In a heartfelt new column for The New York Times, actor and activist Ashley Judd is calling for revisions to law enforcement and court practices that “wreak havoc on mourning families” coping with the deaths by suicide of loved ones.
Recalling the “most shattering day” of her life – April 30, 2022, when mother Naomi Judd “had come to believe that her mental illness would only get worse, never better” and “took her own life,” Ashley Judd says in “The Right To Keep Private Pain Private” that she “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,” Judd writes, “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.”
Earlier this month, Ashley Judd, sister Wynonna and Naomi’s husband Larry Strickland petitioned authorities in Tennessee to seal the police reports related to her death, with Strickland indicating he did not know the interviews were being recorded.
Writes Ashley in The Times, “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.”
While Judd acknowledges “the need for law enforcement to investigate a sudden violent death by suicide,” she concludes that “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.” She calls on leaders in Washington and state capitals to “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 trauma of discovering and then holding her laboring body haunts my nights,” she writes. “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.”
Survivors of those lost to suicide “are often revictimized by laws that can expose their most private moments to the public,” Judd writes. “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 four interviews 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?”
Judd says her family is “waiting with taut nerves for the courts to decide” their request, adding that they 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.”
“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,” Judd writes, adding, “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.”
In Instagram responses to the column, singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile wrote, “This is beautifully written and could change everything about the way these things are conducted. really feeling for you today, well done as always,” while Katie Couric responded, “Beautiful, Ashley. Thinking about you so much. Thank you for writing this important piece.”
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.
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.