The public knows Ashley Judd as an actress of more than 20 films, a part of country music’s famous Judd family and, most recently, as an activist and humanitarian. In her memoir, “All That Is Bitter and Sweet,” based on journals she wrote as well as her own childhood memories, Judd details abuse and neglect in her drama-filled upbringing; her relationship with her famous mom, Naomi, and sister, Wynonna; her Hollywood career, and her decision to focus on humanitarian work around the world. Read an excerpt:
Chapter One: Family of Chance, Family of Choice
Mamaw and my mother. Before seeing this snapshot, I had not known they had shared lighthearted moments.
My favorite author, Edith Wharton, wrote in her autobiography, “My last page is always latent in my first, but the intervening windings of the way become clear only as I write.” So it has been with me as I have undertaken to make sense of my own past. Although the home of my heart is in the Appalachian Mountains, I always considered it auspicious that I was born in Southern California, one of the most transitory places in the world, during one of the most turbulent springs in American history. When I arrived by cesarean section at Granada Hills Hospital on April 19, 1968, California was the epicenter of a society in the throes of a cultural and spiritual upheaval. The Vietnam War was raging. The nation was still reeling from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and Bobby Kennedy would soon be gunned down at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, leaving a generation of idealists lost in a tide of grief and regret. Some of the flower children who had flocked to San Francisco for the Summer of Love were now panhandling for loose change along Hollywood’s Sunset Strip — a place I would soon know well.
My parents, Michael and Diana Ciminella, were small-town kids from rural eastern Kentucky. Like most everyone else in the Los Angeles basin, they had moved to California looking for a fresh start in what Joan Didion described as “the golden land where every day the world is born anew.” In 1967, my parents bought a tract house on a cul-de-sac in Sylmar, a suburb carved out of olive groves in the San Fernando Valley, about twenty miles north and a world away from Hollywood. My dad sold electronic components for the aerospace industry; my mom stayed home and seethed with boredom. They had dreams, just different ones. And they had secrets.
They had married too young and for the “wrong” reason — namely, the unplanned pregnancy that produced my older sister, Christina (you know her as Wynonna), when Mom was only seventeen. It was a typical story of the time: high school girl becomes pregnant and “has” to marry her teen-age boyfriend. But there was a twist: Michael wasn’t the father of Diana’s baby — something he didn’t know at the time of the wedding, and something my sister and I wouldn’t learn for decades. When I came into the world four years later, my family’s troubled and remarkable course had already been set in motion, powerfully shaped by my mother’s desperate teenage lie and the incredible energy she dedicated to protecting it.
I began to understand the dynamics of my past, and how we are only as sick as our secrets, when I was thirty-seven years old and started on a simple and practical path of personal recovery. It as then that I discovered we all belong to two families: our family of choice and our family of origin. My family of choice is a colorful assortment of surrogate grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends who infuse me with love, belonging, and acceptance. My family of origin, the one into which I was born, was also brimming with love but was not a healthy family system. There was too much trauma, abandonment, addiction and shame. My mother, while she was transforming herself into the country legend Naomi Judd, created an origin myth for the Judds that did not match my reality. She and my sister have been quoted as saying that our family put the “fun” in dysfunction. I wondered: Who, exactly, was having all the fun? What was I missing?
As I write these words, I am happy to say that each of us has embarked on a personal process of healing, and my family is healthier than it has ever been. We have come far. In our individual and collective recoveries, we have learned that mental illness and addiction are family diseases, spanning and affecting generations. There are robust strains of each on both sides of my family — manifested in just about everything from depression, suicide, alcoholism, and compulsive gambling to incest and suspected murder — and these conditions have shaped my parents’ stories (even if some of the events did not happen directly to them) as well as my sister’s and my own.
Fortunately, along with the dysfunction is a legacy of love, resiliency, creativity, and faith in a family whose roots I can trace back at least eight generations in the mountains of Kentucky and about 350 years in America, and as far as the shores of Sicily. That history is as much a part of my DNA as the arch of my eyebrows or the color of my hair. It’s imprinted in the soft r’s and long vowels that well up in my voice when I’m speaking about my home place or the way I whoop for my dogs from the doorway, barefoot, in a nightgown, assuming my mountain woman stance with a hand on one hip, a way of being as natural to me as breathing.
Although I now make my home in rural middle Tennessee, eastern Kentucky still calls to me. Kentuckians have a deeply ingrained, almost mystical sense of place — a sense of belonging that defines us. As a teenager, I took a friend to see my great-aunt Pauline’s farm. She passed away when I was in the fourth grade. Nevertheless, although I had not been there since I was ten years old, I navigated my car deep into the countryside, to her homestead on Little Cat Creek, without making a single wrong turn.
More recently, after flying over catastrophic mountaintop removal coal-mining sites in Pike County, I drove to Black Log Hollow in Martin County, where my paternal grandmother was raised. When I pulled onto Black Log, something ineffable — without words and deeper than memory, from a place so primal that it transcends thought and conscious action — tugged at my soul. I went unhesitatingly to the first mailbox on the right.
The stenciled name read “Dalton,” which was my paternal grandmother’s maiden name; I had found my great-grandparents’ home and realized that folks to whom I am kin lived there yet. I called on the residents, and like a cliché, the old woman inside accused me of being the law or a tax collector. The only thing missing was a rifle across her lap.
These mountains can hold dark secrets. Mary Bernadine Dalton, who became my Mamaw Ciminella, never talked to me much about her family or her years growing up. Her mother, Effie, was married at least five times. The husband who fathered Mamaw and her two sisters disappeared from the scene — she never said why, at least to me, although Papaw Ciminella, who loved family dearly and was a devoted reminiscer, told me that my great-granddaddy had hit Effie and she’d ended that marriage on the spot. Mostly, what I knew was that Mamaw was a gorgeous mountain girl with a luscious figure who, like the Kim Novak character in “Picnic,”fell for a charming, exotic outsider who loved adventure.
Michael Lawrence Ciminella (Papaw) was the son of Sicilian immigrants who had settled in western New York, on the shores of Lake Erie. His mother was a classic homemaker in the Italian tradition, his father had a good job making wine for Welch’s, and they were surrounded by a vibrant extended family. They raised five children together, including Papaw. But, according to my cousins, there was a dark side to this quintessential American story. A family member had raped Papaw’s mother, and his oldest brother was conceived in incest. I can only imagine the suffering that created in Papaw’s family as he grew up, and it may explain why he developed ulcers that kept him out of military service during World War II.
As a young man, Papaw, after his exciting tenure in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the western states, which allowed him to discover his love of rambling, installed copper roofing and gutters up and down the Appalachian Mountains. It was on one of these trips that he met the beautiful Billie Dalton at a clandestine juke joint in Inez, Kentucky. He swept her away from the local hero she was dating and married her in 1944, after a six-week courtship. They moved to Erie, Pennsylvania, where he found a good job with General Electric building locomotives during the war. My father, Michael Charles Ciminella, who came along, was their only child.
After the war, Papaw and Mamaw briefly owned a diner in Erie until Papaw, who used to play some serious poker, lost the business to one of the local “hard guys” in a card game. His gambling days over (for a while, at least), Papaw moved his young family back to eastern Kentucky, where he worked as a brakeman for the C&O Railroad. He was a wizard with all kinds of metalwork, and he eventually turned a part-time business building and installing gutters and siding into the successful Ashland Aluminum Products Company.
Dad idolized his father, whom he remembers as outgoing, immensely competitive, hardworking and honest. Papaw never lied or cheated to make a sale, and he expected people to pay him when and what they owed him. Mamaw, in her early years, was as outgoing as Papaw. They were a beautiful and stylish couple, accomplished dancers who enjoyed socializing and golfing at the country club. But Dad’s memory is that Mamaw grew more eccentric as she got older. She liked her house to be perfectly clean, neat and orderly. She also tended to fret, particularly about the health of her only child.
Dad had come down with a bad case of rheumatic fever as a young boy. It took him years to recuperate, and the family moved to Florida during the winters to help him heal. Mamaw must have been terrified of losing him, because she nearly smothered him trying to keep him safe. He chafed at her vigilance, and when it came time for high school, he asked to go to Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia to slip out from under her watchful eye. Dad thrived there, academically and athletically. The once sickly kid had turned into an outstanding baseball player, whose achievements were chronicled in the local paper and who briefly considered going pro. When he was sixteen, his parents bought him a Corvair Monza so that he could drive himself back and forth to Ashland.
As soon as he received the car, Wendell Lyon, his best friend back home, enlisted him to drive him and his girlfriend, Linda McDonald, who would eventually become my godmother, to the movie theater over in Huntington, West Virginia. To seal the deal, Linda arranged a blind date for Michael with her pretty, fourteen-year-old across-the-street neighbor and friend, Diana Judd.
Michael and Diana dated on and off for the next three years, and she has said that he first proposed marriage when she was only fifteen. She also claims she never loved him, but she enjoyed being taken on dates to the country club, and she was impressed by the comfortable lifestyle of the Ciminella family, which seemed luxurious compared with her family’s humbler circumstances.
Charles Glen Judd, my maternal papaw, came from a family that didn’t have much money, but they had laughter, stability, and love. He was born on Shirt Tail Fork of Little Blainecreek, alongside a farm that had been in the family for generations. Papaw Judd and his folks moved to Ashland because the job options in Lawrence County were coal mines or nothing. When he was a senior in high school, he fell for a fourteen-year-old strawberry blonde cashier named Pauline “Polly” Oliver.
Polly, my maternal grandmother, whom we call “Nana,” came from a strange and troubled background. Her paternal grandfather, David Oliver, had turned on the gas oven and then hanged himself in front of his sons, aged only six and four, apparently because he was distraught that my great-great grandmother had left him. Howard, Nana’s father, managed to save himself and his younger brother by breaking out a window. Howard, in turn, married a flophouse alcoholic party girl named Edie Mae Burton, who repeatedly cheated on him. When Nana was nine years old, her dad was found in the bathroom with a bullet in his head; it looked like suicide, but everyone suspected Edie and her boyfriend.
Edie took off soon after the funeral, dumping Nana and her two younger siblings with her rigid, intimidating grandmother, Cora Lee Burton. Nana raised herself and her brother and sister among a collection of maladjusted grown aunts and uncles who were still living at home, and she went to work at her grandmommy Cora Lee’s restaurant, the locally loved Hamburger Inn. She was just fifteen when she married Glen Judd, and it must have seemed like a good deal. Glen bought his own treasure of a gas station and called it Judd’s Friendly Ashland Service. When he and Nana started having children, they bought his parents’ big wood frame house at 2237 Montgomery Avenue. Diana was the firstborn, followed two years later by Brian, then Mark, then Margaret.
My mother has always described her early childhood as idealized, happy and secure, like a Norman Rockwell fantasy, with a stay-at-home mother who cooked wonderfully and a father she adored, who was hardworking and popular in the community. For Nana, though, the marriage was no picnic. Papaw Judd was a decent man who made a good living at the filling station, but he was as tight with money as two coats of paint. Nana never had new clothes and didn’t have a washer and dryer until the youngest of their four children was out of diapers. When the furnace quit, Papaw Judd told Nana to fetch plastic from the dry cleaner’s to insulate the windows. It was the only time Mom remembered her mother standing up to him about household finances. Papaw also worked long hours, often staying late to drink whiskey.
My mother describes herself as wildly imaginative and a perfectionist as a child, the kind of kid who always had her hand in the air at school, earned good grades, and kept her room immaculate. She had neighborhood friends to play with in the humid summer evenings and siblings she loved, especially her gentle and funny younger brother Brian. Like all children, Mom must have absorbed the tension in the household, but she says the only thing she missed as a child was the attention of her elusive father. While she yearned for his affection, she learned to be noticed in other ways. Mom was a born extrovert who used her babysitting money to take tap-dancing lessons. And folks around Ashland all say how popular and beautiful she was.
By the time Mom was a junior in high school, Dad had graduated from Fork Union seventh in his class and was enrolled at Georgia Tech. He flunked out after only one year — he said he was having too much fun fooling around to go to class. In the summer of 1963, he and Mom were still dating sporadically, but neither of them was about to marry. He had pulled his act together and was on his way to earning a 4.0 during summer school at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. Mom was thinking about college applications and dreaming of the future when suddenly her idyllic world, her parents’ marriage, and all of the Judd children’s childhoods were shattered.
Her beloved brother Brian had been concealing a strange, painful lump on his shoulder that had been bothering him for weeks. He feared something was wrong with him, but he was more afraid of missing a much-desired vacation with a school friend. Soon, though, my grandmother noticed the lump and took him to our local doctor. Dr. Franz immediately knew it was grave and recommended seeing a specialist in Columbus, Ohio, where Brian was diagnosed with a deadly form of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
While her parents were in Ohio with Brian, Mom stayed behind to start her first day of classes as a high school senior. It was the first time she had ever been left alone in the house, and Charlie Jordan, a boy from Ashland (who interestingly was often mentioned alongside my dad in the local newspaper’s coverage of baseball) whom she had also been dating, came over for a visit. She later wrote in her memoirs that she was “too emotionally spent to put up her usual defense,” and they had sex for the first time. It was not the tender, romantic experience she had dreamed about. She woke up the next morning racked with shame and told no one what had happened.
The experience cost her dearly. She missed first one and then another period, and with growing panic, she realized she was pregnant. Because she didn’t have a driver’s license, my mom took some money from her piggy bank and secretly hired a cab to drive her to Dr. Franz’s. Upon confirming her pregnancy, he put his head in his hands and wept. He knew well what her family was already facing with Brian, and with abortion both unthinkable and illegal, there was nothing he could do to help her.
If I trace the story back to what is a crucial moment, the first time my mom missed her period, I am left to use my imagination to fill in blanks, guided by what I know about small-town America in 1963, the social expectations of “good girls,” and the excruciating grief that was unfolding in my grandparent’s home while my uncle Brian lay dying of childhood cancer. Papaw spent his life savings trying to save his son.
According to Mom’s letters to Dad, Nana was “beside herself, about to have a nervous breakdown.” I know from my aunt Margaret and uncle Mark what a lost, emotionally punishing time it was for them, too. As a result, I now have nothing but empathy for my young, vulnerable mother as I picture her in her sweet childhood room, engulfed in the profound loneliness and terror of those awful months. Mom has told me she let Charlie know she was pregnant. It did not go well. He asked Mom to return his class ring and informed her he would be leaving soon to join the armed services. Even though he knew he was her biological father, Charlie never tried to contact my sister. Upon his death, his family members, whom I have gratefully come to know, told us he had newspaper clippings about my sister in a drawer. It seems he was proud of her.
My mother was now living under a pressure for which she was wholly unprepared. Until then, her greatest concerns in life were limited to things like forgetting to set her damp hair in rollers on a Saturday night and thus rushing to ready herself for Sunday school the next morning. In a moment to which only she is privy, and based on a sense of despair and urgency I can only imagine, she determined to identify Michael Ciminella, instead of Charlie Jordan, as the baby’s father. Once she set this narrative in motion, she would commit to it completely. She took total ownership of the story and would not vary from it one iota, promulgating and defending it as if her life depended on it.
The letters she sent to my dad during this time give me a precious glimpse of the girl who told this lie. “Sheez,” she wrote. “One day, my whole life is ahead of me, and then ...” She trailed off. According to Dad, he was baffled when she told him she was pregnant. Although they had once, as he later told me, “hopped in the sack and almost had sex,” the act had never been fully consummated. Still, he figured, a girl could easily become pregnant. Besides, he loved my mother, and he simply could not fathom that she would lie about something so enormously consequential. He accepted her word and wrote a letter telling her they should marry. He couldn’t think of any option other than doing the right thing.
When Nana found Dad’s letter tucked under Mom’s mattress, she confronted her daughter, screaming hysterically. But according to Mom, Papaw Judd’s reaction was more painful. He stood quietly in the doorway, looking dazed and crushed and small. He rarely hugged her, but somehow he managed to on this inauspicious occasion. She could smell whiskey on his breath.
On January 3, 1964, Mom and Dad were married in a sad ceremony in a Baptist church in Virginia, where nobody knew them, so shamefully regarded was the occasion. Mom borrowed a navy blue suit from her mother. The only guests in attendance were both sets of parents, who were barely on speaking terms, blaming each other’s children for ruining their dreams. The photograph from that day is one I can bear to look at only briefly; it is steeped in melancholy.
After the wedding, Nana rather mercilessly told Mom to move in with the Ciminellas, because she wouldn’t be able to handle a crying baby in the house along with her own sick child. So Mom carried her little suitcase up to Dad’s attic bedroom, with its junior high school pennants and trophies, where she would stay by herself while Dad continued his education in Lexington.
It must have been the loneliest winter imaginable. After having rarely slept outside her own home, and then only to spend the night at a girlfriend’s house, she was a scandalously knocked-up teen living with adults she barely knew, knowing their son was not really the father of her baby. Her girlfriends were wrapped up in Ashland High Tomcats basketball and prom dates, but Mom had dropped out of high school when her pregnancy started to show and finished her courses with a tutor.
Mom gave birth to my sister, Christina Claire Ciminella, on May 30, 1964, the week her high school class graduated. She received her diploma in the mail. Back at school in the fall, Dad wrote Mamaw and Papaw letters, thanking them for taking such good care of “Honey and the baby,” whom they often drove to Lexington on weekends to visit him, telling them how much he loved them for it. The writing is touching and sweet. My sister’s birth was the only happy coda in a grim year. Brian’s cancer treatments weren’t working, no matter how many specialists he saw, Finally, after months of deep yet brave suffering, Mom’s beloved brother died, leaving a gaping wound in her and her family’s heart and soul that I doubt has ever truly healed.
Excerpted from "All That Is Bitter and Sweet" by Ashley Judd and Maryanne Vollers. Copyright © 2011 by Ashley Judd and Maryanne Vollers. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House. All rights reserved.