Southern People

All That’s Bitter and Sweet - a memoir by Ashley JuddAfter surviving a life of rigorous ups and laborious downs, it’s no wonder Kentuckian Ashley Judd had the strength to conquer Tinseltown. But now, it seems, she’s taken that same passion and set her sights on conquering something much bigger: the world. At least, that is, to thoroughly use the prominence Hollywood gave her to leave an impact  in her wake. In chronicling her own battles, and those of others, in her recently published memoir, Judd proves herself a living example of survival.

In All That’s Bitter and Sweet, Judd details life in frank fullness; from her days in the small town South to squalors of despair all around the world. “I’ve always had,” Judd writes, “an intense sense of righteous indignation and an urge to speak for the voiceless and oppressed…”

As a writer, she opens her world and heart to readers in ways unimaginable of most of her stature, and her absolute adoration of children and procuring their needs, even around the world, is utterly profound (making her a woman after my own heart). This is more than an actress – certainly more than the daughter and sister of musical giants – this is a humanitarian.

Intermingled among her stories of life are the heartwarming desires to save the world – or at the very least, leave an indelible mark that makes it better. Through this desire, Judd opens up about her own religious beliefs and background, which are both philosophical and moving. Her religiosity has led her on a crusade to fight injustice around the world (especially human sex trafficking and the AIDS epidemic), even, it might seem, at the expense of a lucrative career.

Undeniably, Judd seems to sometimes take a hard-nosed approach to some Christian theology, which she otherwise readily espouses, particularly at times the Catholic Church, whose ultra-conservative values often conflict with her own socio-political beliefs and their defiance to what she calls “the social justice gospel of Jesus known as ‘liberation theology.”’

“Jesus has always been my favorite radical,” Judd writes. “And my life is infused with the values (liberation theology) celebrated; in fact, my Christian faith demands I work for social justice and human rights.”

What is the basis of Judd’s faith, you ask? It becomes clearer as one delves deeper into Judd’s inner-sanctum: that every human life is of inestimable worth and that when we save one, we save the whole world!

Ashley Judd in South Africa. Credit:
South Africa: The after school—and only—meal for orphans and other vulnerable children at a neighborhood "creche." The meal was rice and gravy, or "pap."

This is reasoning she carried with her (as well as the heart-wrenching stories of the world’s downtrodden) when, in 2008, Judd addressed the United Nations on behalf of human trafficking – a much greater (and graver) issue than most readers will realize – and to promote solutions working in the field: education, equality, and safety even in the most desolate areas.

With countless harrowing experiences under her belt, Judd’s life sometimes reads about as steady as a country road, and she dedicates multiple chapters to overcoming her past, restoring her own self worth and recovery.

But for all its seriousness, Bitter and Sweet is not all anguish and misery, neither personal for the author or global, though both exist in mass in its pages: one seemingly overcome and one in the process of defeat, in the stir of Judd’s activist calling. In the midst of all the gravity, therein lies that infamous Judd wit and sharp intellect, collecting on stories, both her own and those of her forebears, long before she appeared on NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” Her use of Southernisms throughout warm the reader and invite them into Ashley’s South, a place that obviously means a great deal to the actress; a place that shaped the woman – as well as the activist – as much as any gene or DNA strand.

But if you’re looking for absolute indiscretion, you won’t find it here.

As Southern children, we are often taught that talking openly about personal and family dilemmas, which we aptly call “airing dirty laundry in public,” is repugnant to good Southerner manners – Judd seems to have no qualms in doing so on occasion, throwing caution to the wind and taking no prisoners (though oftentimes identities are left to conjecture – this is not gossip, its healing in its magnitude).

One gets the impression that in writing All That is Bitter and Sweet, Judd was seeking release from the demons that haunted her for much of her life. In that, she held nothing back. In doing so, there is vulnerability, but no weakness. Present in these pages is an ever-growing strength – one that is sure to inspire their reader.

Leave no room for doubt, Judd is a classic, Southern tour de force. When, in the closing pages, she describes wheeling up in front of Widener Library on Harvard’s campus and seeing the crimson flag whipping, proclaiming “veritas,” all one could think was Judd had found a home – had come full-circle – for she opened the eyes and hearts of her readers, not only to her own individual plight, but to the world’s transgressions: truth; veritas.  And its impact is long-lasting.

Judd’s honest portrayal of global suffering will forever effect readers, bring them to tears and move their heart to desire nothing so much as salvation. That the leadership of the world cares so little is beyond comprehension – that children, in particular, are so abused, devastating. It’s impossible to understand such malicious hearts. Judd certainly is not one: she will be a proactive change in our time!


Shane Gilreath

Writer/historian Shane Gilreath is a lifelong Southerner, with an ever growing repertoire, including news, government, and interpretive history. He is twice an author, was editor of The Evangel, and wrote the syndicated column "Under the Kudzu," a conservative Southerners take on world affairs. Shane calls himself a traditionalist and a sports-aholic, listing politics and cultures as particular interests. He's an award winning business owner and a graduate of Cumberland College.