"I was sick and tired of being sick and tired," Ashley Judd said the other night in San Francisco's Marina District at Books Inc., borrowing the famous phrase once uttered decades ago by the activist Fannie Lou Hamer.
The actress didn't know what was wrong back in 2003 during the filming of "Twisted" in the City, but she knew she wanted it to stop.
"My first thought was feeling sorry for myself," Ms. Judd recalled on Thursday night before an audience of 120 who squeezed into a local bookstore. The "Kiss The Girls" and "Double Jeopardy" star was in town to promote her memoir All That Is Bitter And Sweet, which she signed for scores of fans after a discussion and Q&A.
Ms. Judd admitted that eight years ago she had been numbed into victimhood but "a power higher than myself" snapped the actress into thinking that with all the world's problems "I just needed to get over myself."
A former San Francisco resident during her grade school years, Ms. Judd had caught a glimpse of the City's activist fervor in later years, that served as a precursor for her humanitarian work. She saw a man on a street corner protesting. "I was kind of mixed up then, not wanting to know if I wanted to be him or date him."
Ashley Judd was transfixed by the sight of a Methodist man (Ms. Judd mentioned she was brought up Christian) exhorting indifferent passers by on the corner of Washington and Buchanan Streets in San Francisco. (Ms. Judd's grandmother still resides in the city's tony Pacific Heights district.)
Several years later, and after encouragement from husband Dario Franchitti and her friends Bono and Bobby Shriver, Ms. Judd took trips across the U.S. to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS. She visited the African continent with the Enough Project and was taken to a shelter for enslaved women, brutalized, violated and treated as sexual chattel. Ms. Judd told disturbing stories of the horrors the women in the camp had suffered: rape, families destroyed, mutilations, disease, starvation. She also mentioned the huge problem of conflict diamonds and the electronics used in iPhones and other smartphones as directly fomenting sexual violence in the Congo.
"I didn't want to just stay in the trauma however considerable and dour it was. I wanted to commemorate the unsung heroes everyday around the world that are working with disempowered populations and fighting on their behalf." After gaining "psychic space" from the horrific first-hand accounts she listened to, Ms. Judd would write for two hours at the end of each visit to the women in and around Africa.
"I needed to process. I needed to feel my own feelings. I needed to find a way not to die. A way to stay in it without burning out or medicating or yelling at the room service guy."
Ms. Judd kept more than 650 pages of diaries.
Persuaded to turn her diaries into a book that would become All That Is Bitter And Sweet, Ms. Judd committed but only after considerable prodding from her attorney.
But was Ms. Judd, on this part of her seven-city, ten-day book tour, another example of a movie star touring the globe and puffing out her chest and saying, "look at me" to the little people?
During the Q&A an audience member asked Ms. Judd, whose 43rd birthday arrives on Tuesday, "what can a person who doesn't have much money do to help?"
"Good question," replied Ms. Judd, who earlier challenged her polite and attentive audience to become engaged in causes beyond their own. "Once you know, you become responsible. And so when you leave here, I invite you to remember that you have a choice," Ms. Judd said. "And the choice is about commitment to our shared humanity. Or the choice to abandon our shared humanity. And that word (abandon) is really important to me."
Ms. Judd seemed unnerved but thankful for the applause from her listeners, citing that such appraisal was at great dissonance with the painful events detailed in her book that she had spent the better part of an hour talking about.
The book includes Ms. Judd's personal ups and downs: her struggle with severe depression which she is recovered from; the contradictions in her devout Christian family and an uneven upbringing, not to mention issues with abuse. The actress pointed out that her family had a predisposition to alcoholism, and while lamenting the hereditary aspects of that marker she expressed a great deal of relief that she hadn't been too far tainted. Ms. Judd noted however, "that I grew up in a family system where I was abandoned a lot."
Hollywood, Ms. Judd said, hadn't affected her worldview in a negative way. She had a strong sense of activism and politics prior to emerging as a significant presence in the movie business. She said that she was as politically active as ever, lobbying the Kentucky governor to do the right thing. When an audience member noted that a Kentucky senator was voting to undo the strides being made to protect women from all manner of violence, Ms. Judd, mostly humorous throughout, said, "If I had a nickel for every time . . . I'd have enough money to have a campaign fund."
Reading quotes from her book Ms. Judd paraphrased one: ". . . when we become willing to really see another person -- when we take the time and connect with the spiritual practice of patience and really witness another person, we take a great risk. We risk becoming recruited to their welfare."
Ms. Judd, who will take a trip to the African continent this summer with the Clinton Global Initiative, will next appear on the big screen with Morgan Freeman in "Dolphin Tale", a film based on a true story. The film opens in September in the U.S. and Canada.
For a list of Omar's Examiner.com stories and film reviews, click here. He is a contributing film critic for "Ebert Presents At The Movies" on PBS television and also a far flung correspondent for the preeminent film critic Roger Ebert and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.