During her senior year at the University of Kentucky in 1990, Ashley Judd was accepted by the Peace Corps, but at the last minute she decided to pursue acting instead. She painted “Hollywood or Bust, Cecil B. DeMille, here I come!” and “I am ready for my close-up” on her car, hitched a U-Haul to the back and headed west. Twelve years later, she was successful in films and newly wed to race-car driver Dario Franchitti. Yet what should have been the happiest time of her life was marred by a deep depression—one that lasted until Judd reconnected with her passion for social justice and confronted, finally, the lingering effects of a traumatic childhood. The chaos leading up to that turning point, and the remarkable course correction that followed, are the subject of Judd’s ferociously frank and insightful new memoir, All That Is Bitter & Sweet, written with Maryanne Vollers.
In the book, Judd deals unflinchingly with the addictions that plagued generations of her family; she also details her own painful early life. During what she calls “the vagabond years,” she was bounced from place to place, often fending for herself, in despair at feeling shut out of the intense bond that joined her mother and sister, Naomi and Wynonna, who eventually became country music superstars. “Of course, I loved my mother,” she writes, “but at the same time I dreaded the mayhem and uncertainty that followed her everywhere . . . I never knew what to expect next, whether I’d be tucked in by her, left alone to do the task myself, or left with a complete stranger.” She also reveals incidents of sexual abuse—by non–family members—beginning when she was a young child, and her rape, at 15, when she was off on her own, modeling in Japan.
Today, after taking a year off to earn a master’s degree in public administration at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government (she graduated with a near-straight-A average), Judd continues to pursue challenging onscreen roles: She will be seen in September’s Dolphin Tale, with her friend and frequent costar Morgan Freeman, and this summer begins filming the ABC drama Missing, in which she stars as a former CIA agent searching overseas for her son, who has disappeared. For all her career success, however, Judd finds her greatest satisfaction in the work she does to improve the health and safety of oppressed women.
Growing up in a musical family, Judd was mocked for her off-key singing. But in the past decade, she has found her own voice. Here she tells her remarkable story.
Kiwanja Internally Displaced Persons Camp, Democratic Republic of Congo. September 2010. A patch of scorched earth carved out of the forest; dried mud ribbed with ditches; tiny dwellings fashioned from plastic, sticks, fabric, thatching. The residents are mostly women and children, victims of a relentless civil war. Everyone is dead-tired and dirty. The scene offers snapshots of the horrors of eastern DRC: displacement, malaria, AIDS, malnutrition and an epidemic of extreme violence and rape that defies the imagination.
The camp is a small oasis of security, if not hope, for a handful of Congolese. I spot a small, sweaty child named Durika wearing a piece of black garbage bag. She extends her arms to me, and I scoop her up. She is limp and frail. I rock her and sing to her, pour water in my hand and wipe her face; she is blazing hot. Her mama, Angel, lives in a minuscule, tidy makeshift shelter, the only home she and her seven children have known for the past two years. When I ask where they sleep, she gestures to the bare dirt floor. She tells me she was gang-raped by soldiers, more than once; she fled to the forest and then to this camp after her mother, father and husband were all murdered by rebels. While we visit, she nurses a toddler named Naomi. I tell her that’s a lovely name, my mother’s name. Angel has a beautiful, soft presence. She tells her story gently. She confides that she doesn’t usually let on that the baby was conceived in rape; she does not want Naomi to be stigmatized. This child is as cherished as her babies conceived in love, she tells me.