The Common Good
July 2011

Where Her Heart Is

by Jason Howard | July 2011

Humanitarian, award winning actress, and best-selling author Ashley Judd reflects on her faith and "true calling" -- social justice activism.

It's noon on the West Coast, and Ashley Judd is scurrying to make a live on-air interview with a National Public Radio local affiliate in Berkeley. Her voice sounds surprisingly energetic despite her frenetic schedule of late -- seven cities in nine days -- to promote her recently released memoir, All That Is Bitter and Sweet.

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The book is the first lengthy writing venture for the 43-year-old Judd, an actress best known for her roles in films such as Someone Like You and Where the Heart Is. But lest you dismiss this as yet another celebrity vanity project, consider the subject: A chronicle of her shift in focus from movies to what she calls her "true calling," feminist social justice activism, the memoir details her on-the-ground experiences in the slums, brothels, and hospices of 13 countries.

Confessions of an Heiress this ain't. Part Anne Lamott, part United Nations briefing paper, the book also recounts Judd's faith journey or, as she describes it, her path to standing "autonomously with the God of my understanding." After being released in early April to critical acclaim, All That Is Bitter and Sweet quickly vaulted to number five on the New York Times bestseller list for hardcover nonfiction.

"Stunned," she tweeted when she learned the news, a word that could also describe the reaction of Judd's many fans and some in the media when she largely abandoned her successful film career in the mid-2000s to devote much of her time to social activism. The book promises to put her new life in better perspective.

"It's [been] a way for me to memorialize the sacred narratives from around the world with which I've been trusted," Judd told Sojourners of chronicling her global experiences on the page, "to celebrate the grassroots programs I work with, as well as to process my own feelings and to continue to engage with my Creator."

That relationship was kindled at a young age, she says, and reinforced in a nighttime conversation she had as a sixth grader with her mother, country music singer Naomi Judd. Overwhelmed by a misunderstanding with a friend, she turned to her mother for advice. "She posed a question," Judd recalls. "She said, 'Well, what's the Golden Rule?' And in that split second I couldn't remember it. I think I was so stunned by her question. And she gave me an enigmatic smile and said, 'Oh, you do know it,' and left me to figure it out for myself." She pauses. "And sure enough, not long after she left the room, I reconnected internally with the Golden Rule."

She describes that realization as a "pivotal moment" in her burgeoning spirituality. "She was reminding me that I have an internal wisdom and that the answers are inside of me, and that those answers come from my connection with a power greater than myself."

Judd has carried that realization with her throughout her life, she says, and credits it with shepherding her through a difficult childhood in which she was sexually abused and often felt "invisible and invalidated" by her family.

Out of those experiences, Judd developed a strong bond with the oppressed, which she more clearly identified as a teenager upon seeing the 1984 Emmy Award-winning TV movie The Dollmaker. The film, starring Jane Fonda, tells the story of a displaced Appalachian woman fighting for her independence inside her own home during the 1940s. Based on a beloved book by fellow Kentuckian Harriette Arnow, the film resonated with Judd on a variety of levels.

"It's so much about her reality of not being validated," she says. "It engaged all my emotions in the same way that my feminist social justice work engages my emotions today. There was outrage and indignation, deep pain and grief, profound empathy and identification. There was this sense that this injustice could either paralyze me or it could galvanize me to action. And every day for the rest of my life I would have to make a choice between the two."

Her preference became evident during her college years at the University of Kentucky, where she writes that her "undeclared major was rabble-rousing," leading demonstrations against the university's financial links to apartheid in South Africa as well as a campus-wide student walkout over a trustee’s use of racist language.

After college, Judd seriously considered joining the Peace Corps, but moved instead to Hollywood to pursue an acting career. Success quickly followed with her role on the television series Sisters and a critically acclaimed turn in the independent film Ruby in Paradise. But what most endeared her to mainstream audiences were her portrayals of fierce women in blockbusters such as Kiss the Girls and Double Jeopardy. By 2001, she was one of Hollywood’s higher paid actresses, commanding a reported $4 million for her performance in Someone Like You. But Judd also felt increasingly spiritually unfulfilled.

"Although I loved the creative process and those fleeting, magical moments of acting," she writes in her memoir, "the righteous indignation, the furious need for social justice, still percolated under the surface." When a representative from Population Services International (PSI) -- a nongovernmental organization that focuses on reproductive health, malaria prevention, and HIV/AIDS -- offered her the position of global ambassador, she signed up.

Judd's first international trip with PSI was to Cambodia in 2004, where she toured orphanages and brothels and met with government officials. More countries have followed, including India, Thailand, Rwanda, and Kenya; more slums, refugee camps, and hospices, summits with political leaders and community activists, and public demonstrations on how to properly use condoms and malaria nets.

Closer to home, Judd has also become a vocal opponent of mountaintop-removal mining, a radical form of strip mining that has destroyed more than 500 mountains and nearly 2,000 miles of headwater streams in her native Appalachia. Ever the student, she graduated from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in 2010 with a midcareer master’s in public administration to complement her humanitarian work.

Her re-engagement with the social activism of her youth changed her profoundly, shattering a long-held belief that she had to choose between a creative and service-oriented life, an idea that Judd writes is reinforced by many in the media who “believe I can legitimately be only one or the other, a creative person or an advocate. ... They can’t hold in their minds that perhaps I am both -- a serious actor ... and a serious advocate who is profoundly committed to pursuing social justice and human rights at home and abroad.”

The rejection of that artificial choice has contributed to her spiritual wholeness. "My Christian faith demands I work for social justice and human rights," she writes. "Jesus has always been my favorite radical."

Judd is emotional when she talks of experiencing God's presence among the prostitutes, refugees, and diseased people she encounters in her work. "It's in touch and physical connection," she says. "It's in the eyes kisses, if you will, that I have with other people -- that shared humanity that passes between us and transcends language and culture."

But try as she might, Judd finds it impossible at times to reconcile the idea of a just God with one who permits the suffering she has witnessed to persist. In a poignant letter she wrote during a visit to the Congo, she rages at God with language as fiery as any character she has portrayed onscreen: "These are your children ... I think you and your big plan absolutely suck. I think allowing vulnerable, defenseless children to be gang raped and thrown away, illiterate and unable to prevent and treat disease, is beyond a bad idea. The notion you are a God of justice is a savage lie."

When asked about the letter, reprinted in her book, Judd sighs long and deep, before quietly admitting that she continues to struggle with this paradox. "If I get out of this moment, no, it's not reconcilable. And that's where my sense of impotence, hopelessness, and despair kicks in. But if I can stay in the moment, then I have a better chance of staying grounded in my faith."

The key, she says, is remaining open to redefining her Creator. "I believe in the God behind my God behind my God," she explains. "I think that I just have so many layers of misunderstanding that I'm willing to fire my God at any particular moment because I have every confidence that the Spirit will re-emerge and show me the loving face of God again."

Judd is putting the spiritual balance she has won over the past few years into practice. This fall, she will make a much-anticipated return to television, playing a former CIA agent who travels to Europe in search of her missing son in the ABC series Missing. Her family film Dolphin Tale, co-starring Morgan Freeman and Harry Connick Jr., will debut in theaters in September.

Still, she makes it clear that she will continue her activism. "I can read at work, keep up with policy papers and research, and stay connected with my dynamic community of activists," she says. "I will keep on keeping on."

Jason Howard is the co-author of Something's Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal. His features, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Nation, Equal Justice Magazine, No Depression, Paste, and The Louisville Review, and his commentary has been featured on NPR.

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