Note: It was my pleasure to introduce and interview Ashley Judd for the Ford Hall Forum on April 8, 2011 at the Walsh Theatre at Suffolk University in Boston. The Ford Hall Forum is the nation’s oldest continuously operating free public lecture series. The audio of the interview will be available in a few weeks at the Forum Network, a public service of PBS and NPR.
All That is Bitter & Sweet, Ashley Judd’s memoir, is at once illuminating and difficult. There is no Hollywood gossip or celebrity dish. While she shares intimate details about her childhood, there are other things she doesn’t tell like how and when she met her husband. It was not a book I could read easily or continuously because of the pain that threads through its pages. Yet I would rank it as a favorite among the many memoirs I’ve read because:
- It helped me understand depression.
- It crystallizes how connected women and children are through the oppression and suppression that happens to them all over the world.
- It is grounded in faith and a belief in healing and redemption.
- It champions and shares effective therapy.
- It tells the truth as she knows it unabashedly.
- I found experiences I’ve survived, thoughts I’ve had, and beliefs I hold dear reflected in its pages.
In this memoir, Judd examines her childhood with its duality of opposing experiences. Uncertainty (she attended 13 schools between the ages of 5-18), being alone and left to her own devices was a recurring theme in her childhood. On the one hand she had parents who were distracted with their own lives/ambitions/addictions and were neglectful and repeatedly irresponsible. On the other hand she had wonderful summers of stability and unabashed love with her grandparents.
She is unabashedly feminist, deeply caring and brings to her humanitarian work an activist anger sprung for her indignation at the wrongs women and children suffer because of poverty, sexism, illness and war.
“Gender inequality is implicated in every obstacle to peace and poverty alleviation.” (60)
In sharing her travels as an ambassador for Population Services International, with which she began to work in 2003, Judd recounts the visits she makes to brothels in Thailand, India, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) among other countries. She talks about the different ways that women become prostitutes – some because of economic hardship and others because they are sold by their families, kidnapped or coerced.
Speaking of Muntuzu Angel who she meets in the DRC, she writes:
“She whispers, while I am still hold her child, that I am a woman just like her, that I am no different.”(xvi)
She is clear-eyed about that the access of her celebrity “is unjust and unfair” but also gives her the ear of Presidents, Prime Ministers, and other well-known and important people – like Bishop Desmond Tutu and Rigoberts Menchú, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. This helps get PSI’s message across.
She is fierce about her values, honest about her shortcomings and forthright about her growth in learning the usefulness of compromise in reaching a greater goal (promoting condom usage by visiting brothels) rather than having a small victory (telling someone and having access and education barred).
“It is really unnatural to walk away from a child in need, especially one with outstretched arms. It defies my humanity and is easily the harder part of this job I have so eagerly taken.” (85)
The book has its share of hope as the people, organizations and efforts that are working with women and children and against the spread of HIV/AIDS, violence and poverty are shared. Judd also praises the people in her childhood who were caring and principled and helped her through tough situations as well as how books and acting saved her life. Her intellectual prowess is in evident in these pages. She earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Kentucky and in June 2010 graduated with a Master’s from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, one of her papers winning an award.
One finishes All That Is Bitter & Sweet with an eagerness to do what one can to alleviate the suffering to which we’ve borne witness in its pages and a renewed respect for the resiliency of people.
I expect that Judd, an inveterate journal keeper (her journals formed the foundation for this memoir), will continue to write. It is my hope that she will write a book about the strategies for healing the world that she delves into briefly at the end of this book. One of them involves looking at the model of the bonobo, chimp-like animals who “share 98.7% of our (human) DNA but unlike chimps are peaceful creatures known for strong female alliances that prevent, contain and correct male aggression.”(357-58)
Speaking of a photo she’d seen in a genocide memorial, she writes:
“I know I am human, I am fallible, I am capable of greatness, and I am capable of atrocity. In these pictures – I could be on either side; the measured or the measurer; the abused or the abuser. My mind’s eye kept returning again and again to the image of the white priest, the black women…and which side of history I was going to be on.” (360)