The Ecstasy of Agony: Ashley Judd at the United Nations

Ms. Judd

Ashley Judd broke from the selling of maternal wrath and vengeance—the primary plot-drivers of her new prime-time spy caper, Missing—to visit the UN last week and discuss her celebrity recovery and humanitarianism memoir, All That Is Bitter and Sweet.

It describes a youth marred by rape and abuse, an adulthood plagued by thoughts of suicide, paralyzing depression and pervasive hopelessness. And the path of healing that led her to work on behalf of such sufferers of the Global South as Congolese rape victims, Cambodian orphans and Bangladeshi sex slaves.

“I believe the patriarchy is not men,” Ms. Judd told her eager audience. “Patriarchy is a system in which both men and women participate.”

The crowd of more than a hundred might have populated the pages of a wildly dishonest social studies text: Women from distant lands with heads wrapped in exotic textiles, a girl with Down syndrome upon whom you couldn’t help wrongly projecting massive innocence, a sexually harmless priest and a Jewish grandmother with the accent of a lost neighborhood. A majority were women, with just enough nonthreatening men for each nonthreatening man to feel himself not threatened.

They came for the slow-dripping sweet stuff of First World stardom meeting Third World woe. They listened like unwitting adherents of a new religion as Ms. Judd discussed helping women heal from sexual violence and shame.

“It’s a very dynamic form of psychotherapy in which the individual is able to safely recreate a moment of violence and trauma and fight back and move that experience out of the body,” she explained. “Out of the neuroanatomical pathways of the brain and reclaim their personal power.”

But as Ashley Judd the humanitarian shared sexual catharsis at the UN, Ashley Judd the Clinton-era screen siren was suffering deeply online.

“What’s Up With Ashley Judd’s Face?” tweeted Trevor O’Sullivan, referencing an appearance made by the actress and her cockapoo, Buttermilk, on Canadian television earlier in the week.

Viewers had noted a pneumatic plumpness about her cheeks—an aesthetic known to amateur online celebrity plastic surgery conjecturers as “pillowyness.”

“Like Lindsay Lohan,” said Us Weekly, “the star might be using injectable fillers in an attempt to look as youthful as possible for her big career comeback.”

“Ashley Judd’s new face makes me so sad,” tweeted Marisa Roffman.

Does a beautiful middle aged woman’s decision to inject herself full of chemicals to appear younger on television count as female empowerment, or submission to mass misogyny? Would a public denial of such self-maiming be further empowering, or another bow to the violent patriarchy that, we’d all just learned, is not about just men but men and women? Sometimes it’s hard to not to cry.

But at the UN Ms. Judd was not a faltering screen goddess. She was, rather, a living celebrity saint, Ashley of Malibu, who had touched the flesh of even greater members of the canon; Ms. Judd’s interviewer now asked about her mentors, yes, Bono and Desmond Tutu.

“I’ve learned a lot from Father Tutu,” she said. “He has taught me it’s O.K. to be sloppily imperfect in this world. He’ll use scripture with me when I’m, you know, in Bukavu with a fistula repair surgery amongst a woman who’s on her third or fourth attempt and the surgeons are washing up with bar soap from the river water that’s pulled from pails and the electricity keeps going off. I mean, you know, that in itself is a beautiful scene.”

The tale of an unknown woman’s protracted agony passed as a visualization across the conference room, horror converted to texture by Ms. Judd’s anesthetizing Merchant-Ivory finish. People let out very faint sighs, imagining themselves on this very river in darkest Congo, fighting greatest evil with pure sentiment.

“Jesus and God are willfully self-constrained,” informed Ms. Judd, sharing Former Archbishop Tutu’s circularity of divine indifference. “Powerfully powerless.”

And heads bobbed in deep appreciation of the existential souvenir.

Meanwhile Ms. Judd’s publicist, Cara Tripicchio, was moving against the fast-spreading facial-filler meme with her own counter-meme—that of a noble woman’s struggle against a viral sinus infection and face-swelling steroids.

“Ashley has been battling an ongoing, serious sinus infection and flu,” Ms. Tripicchio told E! News. “Ashley is a natural beauty enjoying her 40s gracefully.”

But even at the UN there was an undeniable pillowyness, a frozenness about the eyes.

“I did a grief group recently,” said Ms. Judd. “It’s not easy but it is so worth it. Just an average year of living, the little hurts that accrue, the losses that we sustain, the jabs that we take. And I ended up doing some of my mother’s grief from when she was an unwed teenage girl and her baby brother was dying of cancer and it’s—”

The girl with Down syndrome (so innocent it hurt) was grinning at a joke she’d told herself while playing with her necklace as, in the front row, an elderly woman exercised her right to impromptu napping. We moved into Q&A, where Ms. Judd was asked if all this very selfless and beautiful and taxing humanitarian work had left her in any way scarred.

“It’s a big scar,” she admitted. “And the challenge and the gift is to let it heal enough so that I can function well but not to let it heal all the way, lest I forget.”

“Well, thank you, Ashley,” said the UN interviewer, “At 8 p.m. Eastern time on ABC Missing will be on the air, Ashley’s new series where she plays a powerful former CIA operative-turned-florist brought back in the game.”

And the grandmothers and the sexually harmless priest and the nonthreatening men and the women with heads wrapped in exotic textiles—but not the girl with Down syndrome—they all smiled like, “Boy, that’s quite an idea for a show.” The Ecstasy of Agony: Ashley Judd at the United Nations