Ms. Judd leads a double life. She is a celebrated and acclaimed actress nominated for Golden Globes and Emmys, and has starred in over 20 films (including A Dolphin Tale, Tooth Fairy, De-Lovely, Double Jeopardy, Kiss the Girls, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, A Time to Kill, Ruby in Paradise) and on Broadway. She is also a dedicated humanitarian, and has travelled the world, advocating on behalf of grassroots programs that focus on combating human trafficking and poverty. Most recently she received her MPA from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where she was awarded the Dean’s Scholar Award. In 2008 Ms. Judd was the Keynote Speaker at the UN General Assembly’s First Thematic Debate on Human Trafficking.
At the start of this event, Ms. Judd was welcomed back to the UN warmly by Ms. Monasabien and the audience. The conversation began as a catch up from when she was last heard at the UN. What had she been up to? Why had she gone back to school? What had that experience been like? What many of us don’t realize is Ms. Judd is an intellectual, her mind and curiosity fired up in college days at the University of Kentucky by French women scholars, in such courses as “Taking a Look at the use of Female Images in the Literature of the 17th Century.” Longtime activist for social justice, she joined the Peace Corps briefly after college before following her dream of becoming an actress, all the while harboring a different dream of graduate school which after 20 years she recently accomplished.
Finding a special place among her classmates at Harvard, many of whom will most likely end up on benches judging landmark cases, she chose to lend her special voice and perspective to issues of import. Her final paper was in part a feminist critique of film scripts and a proposal for helping individual women heal from sexual violence and shame. She wanted to address the misogyny within a patriarchal system found in both men and women, the most damaging being women’s internalization of misogyny. Her proposal called for the application of two programs: the first an experiential therapy whereby the individual safely recreates a moment of violence and trauma to fight back, moving that experience out of the body and out of the neuroanatomy of the brain to reclaim their personal power. This coupled with the principles of the 12-step fellowship programs (like Alcoholics Anonymous) which is not religious per se but has a spiritual component applicable to all, whereby an individual makes peace with the God of their understanding, makes peace with themselves, takes and shares an inventory of their personal assets and defects, makes amends to themselves and others through the practice of changed behaviors in relationships, learns a spiritual practice and shares these principles (in this case, feminism) with others. The paper was so successful that the Professor of the course re-reads it many times over for inspiration.
Ms. Judd’s connection to this subject is personal. She is a survivor of a rape at 15 years old which left deep emotional scars. Her story is one of personal recovery and an inspiring call to employ empathetic capacity in the service of others. And therein lies the core of why she regularly leaves behind her comfortable life to visit the squalid hellholes of the unfortunate world over. She read a portion from the preface of her remarkable book:
“My aim, when I began this journey, was to make my life an act of worship, to be useful to my fellows. To do this, I would witness firsthand the stories of the poorest of the poor and carry their narratives like treasure home to the richest country in the world, America. I hoped that I could change and perhaps even save, lives. What I did not expect was that one life I would change and save would be my own.” (Judd, Ashley. All That Is Bitter and Sweet: A Memoir (Random House, Inc., 2011)
Her greatest joy is in service. She spoke of the love and tenderness she feels when she is with vulnerable people–like the kid in the slums that has been edgy and hard to reach who finally cracks or the little girl who falls into her arms or the old woman bent over from dealing with all her children who have HIV. Or the transexual with a scar over the entire half of her face whose name is “Raped and Mauled by a Dog.” There are times she knows how “powerfully powerless” she is. She is reminded of Father Tuttu’s words which have taught her that it is “okay to be sloppily imperfect and to feel pain. And to know that sometimes just the simple act of caring is enough.”
But Ashley Judd is an activist. Her way of coping with the effects of “sensitive listening” is to write and copious pages of diaries have gone into making this memoir. She calls for female alliances in which women will support one another against the misogyny and domination of inequality, the education of women, legal rights such as land tenure, civic awareness and the right to participate in civil society. This is the foundation which must be laid in order to prevent exploitation. She encourages each of us “to find your core sensitivity, what enrages you the most, mine it and go there.” And sharing the words of one of her mentors, she says “What comes from the head goes straight over the head; what comes from the heart goes straight to the heart.”
On the eve of the premiere of her new TV series “Missing” in which Judd plays a mother who’s son is in peril she responds to the question often asked of her, “How can you play a mother so convincingly when you don’t have any children?” Ashley Judd doesn’t understand this construct that says the only child a person can love is a biological child. She says, “I believe the children who are already here and who are suffering are our collective responsibility and I have chosen to dedicate my time, my love, my energy, my resources, to them. They are my children.” And we believe her.
SIDENOTE: This must have been my day of “Human Trafficking” because that evening I attended a performance of Erika Sheffer’s superb play, “Russian Transport” at the New Group in New York City. This is about a Russian-American immigrant family in Sheepshead Bay struggling to make ends meet and what happens when mysterious Uncle Boris visits from the motherland. It is everything you want a drama to be: funny, poignant, scary, engaging with a moral focus pertaining to human trafficking. The cast led by Janeane Garofalo including Daniel Oreskes, Morgan Spector, Sarah Steele, and Raviv Ullman is superb. I’m urging all New Yorkers: GO SEE THIS PLAY which is extended through March 24th. For information on the New Group and “Russian Transport” click here.