Sitting on the porch of an antiques store near her home outside Nashville, Ashley Judd grabs a quilt to cut the morning chill. One of her beloved cockapoo dogs, Shug, jumps into her lap. “You going to help keep me warm?” Judd says, putting down her cup of tea to snuggle the pup. “Oh, you’re just so sweet.”
It’s clear she appreciates such unconditional love, and given her history, it’s perhaps not surprising. Now 42, Judd is a successful actress and a dedicated humanitarian activist. She’s been happily married to race car driver Dario Franchitti since 2001. But as she reveals in a raw, shocking new memoir, All That is Bitter & Sweet, her childhood years contained more neglect and abuse than nurture. Growing up in California, Kentucky and Tennessee, the daughter of country superstar Naomi Judd says she felt passed over in favor of her older sister Wynonna. She grew so depressed, she says, that in sixth grade she began considering suicide. “My mom and sister have been quoted saying that our family put the ‘fun’ in dysfunction,” she writes. “I wondered: Who, exactly, was having all the fun?”
The pain began when she was 3 and her parents’ marriage started unraveling. Ashley’s father, Michael Ciminella, who worked in sales, moved out, and Naomi later remarried gospel singer Larry Strickland, with whom she had a volatile relationship: On more than one occasion, Naomi pulled a gun on him. “The abnormal becomes normal,” Ashley says now. “That was just the way we lived.”
She also has memories of sexual assault-first by an older man in town and later by a family member’s husband. Even after establishing herself as an actress and marrying Franchitti, Judd could not shake her bouts of darkness. In 2006 she entered a 42-day treatment program for her depression at Shades of Hope rehab facility in Texas. “I would have died without it,” she says. “It has improved my life on every level.”
Her recovery has included reconciling with her father, whose substance abuse led to years of estrangement, and slowly rebuilding a relationship with Naomi, 65, and Wynonna, 46. “The family has come so far,” Ashley says. “As individuals and as a system.”
Now a board member of Population Services International, a global health organization, Judd has traveled the world in the last seven years. The lives she has seen affected by disease and poverty in brothels, slums and war-ravaged villages have touched her deeply. “My ability to not give up and not burn out,” she says, “is very much fueled by my own experiences.”
Why did you want to write the book?
It began simply as a means to try to process the overwhelming emotions I felt [in my work with suffering people around the world]. I also wanted to commemorate the grassroots programs that were disrupting this pain and hopelessness.
How did you decide to write about your childhood as well?
It was never my intention, and I would have been happy to write the book without it. But our painful past becomes our greatest asset.
Were you worried about your family’s reactions?
Of course. I reached out to my sister particularly. My dad was amazing throughout. My mom and my sister are going to be in New York next week, and Mom just said, “I would love to be there in a way that feels safe.” She’s going to introduce me at the public library. You want to talk about guts? That woman has some guts to do that.
How would you describe your childhood?
Erratic, chaotic, unstable. I know that my mom did the best she could, and she loved me very much. As did my dad.
You’ve said your dad has apologized to you for the past. Has your mom?
When she started to read the book, I’d gotten [a fact] wrong, so she called and said, “No, no,” and then she stopped herself. She said, “I’m so sorry, I’m not doing that again.” She’s had some great moments like that.
You’ve decided not to have children when there are so many already in the world and suffering. Any second thoughts?
Never even the faintest shadow of regret. A man recently said to me, ‘You haven’t had biological children, but God, you have a mother’s heart.’ It was one of the loveliest compliments I’ve ever received.
Is there a particular memory that sticks with you from your travels?
Meeting sisters in Bukavu [the Democratic Republic of the Congo] at a clinic. They were 13, 14, survivors of gang rape, they were so malnourished. One of them was pregnant, they both had parasites. It felt like there was nothing I could do for them. It just became about sitting and holding them.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
That change is possible. That healing the world begins with healing the self.
Are you grateful for your past?
I can actually, by the grace of God, say that yes, I am.