Ashley Judd talks All That Is Bitter and Sweet

Apr 19, 2011 at 12:11 p.m. ET

Ashley Judd, like human rights activist Angelina Jolie, has traveled the world to bring attention to the plight of whole populations of exploited and deprived people. In our SheKnows exclusive conversation, we were impressed with how helping others, especially women, has become a huge part of Ashley’s own recovery from childhood trauma and depression.

Ashley Judd

In Ashley Judd's now famous memoir All That Is Bitter and Sweet, the actor-activist has revealed everything from drug and alcohol use to neglect and sexual abuse but she wants us to know that much of her book was written while she was travelling for an international public health organization and felt compelled to sit down and write after talking with women in desperate situations all day. Part of her own catharsis was telling their stories.

Ashley has been under fire since the release of her book with Judd's comments condemning hip hop music for exploiting women. We learned that the personal backlash she has suffered was quite extreme yet it only seems to prove her point. Join us for this femme-centric, articulate, empowering and inspiring interview.

Ashley Judd's inspirational tale

SheKnows: Can you talk about getting All That Is Bitter and Sweet out of your soul and down on paper? Was that a catharsis for you?

Ashley Judd: Well, it was but not in the way you [might think]. It was a daily catharsis while I was visiting slums and brothels, refugee camps, makeshift schools, hospices. I would go back to my hotel room after a grueling and exhilarating day, because human rights work is so full of paradoxes, and I would have to write. It was another "c" word. It was a compulsion as much as a catharsis. And, I didn't necessarily have relief immediately but I knew that it was going somewhere and that it was incumbent upon me to capture the sacred narrative with which I had been entrusted in exacting detail because I felt, very seriously, the impact of the quote "not to transmit an experience is to betray it." It was my responsibility to transmit what was being shared with me during the day by girls and women worldwide.

Ashley JuddSheKnows: What can you tell us about how you got started as a human rights activist and what issues you champion?

Ashley Judd: I began with international public health, trying to help the most poor and vulnerable people not die from things like childbirth and mosquito bites and episodes of diarrheal disease related to unsafe drinking water. Upper respiratory tract infections are a leading cause of death for children under five. Kids in North America just don't die from that anymore and it's unacceptable to me that children of color around the world still do at horrific rates. So, when I started with PSI they were taking me to look at HIV/AIDS prevention amongst really exploited populations such as genocide survivors and those trapped in prostituted sex. But, public health problems run the gamut in any setting so I didn't just see HIV-STD prevention, I saw maternal health and family planning and the safe drinking water problem and micro-nutrients and I was gripped by public health-human rights work. I knew that PSI has programs in 65 countries and, after my first day, my first trip, I said, "Okay, one country down, 64 to go."

Ashley Judd: Working through depression

SheKnows: So many women are stuck in the depths of depression no matter what their lifestyles. Can you give them some encouragement? Could reading your book help them?

Ashley Judd: The book includes a lot of resources. There is a section in the back that very clearly directs people towards the resources and the kinds of help that I have personally benefitted from. The first thing I took a look at when I got into recovery was that I had been affected by another person's drinking. I was told there was help and hope for friends of alcoholics whether or not the alcoholics even think they have a problem. That was radical for me. I had no idea that so much of what happened in our family was related to the family disease of alcoholism. That has been a cornerstone of my personal recovery, and then, starting to become aware of and then accept the fact that it takes action around the fact of being a survivor of different forms of abuse and grouping up with other survivors and leveraging those tools and resources. There are workshops, there are intensive healing groups and I avail myself of all of those kinds of tools.

Ashley JuddSheKnows: You have more than one college degree, right? How important is education to women?

Ashley Judd: I have several. It's important for women to get that first degree. A person with a college degree, over her lifetime, earns a million dollars more than a person with only a high school degree. Economic empowerment is really crucial in the gender equality conversation. Any additional vocational training and even just taking classes for pleasure I think is really stimulating and important.

SheKnows: What do you most hope women will take with them after reading All That Is Bitter and Sweet?

Ashley Judd: That none of us is alone and, around the world, our brothers and sisters need us. Our choices and actions, our inactions, do impact the daily quality of life of ourselves and others. I heard something not that long ago that made a big impression on me, because I came from a family system where the thinking was all or nothing, black or white and how to make a healthy decision and what that process looks like wasn't necessarily modeled for me. So, during recovery, I started to experiment, through a mentor's tutelage, with the idea that "yes" means "yes," "no" is a complete sentence and "maybe" is a valid response. I can also say things like "I don't know" and "If you have to know now, the answer is no. Can you ask me again in a week?" and "Not making a decision is making a decision." The last one in particular I apply to feminist, social justice because not making a decision to be involved is making a decision and it's tacit participation in the ongoing oppression of girls and women.

Dolphin Tale update!

SheKnows: SheKnows visited the Florida set of your upcoming film Dolphin Tale. It's very family-friendly and life-affirming. You weren't on set when we were there so can you tell us about your role and working with Harry Connick and Morgan Freeman?

Ashley Judd and Harry Connick Jr in Dolphin Tale

Ashley Judd: It is such a special film and every time I went to Florida to film, I left uplifted and heartened. Harry is just a blast. He really brings out the funny in me. We have a great time together. Of course Morgan I love and adore. My eyes well up with tears when I just look at the man. I think that folks are going to flip for this movie and this dolphin. The movie is so affirming. It's about how God gives us all the family of chance into which we are born then we also have the wonderful journey throughout our lives of gathering up around us, a family of choice. The themes resonate on so many levels. When I found out that Winter was not only a real dolphin but that this Clearwater Marine rescue, rehabilitation and return facility did community service and that their focus was finding permanent homes for foster children, I vowed to be a part of that process. It was so resonant with my values.

SheKnows: Is there anything else you would like our SheKnows readers to know?

Ashley Judd: Well, I do hope they will pick up the book and take this journey to 13 countries around the world with me. The horizontal travel is fascinating but, most importantly, I hope they'll join me on the vertical journey, the most difficult 18 inches we ever travel connecting our heads to our hearts.

SheKnows: Beautifully said.

You can check out more on Ashley's book over at Judd's page!