Authors: Ashley Judd
NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
The essence of being a famous Hollywood actor is that you have cameras constantly pursuing you. It’s a law as fundamental as gravity: A lens seeks a star. To those in the crosshairs, the paparazzi are as annoying as they are inescapable—like a swarm of mosquitoes by a lake. Some stars simply go into hiding. Instead, Ashley Judd invites the cameras to join her as she tackles AIDS in Madagascar or sex trafficking in India. She uses her fame to focus attention on issues of vital importance to all of us, while giving voice to the voiceless around the world.
After college, she almost entered the Peace Corps—in which case, she might today be working for, say, Population Services International in Cambodia. These days, what do you know, she
working for PSI in Cambodia—and in Nicaragua, South Africa, and everywhere in between, as a board member and global ambassador. This isn’t just a photo op, but a calling. She advocates for more than a dozen groups, ranging from Equality Now to Defenders of Wildlife, and has spoken out passionately on topics from coal mining to family planning. In 2010, she put her Hollywood career on hold and earned a mid-career degree at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. That’s serious.
A solid chunk of
All That Is Bitter & Sweet
is Ashley’s recounting of the stories she has heard from the front lines in the struggle to improve reproductive health and fight poverty and injustice around the world. Those survivors are some of the world’s greatest experts on these issues, and she gives them the microphone.
Ashley’s cause is a monumental struggle. The central moral challenge of the nineteenth century was slavery, and in the twentieth century it was totalitarianism. In this century, the equivalent moral challenge is to address the oppression that is the lot of so many women and girls around the world—the millions of girls trafficked into brothels, the tens of millions who are kept out of school, the hundreds of thousands of young women who die in childbirth each year, the millions whose genitals are mutilated, and so on. And quite apart from the injustices, addressing these issues is a practical imperative: The best way to bring stability to fractured societies such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the most effective way to fight poverty worldwide, is to educate girls and bring those educated women out of the margins of society and into the formal economy. That’s the work that Ashley bears witness to in this memoir.
When I opened the book, I expected to encounter descriptions of neglect and sexual abuse in Africa and Asia. What surprised me was that some of the abuse and neglect described is closer to home, swirling around Ashley herself as a young girl. That abuse, including a rape while Ashley was a fifteen-year-old trying to pursue life as a fashion model halfway around the world, left deep emotional scars that she has had to deal with as an adult. So this book intertwines tales of personal abuse with examination of mass abuses—they are not just parallel, but also complementary. After reading her personal story, I think I understand better why Ashley has been so committed to addressing injustices afflicting girls in Guatemala, Cambodia, Kenya: Her own legacy of abuse left her emotionally fragile, yes, but it also left her armed with unusual empathy. Her antennae were always out for other little Ashleys, some in far more dire circumstances.
There’s a tendency to tune out these kinds of global problems, seeing them as sad but inevitable. Prostitution, after all, is often described as “the world’s oldest profession.” And if babies die of diarrhea or measles in Africa, if women die in childbirth there, that’s seen as tragic but also the bleak reality of the world we live in. Humanitarians may have inadvertently fed this fatalism by focusing relentlessly on the world’s problems and ignoring the successes, for the truth is that there has been huge progress. In 1960, there were about 20 million children dying annually before the age of five. With today’s increased world population, that’s equivalent to 55 million children. Instead, because of new clinics and hospitals, vaccinations and malaria medicines, bed nets and sanitation, the toll has dipped to about 8 million each year. That’s still far too many children dying needlessly, but it also means that more than 40 million children’s lives are being saved annually—a stunning achievement.
Cynics sometimes say that saving lives just leads to population explosions and more Malthusian tragedies ahead. But in fact when parents see that their children will survive, they have fewer. Family sizes are coming down sharply in poor countries around the world. We’re also getting smarter about what interventions are cost-effective. And microsavings (helping the poor save money effectively) seems to be even more effective than microlending in lifting people out of penury. In short, this war on global poverty is one that we’re winning. It’s not depressing, but encouraging. For the first time in the history of the world, all human beings may have an opportunity to make something of themselves.
And that’s what this book is: an ultimately encouraging exploration of some grim topics. Ashley plumbs the depths of depression—her own struggles with her mental health, and her painful encounters with global ill health—but it’s also a story of resiliency and triumph. Ashley persevered and worked out her traumas. And she also is spending her life chipping away at injustices and poverty around the world. So beat the drums. Sound the trumpets. This is a tale that is not melancholic but inspiring. It deserves the spotlight that Ashley brings to it—and, yes, the pesky cameras, too.
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?
Forcibly Displaced Persons Camp, Kiwanja, Rutshuru
Democratic Republic of the Congo, September 2, 2010
A patch of raw earth, carved out of the forest: dried mud ribbed with ditches, tiny dwellings fashioned from plastic, sticks, fabric, some thatching. The residents are mostly women and children, victims of a relentless civil war. Everyone is dead tired and dirty. The scene offers snapshots of the horrors of eastern DRC: displacement, malaria, AIDS, malnutrition, and an epidemic of extreme violence and rape that defies the imagination. A week ago, in the village of Luvungi, rebels fighting for control of the vast mineral wealth in the region attacked a small village and raped 240 women of all ages. UN peacekeepers eleven miles away had been prodigiously warned and did nothing to prevent or intervene in the atrocities. Rape is a weapon of war here.
This camp is a small oasis of security, if not hope, for a handful of Congolese. I spot a young, sweaty child named Durika, wearing a piece of a black garbage bag. She extends her arms to me, and I scoop her up. She is limp and frail. I rock her and sing to her, pour water in my hand and wipe her face; she is blazing hot. Her mama, Muntuzu Angel, lives in a minuscule, tidy makeshift shelter, the only home she and her seven children have known for the past two years. When I ask where they sleep, she uses her hand to gesture to the bare dirt floor. She tells me she had been gang-raped by soldiers, more than once. She fled to the forest after the first gang rape and then to this camp after her mother, father, and husband were all murdered by militia. While we visit she nurses a toddler named Naomi. I tell her that is a lovely name, also my mother’s name. Muntuzu Angel has a beautiful, soft presence. She tells her story gently. She confides that she doesn’t usually let on that the baby was conceived in rape; she does not want Naomi to be stigmatized. This child is as cherished as her babies conceived in love, she tells me.
Once again, I am staggered and humbled by the human capacity for suffering, resilience, and compassion that I experience in this hellhole, and all the other hellholes I have visited in the past seven years. I thank Muntuzu Angel for our time together. She whispers, while I am still holding her child, that I am a woman just like her, that I am no different. We both cry, something transcendent passing between us. I tell her that I will never forget her, and I will tell her story. It is a promise I have made, and kept, dozens, maybe hundreds, of times in Southeast Asia, Central America, India, Africa. Mere days after meeting Muntuzu Angel, I, with famed human rights activist John Prendergrast, would solemnly carry her narrative directly to President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, spending three hours with him strategizing on ways to extinguish militias in eastern DRC.
As I walk to the next hut, children swarm around my legs. I feel an unseen hand stroke my forearm. And I freeze. This is the moment that kills me, that will haunt my sleep. The unseen child, touching my arm, too shy to be held, perhaps not up for the struggle to reach me through the clamoring throng, but wanting to connect, to touch me.
Who was she?
There are other snapshots:
A boy who looks no more than three but may be older, stunted from malnutrition, lumbering under the weight of a heavy jerrican filled with water and a large bundle of wood lashed to his back. He falters up a steep, loose dirt path in the mountains. I catch his eye. He stares at me with something that looks like rage.
A smiling girl in her too large, dirty yellow dress; the moment we begin to hold hands, she shines. My heart sings alleluia.
A miner missing a front tooth who, thrilled to be photographed, throws off his hat with joy, wanting his face to be as close to mine as possible. I love him.
A Congolese senator, traveling with our group, explaining to me that in his country “we take care of ladies, believe they should be protected.” I decide that this is not a conversation worth pursuing.
The only safe place for us to stay is in Goma, a gritty, filthy town on the shores of Lake Kivu. I buckle down for the night in my threadbare hotel room. I sleep well at first, then somewhere along two in the morning I inevitably wake up. Faces float by; tormented distant eyes pin me to the bed. I write in my journal, process the events of the day, call Tennie, my adopted grandmother and spiritual mentor, to try to make sense out of the insensible. I fight off giving in to anger and despair.
I guiltily turn on my iPod, which ironically, appallingly, contains some of the bloodstained conflict minerals from the mines over which multiple armed militias and the national army are fighting. Raping the very old, the very young, everyone in between, militias terrorize and destabilize communities, eliminating resistance. The UN and International Rescue Committee estimate that hundreds of thousands have been raped in eastern DRC, five million have died since 1996. Two million are displaced in North and South Kivu alone.
I listen to the
Wisdom of Forgiveness
written by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and my friend, Victor Chan. In it, the Dalai Lama speaks with a fellow lama who had been tortured by the Chinese for years.
“Were you ever afraid?” His Holiness asks.
“No,” replies the man.
“Really? You never felt fear?” presses the great spiritual leader.
“Yes. I was afraid I would lose compassion for the Chinese.”
It takes my breath away.
I am asked by my spiritual practice to examine the violence in my own thoughts, where all violence starts. I am asked to regard even “justified anger” as a dubious luxury. I am asked to remember I have no idea what I am capable of, under such circumstances. I am asked to love my enemies.
What is this grace, that allows me to feel mercy for the murderer, love for the perpetrator? It is a question I have pursued across continents and scrutinized in my own heart and soul.
I am often asked why I regularly leave behind my comfortable life, my beautiful farm, my incredible husband, to visit squalid and often dangerous places, advocating sustainable grassroots programs that improve the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people, bringing attention to the core causes and conditions of their suffering. I go because I must. I go because I love it. But why do I love it? Why do I eagerly, even as I know I induce my own grief, lean into gender equality, human rights, and social justice work with such zeal? I am, by the grace of God, slowly learning that piece of my own story. My values spring from my deep belief that there is no separation between myself and women like Muntuzu Angel, or the politician who dismissed her, or even the soldiers who raped her repeatedly. I have an unshakable conviction that we are all One Being, created by a loving God. It is sometimes all that sustains me through each wrenching encounter. My emotions play a crucial role, too, for as I feel, those very feelings teach me precisely what my values are.
Since I began this work in 2003 as the global ambassador for Population Services International, a public health nonprofit, and the partner organizations I have enthusiastically joined along the way, I have been on the front lines of the battle against preventable diseases like malaria and HIV/AIDS; traveled into the depraved world of human trafficking, sex slavery and labor slavery; visited the palaces and corridors of power, engaging the decision makers who can improve public policies.
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 it might be possible that I could help change, and perhaps even save, lives.
What I did not expect was that one life I would change and save would be my own.