Ashley Judd spoke about her new book, All That Is Bitter and Sweet, at the New York Public Library on Tuesday for the Young Lions, and the occasional tag-a-long such as myself. The book is billed as “A Memoir,” which better encompasses, I think, an understanding of the book as Ashley’s life, instead of exclusively a story of her humanitarian work.
Judd spoke frankly about her writing, how writing became a way to deal with the sights and hardships she witnessed while traveling with the many foundations she works with. But even while discussing her heroic work, she seemed incapable of escaping her own self. She alternated between the seriousness of a woman forced into prostitution to support her family after her husband abandoned her, to a light-hearted “Aren’t my shoes cute!?” She spoke of the difficulty of visiting so many brothels and seeing so many people in pain, but then belittled her activities later when the summation of her reasoning became “What else do I have to do? I don’t really like shopping. I get all my clothes for free!” And though she speaks of humanitarianism as her calling, she also revealed she turned down the initial phone call requesting her involvement as a YouthAIDS Global Ambassador; it wasn’t until they called back with Bono that she was led to say, well, ok.
Despite her belittling, humanitarianism is in fact Judd’s life. In writing a book to deal with the lives she was witnessing, she also ended up dealing with her own personal trauma, and a history of abuse. Because of her personal history, she radiates an empathy with those she works with, of women and children and families born into inescapable circumstances, lives littered with pain, disease, and abuse.
Sadly, Judd’s words also expressed her inability to empathize with my world. She seemed proud to have entered a treatment program for depression, insomnia and codependency. Because, of course, when you’re from a famous family, how could you escape such things? The end result of the discussion as a whole was that I felt alienated. Though I know individuals who too grew up with alcoholic parents, suffering abuse and neglect, I know no one with the time and capacity to enter treatment. Though many people, I believe, strive to help others as they can, not getting my clothes for free and “having a hot husband,” makes the work that much harder, as we must overcome day-to-day trials more than international spokespeople do. At the end of the day, our bills must still be paid before we volunteer, we must still go to work before we enter treatment, and we do, unfortunately, have to pay for clothes.
At one point, she told the story of her aunt, a resident of Pacific Heights, CA, who owns a pig. Judd said that her aunt, when asked about the pig, uses the pig as her justification, saying simply, “It’s my pig!” The pig seemed a symbol of pride and power, individualism and personal choice. Judd then described her choice to be a humanitarian as her pig – something she does for an inexplicable reason. But I think the reason is quite logical: she has the time and the public image to do something good for the world, and she is choosing to do so. To me, in the end, her “pig” wasn’t her choice of vocation, but her inability to escape herself, and the power and weakness that comes from a life in the public eye. Or perhaps it’s my pig that I have a hard time listening to those who I feel take their fortune for granted, and those who disregard powerful moments (visiting presidential and government palaces all over the world!), because they seem “boring” compared to visiting brothels. I bet the brothels are more interesting, sure, but you really need the palaces in order to get rid of them.
I hope that this book is the journey Judd needed to understand her personal history, and that her fame becomes the tool she uses to bring attention and support to her humanitarian work, and not her justification and raison d’etre.