as a demonstration of God’s grace.
“Not only did this discipline of ‘lying with the truth’ heal me physically, it deconstructed my materialist worldview,” Guaglione says. “As an artist, I have to bypass the visible world to touch the immaterial one. I can’t do that as a materialist. This was God’s ultimate grace, to give me a better foundation for my work.”
Today, Guaglione splits her time between New York City and Nashville, writing songs, producing poetry films, and exploring ways she can share the lessons from her recovery in her art. Besides her singer-songwriter brand XEAH, Guaglione runs a wedding videography company voted “Best of Knot” two years in a row. Her creative goal is to speak words of truth with power, especially truth about love and intimacy.
“A lot of us get our morality from TV,” says Guaglione, whose music has appeared on CBS, ABC, and NBC networks. She points out that most of what is in these shows is fictional, specifically when it comes to casual sex.
“Free love is always tied to empowerment,” she says. One of her current projects is an exploration of chastity and feminism. The end result will be a visual album of poetry and music that captures love and lust through an honest lens. “My goal right now is to reframe chastity as a woman’s choice, a conduit for power—spiritually, relationally, professionally, and personally. I want it to make sense to the average person, especially someone who is not religious.” She sums up the concept: “Chastity as female empowerment.”
The other theme that’s been showing up in her current work draws from her story of her recovery. If words can heal our bodies, she asks, what else is possible? She hopes that her work allows others to grapple with the reality beyond what the naked eye can see.