A friend of mine once confessed that she loves attending her 12-step meetings because doing so is like watching a soap opera — albeit a necessary and beneficial one. Well, have I got a book for her: Ashley Judd’s memoir, “All That Is Bitter and Sweet,” written with Maryanne Vollers. A big chunk of the book takes place at Shades of Hope, a treatment facility in Buffalo Gap, Tex., where — in the language of recovery — Judd finds her “lost child.”
Judd keeps her acting career offstage. You won’t learn much about how she got from her native Kentucky to Hollywood stardom. This book is about recovery from depression born of growing up in a wildly dysfunctional family and building on that recovery to become a global activist. Yet “All That Is Bitter and Sweet” is not nearly as saccharine as this description makes it sound. Despite the heavy dose of jargon and cliche — Judd longs to “bring a voice to the voiceless” — the actress tells a fascinating story about her truly awful childhood. Country-singer mom Naomi Judd — born Diana Judd — comes across as a monster. Ashley, who has sought to forgive her negligent and self-indulgent parents, may not fully realize what a damning portrait of her mother emerges.
Judd’s family had many dark secrets, and Naomi contributed one of the strangest when she became pregnant at age 17 and somehow persuaded Michael Ciminella — with whom she had engaged in heavy petting — that he was the father. Christina — who would become famous as Wynonna Judd — was born shortly after the couple married. Ashley came along four years later. Wynonna was an adult before she knew the truth.
Needless to say, the Ciminella marriage was not destined for longevity. After a stint as hippie parents in California, Michael and Naomi divorced in 1974, and Ashley spent much of her childhood being shuttled between mom and dad, who were both weirdly unconcerned about young Ashley’s overhearing their active sex life through “thin walls.” She attended 13 schools between ages 5 and 18. “I was bounced around from town to town, household to household, from Los Angeles to Kentucky to North Carolina and back again, while Mom roamed, developing her lofty dreams,” she writes.
When Judd says that the summers she spent with her Ciminella grandparents in Kentucky “are the reason I am alive today,” we believe her. It would be easy to ridicule the chapters (yes, that’s plural) devoted to recovery at Shades of Hope, but I won’t. It’s to Judd’s credit that she sought a way out of her depression and anger, even if one also hopes that she will someday learn to put her experiences in plainer English. Whereas most of us might say, “I took a nap,” Judd elaborates, “My nap had the dual purpose of essential rest and psychological relief.”
A curious feature of the book is that Judd’s husband, Dario Franchitti, the professional race car driver, is almost missing in action. He comes across far less vividly than Buttermilk (the cockapoo) or Percy (the cat). “Lost children” love pets, we are informed. Even those of us who dote on our four-footed friends might have to suppress a giggle at the spectacle of Judd’s bonding with a bonobo on one of her international trips: “He was mischievous, tender, playful, and in general an angel from God, who blessed me with an incredible experience, rare and heart-expanding, that soothed me deeply.” Ashley, he’s an ape!
Although Judd’s international activism on behalf of AIDS sufferers and trafficked women began before Shades of Hope, it is inextricably linked to her search for comfort and the meaning of her painful experiences. Like Princess Diana before her, she can identify with those she meets in desperate situations. While the world could probably get along without Judd’s take on the genocide in Rwanda, she does visit places most of us will never go. We see her in Third World brothels and holding two little boys rescued from a railway station in New Delhi. She lets these people speak for themselves. These vivid scenes are marred, however, by Judd’s emotionalism — too often the story is her feelings. She is so distraught at one point that she must call her yoga instructor in Hollywood.
Ashley Judd has met few cliches or people she didn’t want to hug. Somehow, though, her book works in spite of this.
Hays is coauthor, most recently, of “Some Day You’ll Thank Me for This: The Official Southern Ladies’ Guide to Being a ‘Perfect’ Mother.”