Book Review: All That Is Bitter & Sweet by Ashley Judd

Ashley Judd

Ashley Judd

“Stay home!” is the message I wanted to deliver to Ashley Judd when I finished reading her memoir, All That Is Bitter & Sweet, yesterday morning.  I wanted her to stay home because I sensed her marriage wouldn’t survive the prolonged absences attendant with her international work as an activist and her husband, Dario Franchitti’s, career as a champion race car driver.  It didn’t.  They announced plans to amicably divorce in January, 2013.

Ashley Judd and Dario Franchitti

Ashley Judd and Dario Franchitti

It’s too late to go back and have a happy childhood.
-Ashley Judd

I had wished earlier this year that she’d stay home and run against Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY).  Yet, the primary reason I wish she would stay home is to invest her unique blend of brilliance, expertise, Harvard education, and personal experiences into crafting solutions to the challenges faced by abuse survivors here in the United States.  I think her charisma, commitment, and charm would inspire other survivors to contribute their own expertise to ending the callous indifference, shame and blame, systemic dysfunction (and possibly corruption), and misogynistic cultural attitudes that derail so many abuse survivors’ recovery and attempts to achieve financial self-sufficiency.

Ashley Judd at her graduation from Harvards' Kennedy School of Government

Ashley Judd at her 2010 graduation from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government

I was really powerless over my childhood, and
the coping strategies that I developed
had made my adult life unmanageable.
– Ashley Judd

In the United States, we pride ourselves as the land of the free and the home of the brave. It takes a lot of courage to survive abuse, but many of us are not truly free. I think we need to get our own houses in order before we jet around trying to change the world.

In some respects, Ms. Judd learned this lesson shortly after she launched her international mission with Population Services International. She was emotionally overwhelmed by the staggering vulnerability of abuse survivors she met in Cambodia, Thailand, and Africa.  She was determined to give voice to the voiceless and oppressed, but first she needed to rescue her own lost, wounded inner child.  Been there.


I’ve given those SOBs back their shame.
– Ashley Judd

The Lost Child in Dysfunctional Families

All That Is Bitter & Sweet isn’t an easy read.  Ms. Judd’s candid insights were equal parts liberating, inspiring, informative, and exceedingly painful.  I am enormously grateful that she generously shared what she discovered and learned during her 42 days at Shades of Hope in Buffalo Gap, Texas:

. . .my brain was my greatest asset. . .My deepest fear had always been that I could not heal. . .it is abusive to point out a problem without highlighting a solution. . .

I began to learn about the effects of neglect and abandonment on a child. . .the modern definition of abuse is “anything less than nurturing,” and I began to grieve for the small, precious girl I was, needy and vulnerable, exactly how God intends children to be, and the many, many less than nurturing experiences I had. . .

I began to recognize the behaviors I had developed in my adult life as attempts to restore within me the many losses of my childhood. . .I had used people, places, and things as a basic source of my identity.

I was taught about the shame core that develops in abused kids when their abusers. . .are shameless and thus teach the child to be ashamed. . .the insidious effects of witnessing others being abused. . .

Wynonna, Ashley, and Naomi Judd

Wynonna, Ashley, and Naomi Judd

In their eyes, I couldn’t get life right.
-Ashley Judd

The Judds have made no secret of their family’s dysfunction.  Ashley Judd was a sensitive child who frequently felt alone and isolated:

I took to playing with Mom’s gun, trying to decide if it would be worth it to shoot myself. . .the way my family lived was already killing me.  This sort of death often seemed preferable, the only escape. . .no one listened, no [sic] believed me. . .no one acted.  Episodes of suicidal ideation to cope with searing emotional pain continued into my adulthood. . .I have no clue how I survived.

. . .if you’d met me at the time, you would have thought I was an all-American kid. . .I was living a double life. . .Everybody thought I was a well-adjusted, adaptable kid, and overachiever. . .When people liked me, I didn’t know why. . .I felt empty. . .

Ms. Judd was fortunate to have enlightened witnesses in her life like her godmother Piper McDonald Evans and her Judd and Ciminella grandparents.  She learned early that cats are wonderful therapists before she met the professional therapists who helped her deal with her shattered life:  Ted Klontz and Tennie McCarty.


All children deserved to be cherished. . .
every child needs a safe person and a haven.
– Ashley Judd

I was particularly intrigued to learn that members of dysfunctional families play roles:  Victim, Chief Enabler, Mascot (family clown), Scapegoat (family rebel), Hero (high achiever), and Lost Child (rejected).  Pets are very important to the Lost Child:

I have a wonderfully deep relationship with animals.  They anchor and structure my world.  Their unconditional love and four-legged wisdom enriches my life and helps me heal.  .  .giving me at long last what my parents had been unable to sustain during my childhood, that invaluable feeling of being the center of somebody’s world.


A lot of people weren’t there for me while I was growing up,
but by God,
I am here for myself now.
– Ashley Judd

Rape Is a Weapon of War

Ms. Judd was molested and sexually abused several times.  These experiences were minimized and ignored by the adults who should have protected her.  To find her “empowered adult” voice, she wrote obsessively in her journal at Shades of Hope.

Sexual exploitation of women is a global pandemic.  Rape is a weapon of war, and women are the expendable pawns.  In India, Ruchira Gupta founded Apne Aap to help sexual slaves become empowered via education, vocational training, and advocacy:

The members teach one another self-reliance, self-efficacy, self-respect, self-love. . .achieving sustainability is a process in the individual’s mind and soul.  It is capacity building at the most essential, elemental level. . .access banking and microcredit programs. . .lawyers on hand to train them to negotiate for their rights with the police and government bureaucrats.


I can stop abusing myself with perfectionism. . .
I am enough.
– Ashley Judd

Poverty Is the Worst Form of Violence

Poverty and corruption go hand in hand.  This isn’t limited to third world countries.  It is equally true here in the United States where women are frequently forced to choose between physical safety and economic destitution.  Safety nets for abused women and children have so many holes that survivors represent 60% of the people on welfare and 50% of the homeless.  This is why I wish Ms. Judd would stay home and run for the Senate:

I am actually beginning to have gratitude for my painful past, in that I may be qualified to sit with oppressed people all over the world, to be a part of a grassroots social justice process that speaks volumes about the promise of ending poverty, of an age of justice. . .

This is not about charity, this is about justice. . .I would not back down.

. . .we all need solutions, so I choose the process, again and again, of surrendering, accepting, suiting up, and showing up. . .and letting go of the outcome. . .

The same networks that make cigarettes available in every corner of the earth can be leveraged and grown to make healthy products and behavior-change communication accessible to hundreds of millions of people.


I’m not sure where this journey will take me. . .
I’ll always be traveling on the front lines of hope,
expecting miracles to happen.
– Ashley Judd

Women for Women International

Zainab Salbi’s father was Saddam  Hussein’s personal pilot.  She is an abuse survivor, activist, and social entrepreneur who founded Women for Women International (WFWI) to help women move from victim to survivor:

The organization offers immediate food and medical support for women in conflict zones, then lifts them up with counseling, jobs, civic participation and empowerment training, literacy education, and microcredit loans and savings to create leaders out of victims. . .

WFWI teaches appressed [sic], victimized, poor women to bathe, to feed themselves and in fact produce and sell food to others, to read, count, and write, and offers them parenting skills, social skills, money skills, a trade. . .it them gives them a network of sisters to rely on for support.


A degree should be highly relevant to my interests ~
not so much a professional credential,
but a passion credential.
– Ashley Judd

Ms. Judd Goes to Harvard

After Ms. Judd had established her credibility as an activist, she decided to get a master’s degree in public administration at Harvard.  I would love to read her award-winning final paper:

I was able to metabolize so many of my life experiences to propose a model that encourages women to engage in a feminist analysis of their own lives and through strong female-to-female alliances, disrupt the virulent problem of gender inequality in their homes and communities. . .take action to begin to heal from patriarchal wounding, and from increased personal empowerment commit to service work, addressing gender inequality at the grassroots level.

. . .I built upon. . .studies of the bonobos, those wonderful primates I met in the Congo, offering them as a model of how women at the household-to-household level can influence communities into peaceful societies. . .

Once we begin to recover, we can be most useful in precisely the ways we have been most hurt.

Ms. Judd’s husband, mother, and sister did not attend her graduation from Harvard.  She went alone to her graduation from the University of Kentucky.  She has found solace with her spiritual family (see John 1:10-13) and practices ecumenical faith.

3 responses to “Book Review: All That Is Bitter & Sweet by Ashley Judd

  1. Thanks for this story, Carolyn. I’m left with a question: Why did Judd’s husband, mother and sister not attend her graduation from Harvard?

  2. Great to hear from you! I hope you are well.

    Her husband was doing publicity for the Indy 500 race (which he won a few days later). He didn’t like Cambridge, MA. She didn’t say why her mother and sister didn’t come, but one article I read suggested that Ashley’s continuing animosity with her mother and sister (they all live on the same farm) was a primary reason the couple split. Her father was highly supportive of her Harvard education, and it is very possible that the perpetual tension with Naomi (his ex-wife) may have contributed to Naomi’s decision to opt out.

    My sense from reading the book is that Ashley has forgiven her father, but it may take more time for her to heal the relationship with her mother.

  3. Extremely well written and informative review. This story should be told and you tell it well! I completely agree with your sensitive and insight comment that Ashley should stay home was powerful. So many times survivors are “doing” when we should practice just “being”. Bravo on the review, as usual you hit the ball out of the park Caroline. I have directed colleagues and friends to read this blog. Loved it!

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