Ashley Judd: The Right to Keep Private Pain Private
April 30, 2022, was the most shattering day of my life. My beloved mother, Naomi Judd, who had come to believe that her mental illness would only get worse, never better, took her own life that day. The trauma of discovering and then holding her laboring body haunts my nights. As my family and I continue to mourn our loss, the rampant and cruel misinformation that has spread about her death, and about our relationships with her, stalks my days. The horror of it will only worsen if the details surrounding her death are disclosed by the Tennessee law that generally allows police reports, including family interviews, from closed investigations to be made public.
Naomi lost a long battle against an unrelenting foe that in the end was too powerful to be defeated. I could not help her. I can, however, do something about how she is remembered. And now that I know from bitter experience the pain inflicted on families that have had a loved one die by suicide, I intend to make the subsequent invasion of privacy — the deceased person’s privacy and the family’s privacy — a personal as well as a legal cause.
Family members who have lost a loved one are often revictimized by laws that can expose their most private moments to the public. In the immediate aftermath of a life-altering tragedy, when we are in a state of acute shock, trauma, panic and distress, the authorities show up to talk to us. Because many of us are socially conditioned to cooperate with law enforcement, we are utterly unguarded in what we say. I gushed answers to the many probing questions directed at me in the fourinterviews the police insisted I do on the very day my mother died — questions I would never have answered on any other day and questions about which I never thought to ask my own questions, including: Is your body camera on? Am I being audio recorded again? Where and how will what I am sharing be stored, used and made available to the public?”
I felt cornered and powerless as law enforcement officers began questioning me while the last of my mother’s life was fading. I wanted to be comforting her, telling her how she was about to see her daddy and younger brother as she “went away home,” as we say in Appalachia. Instead, without it being indicated I had any choices about when, where and how to participate, I began a series of interviews that felt mandatory and imposed on me that drew me away from the precious end of my mother’s life. And at a time when we ourselves were trying desperately to decode what might have prompted her to take her life on that day, we each shared everything we could think of about Mom, her mental illness and its agonizing history.
I want to be clear that the police were simply following terrible, outdated interview procedures and methods of interacting with family members who are in shock or trauma and that the individuals in my mother’s bedroom that harrowing day were not bad or wrong. I assume they did as they were taught. It is now well known that law enforcement personnel should be trained in how to respond to and investigate cases involving trauma, but the men who were present left us feeling stripped of any sensitive boundary, interrogated and, in my case, as if I was a possible suspect in my mother’s suicide.
At the beginning of August, my family and I filed a petition with the courts to prevent the public disclosure of the investigative file, including interviews the police conducted with us at a time when we were at our most vulnerable and least able to grasp that what we shared so freely that day could enter the public domain. This profoundly intimate personal and medical information does not belong in the press, on the internet or anywhere except in our memories.
We have asked the court to not release these documents not because we have secrets. We have always been an uncannily open family, which explains part of the public’s love for my mother. Folks identified with her honesty about her mistakes, admired her for her ability to survive hardship and delighted in her improbable stardom. We ask because privacy in death is a death with more dignity. And for those left behind, privacy avoids heaping further harm upon a family that is already permanently and painfully altered.
Though there will be inevitable questions about our decision to assert what we believe is our legal right to protect our privacy in this specific matter, we stand united as a family and hold fast to our belief that what we said and did in the immediate aftermath of Naomi’s death should remain in the private domain — just as it should for all families facing such devastation.
I don’t know that we’ll be able to get the privacy we deserve. We are waiting with taut nerves for the courts to decide. I do know that we’re not alone. We feel deep compassion for Vanessa Bryant and all families that have had to endure the anguish of a leaked or legal public release of the most intimate, raw details surrounding a death. The raw details are used only to feed a craven gossip economy, and as we cannot count on basic human decency, we need laws that will compel that restraint.
We also need to reform the law enforcement procedures that wreak havoc on mourning families and then exacerbate their traumatic grief by making it public. Though I acknowledge the need for law enforcement to investigate a sudden violent death by suicide, there is absolutely no compelling public interest in the case of my mother to justify releasing the videos, images and family interviews that were done in the course of that investigation. Quite the contrary. Not only does making such material public do irreparable harm to the family; it can act as a contagion among a population vulnerable to self-harm.
I gladly chose to confront deeply personal wounds in the spotlight before. The stories I’ve told — about sexual assault and its aftermath — are my own. Through my demands for justice, I used them to help catalyze change. When we are allowed time to process trauma and heal and to disclose its causes at our discretion, we can become effective public advocates. But people should never have to share their wounds with the public before they are ready — if ever.
I hope that leaders in Washington and in state capitals will provide some basic protections for those involved in the police response to mental health emergencies. Those emergencies are tragedies, not grist for public spectacle.
The author with her mother, Naomi Judd, at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City in 1998.Credit…Ron Galella Collection, via Getty Images
My mother was a small-town girl from eastern Kentucky, a woman who went on to change country music and is a member of its Hall of Fame. She called my sister and me “the jewels in my crown” and “the best thing I ever did.” Some know her as a Grammy Award-winning songwriter, others as the warmest person they ever sat next to on an airplane. I know her as my mama, who put salt and pepper shakers beside each place setting for our family suppers and relished talking about subjects as diverse as paleoanthropology and neuroscience. She should be remembered for how she lived, which was with goofy humor, glory onstage and unfailing kindness off it — not for the private details of how she suffered when she died.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988, or go to 988lifeline.org.
Ashley Judd is an actor, activist and public speaker. She is the author of “All That Is Bitter and Sweet” and serves as a goodwill ambassador for UNFPA, the United Nations agency for sexual and reproductive health.
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