About Judith Paterson

Judith Paterson
Judith Paterson (1936-2021)

From the Author

I was not one of those kids who wanted to grow up to be a writer. I loved school, books, and libraries but I thought I was too timid for the exposure writers endured. My ambitions were traditional: I wanted to marry someone who didn't drink. I wanted to have children and create a family that was happier than the one I grew up in. I believed those goals were worthwhile and attainable, but I had no idea how poor my training for family happiness would turn out to be. I married my high school sweetheart in haste after graduating in three years from Hollins College (now University) in 1958. We had two children, Beth and Charlie.

After Charlie started kindergarten in 1967, I began teaching Freshman English at Auburn in Montgomery (AUM) and commuting the 50-or-so miles to Auburn University in Auburn to work on a Ph.D in English Literature which I attained in 1975. I enjoyed and benefitted from both teaching and graduate school, but things did not go so well in either my family of origin or the family I had created.

My father died of lung cancer in 1985, still drinking, still smoking. On the first anniversary of his death, my 41-year-old brother, Jim, died of an unexpected aneurysm, still drinking, still smoking. Not wanting to live without them, my stepmother died two years later.

I believe it was that blast of grief that somehow set me free to invest eight years teaching myself to write in the first person and leading me to produce a handful of personal essays plus a childhood memoir, Sweet Mystery: A Book of Remembering.

The question I am most often asked at readings and other events is, "What does your family think?"

I wonder if they really mean, "Is anybody still speaking to you?"

The answer to that one seems to be "Yes." Family members and others want to talk about issues the book portrays.

One of my goals in writing it was getting readers to talk (especially to me) about family in ways that were avoided and denied in many of the families portrayed in Sweet Mystery.


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Judith Hillman Paterson was the author of numerous articles and essays. She was known primarily for her personal memoir Sweet Mystery: A Book of Remembering (1996), a book that reveals a family history of both significant achievement (her paternal great-grandparents founded Alabama State University and established Rosemont Gardens) and dysfunction (her mother suffered from mental illness and alcoholism). Just as important, it provides a social history of Montgomery between Reconstruction and World War II.

A native of Montgomery, Alabama, Paterson earned her bachelor's degree in sociology from Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia. She worked as a freelance writer and as an associate professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park, and was host, writer, and producer of "The Writer's Tale," a series in which she interviewed noted writers for the university television station. She held a Ph.D. in English from Auburn University, where she had also served on the faculty.

Her other work includes essays on St. Thomas More and Be Somebody: A Biography of Marguerite Rawalt (1986), who was a key figure in the women's rights movement in the United States. In 1996, Paterson published "To Teach the Negro" in Alabama Heritage, which detailed her great-grandfather's involvement in the founding of Lincoln Normal School, the predecessor of Alabama State University. That same year, she published Sweet Mystery: A Book of Remembering. The book earned Paterson a national reputation in the field of writing personal narrative with an emphasis on issues of mental health. She served several times on review boards for the National Institute of Mental Health.

Paterson left the University of Maryland in 2005 and subsequently worked as a creative writing instructor in creative nonfiction for the CALL (Career, Certificates, and Life Planning) program at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.

She resided in Montgomery, Alabama, until her death in November 2021 at age 85. She is remembered lovingly by her children, grandchildren, extended family, and countless friends.