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Ashley Judd says she is lobbying for a change to Tennessee law that allows police reports to become public after the Judd family was interrogated by authorities following mother Naomi’s death, leaving them traumatized and the actress a possible suspect in her mother’s death by suicide.
In an op-ed published in The New York Times on Wednesday alongside a series of tweets, Judd detailed discovering her mother dead at the age of 79, and several emotionally demanding and even traumatic interactions with authorities — the details of which may now become public record. It’s something she’s recounting “to raise awareness, reduce stigma, to help people identify, and make sure we all know we face mental illness together,” she tweeted.
“The trauma of discovering and then holding her laboring body haunts my nights,” Judd writes in the Times. “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.”
It’s a pain and horror, the actress says, that will “only worsen” if the police reports — which include currently undisclosed details around her mother’s death — are allowed to be made public in states. In the op-ed, she specifically points to Tennessee laws governing closed cases that allow details of toxicology reports and autopsies to become public record.
The Double Jeopardy actress says the family’s decision to petition the courts in early August to prevent the public disclosure of these police reports is to protect them from an invasion of privacy and retraumatization. But her call for new legislation in Washington, D.C. and across states in her op-ed is also about other families who have similar experiences. That includes Vanessa Bryant, whose husband L.A. Lakers legend Kobe and daughter Gianna, died in a helicopter crash — photos of which were published online without the family’s consent. (Bryant was recently awarded $16 million for emotional distress over the crash photos.)
The Judd sister argues that the “profoundly intimate personal and medical information does not belong in the press, on the internet or anywhere except in our memories.” There, she says, “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 have asked the court to not release these documents not because we have secrets,” Ashley says. “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.”
The invasion she and her family experienced was the result of four interviews in which she was questioned by police on the day of her mother’s passing — a time when they all were “utterly unguarded,” she says. The experience made her feel powerless and cornered. It also left little time to ask her own questions, including, “Where and how will what I am sharing be stored, used and made available to the public?”
The Heat actress says the family shared things about their country music legend mother, “her mental illness and its agonizing history” through “terrible, outdated interview procedures and methods of interacting with family members who are in shock or trauma.”
Authorities were simply following procedure, according to the actress, but that experience left the family “feeling stripped of any sensitive boundary, interrogated and, in my case, as if I was a possible suspect in my mother’s suicide.” As a result of the emotionally difficult experience, the Golden Globe and Emmy nominee is pushing for reform not just to laws governing the public nature of this information, but to the processes by which family members are questioned by authorities.
“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,” she writes. “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.”
She says these interactions can “wreak havoc on mourning families and then exacerbate their traumatic grief by making it public.” The Time person of the year in 2017, for being a silence breaker amid Hollywood’s #MeToo movement, added the current process and ability for this kind of information to go public can remove an individual’s choice over when, how and if they share their traumas.
“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,” she writes. “But people should never have to share their wounds with the public before they are ready — if ever.”
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.
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