Judith Hillman Paterson (1936- ), a native of Montgomery, Montgomery County, is 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.
Born September 28, 1936, in Montgomery to Julius “Duke” Porter Paterson and Emily Gentry Hillman, Judith Hillman Paterson was the first of four children. Paterson’s mother died of alcoholism and mental illness in 1946 at the age of 31. School provided joy and stability for Paterson, who graduated from Sidney Lanier High School in 1955. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia, in 1958. Her professors at Hollins encouraged her to pursue graduate school but instead she returned home and married her high school sweetheart, Charles William Jones, with whom she would have two children.
Throughout her years as a wife and mother, Paterson suffered episodes of undiagnosed depression. In winter 1964, she experienced a flashback of the happy times of her childhood—before the painful loss of her mother—that would become a turning point in her. For the first time, Paterson recognized a redemptive benefit to remembering her childhood, and she recovered a sense of her self that had been lost. The following year, she began taking graduate classes and in 1972 also began teaching at Auburn University at Montgomery (AUM). In 1975, Paterson earned her Ph.D. in English at Auburn University and officially joined the faculty at AUM.
In 1980, Paterson divorced her husband and learned that her father had been diagnosed with lung cancer. In the midst of a deep depression, Paterson left Alabama and relocated to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and began working as a freelance writer and an adjunct professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the nearby University of Maryland (UM) in College Park. She would also later host, write, and produce The Writer’s Tale, a series in which she interviewed noted writers for the university’s television station.
She began publishing a number of articles and essays on such topics as alcoholism, mental illness, and feminism as well as several essays on St. Thomas More and authored Be Somebody: A Biography of Marguerite Rawalt (1986), who was a key figure in the women’s rights movement in America. In 1986, she became a faculty member in journalism at UM. Book tours and presentations followed, but they were disrupted beginning in 1985, when her father, step-mother, and brother all died within a span of 19 months. Paterson’s return to her family home forced her to deal with a past she had tried to forget and prompted her to explore it in her writing. For the next several years, Paterson lived on grant money and travelled to research her family’s genealogy, investigating the history of mental illness and addiction on her mother’s side and the Scottish abolitionist missionary educators on her father’s side.
In 1996, Paterson published “To Teach the Negro” in Alabama Heritage, in which she details her great-grandfather’s involvement in the founding of Lincoln Normal School, the predecessor of Alabama State University. That same year, she published her memoir of her research findings, Sweet Mystery: A Book of Remembering. The book earned Paterson a national reputation in the fields of writing personal narrative and mental health, and she has served several times on review boards for the National Institute of Mental Health.
Paterson left UM in 2005 and 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. Paterson resides in Lexington, North Carolina and continues to write.
Selected Works by Judith Hillman Paterson
Thomas More (1979)
“Heart Beat: An Interview with Maya Angelou” (1982)
Be Somebody, A Biography of Marguerite Rawalt (1986)
“To Teach the Negro” (1996)
Sweet Mystery: A Book of Remembering (1996)
“Coming Home” (2002)