Books

In Pieces — Sally Field’s Long Road
to Becoming Whole

 

Like many women I know, I never have enough time to read. It was better when I used to travel for work — I could get through an entire book or multiple issues of The New Yorker on a six-hour flight to clients in Seattle. These days though, with Skype and WebEx having replaced in-person business meetings, the only time I open a book is right before going to bed. I typically get through ten pages (twenty if I’m lucky) before I fall asleep.

Last week was different. I propped myself up with Sally Field’s new memoir In Pieces, and finished nearly 200 pages before turning off the light.

It wasn’t just that easy to read. It was also that good.

Field begins her story as a young child who often suffered from panic attacks. Her mother, Margaret Morlan, with whom the author had a complicated love/hate relationship for many years, was a contract player with Paramount. There, she met and fell in love with a relatively famous stuntman-turned-actor named Jacques O’Mahoney. Margaret soon divorced Sally’s father and married “Jocko.” The new family enjoyed some minor celebrity with their seemingly idyllic home life and vacations photographed for movie magazines.

Jocko was a big man with a big personality. He taught Sally, her brother Ricky, and their new sister Princess acrobatics, diving, biking, and other stunts.

He began molesting Sally when she was seven.

In her candid prose, Field recalls how her stepfather’s abuse progressed slowly and deliberately. From asking her to walk on his back while he massaged her thighs, to insisting that she take her top off as they gardened together, to wrapping her in clear plastic and having her dance the merengue while he masturbated. He stopped at actual rape, but the confusion, discomfort, and fear little Sally lived with were devastating. The insight she shares in the book includes how she was often torn. On the one hand, she dreaded being left alone with him. On the other, she craved his approval and even felt she had some power over him because he desired her. Field, who is now 71, recaptures the conflicting emotions of her girlhood powerfully.

Jocko’s career began to fade and the family frequently moved, always into shabbier accommodations. Her mother, whose career had also stalled, began drinking to excess. As she grew older, the one place Field felt safe was onstage.

In one of those unlikely but charming Hollywood stories, Field was “discovered” during an acting workshop when she was seventeen by the head of casting for Screen Gems. He invited her to audition for the lead in a television pilot. After multiple meetings (and a handful of surf lessons), she won the part of all-American girl-next-door, Gidget.

Success on television gave Field much-needed income and some autonomy. But her early roles hampered her ability to do what she truly craved, which was serious acting. Much of In Pieces chronicles her frustration and her many attempts to break out of the stereotype the industry wanted to keep her in. Interestingly, while Gidget and, soon after, The Flying Nun virtually fell into her lap, she had to fight for every performance for which she would later be recognized.

One of Field’s most famous performances — and the one that helped her break out of the cuteness trap she had stumbled into, as well as earning her the first of three Emmy Awards — was as the title character in Sybil, a miniseries based on the supposedly true (but since debunked) account of a psychiatric patient with dissociative identity disorder. Sybil had suffered intense repeated trauma as a young child and, to protect herself, she split into multiple personalities. Although, Field didn’t go as far as her character did, she too compartmentalized her memories and reactions to a childhood that included emotional and sexual abuse.

Guided by a therapist years later, Field was asked to name the different parts of herself.

“I call them pieces” was my reply. No one had seen me like that before, as a divided person, and at the same time I hadn’t yet begun to see it clearly myself. But, as if it were a question I’d answered before, I immediately, without hesitation, named all the pieces of who I am.

Field walks us through a number of her marriages and relationships, including five volatile years with Burt Reynolds, who was manipulative and controlling. Prior to In Pieces‘ release, Field was quoted as saying she was somewhat pleased when he passed away before he could read it. “This would hurt him. I felt glad that he wasn’t going to read it,” she said, “He wasn’t going to be asked about it, and he wasn’t going to have to defend himself or lash out, which he probably would have. I did not want to hurt him any further.”

Her love life has been difficult and Field writes about it with the clear head that time and distance provide. But her love for and pride in her three children and five grandchildren is always evident. She describes the enormous guilt she felt when work kept her away from them, but there is a genuine closeness that she built and continues to nurture.

Writing In Pieces, took Field seven years and it was clearly an emotional journey if not actual therapy. In fact, as she recently told NPR, publishing it wasn’t always her priority.

“I wrote it for myself. I didn’t know whether I’d ever have the guts to publish it. I felt this urgency, this anxiety, this need to find something that was festering in me. … I found out that I had to put all the pieces out in front of me and try to fit them together and see if I could witness something … and know the answer to why I was feeling this way.”

In Pieces is eloquent, entertaining, and courageous. Although there are plenty of show business anecdotes, some tender and some quite funny, the real story is about a woman who had to rebuild herself after surviving a terribly damaging childhood. She mentions often about how important her work is to her, but there are very few allusions to fame and fortune. Field has struggled, both personally and professionally, and she never flinches in sharing those challenges, wins, and losses with her reader.

Onscreen over the years, Field has generously poured her entire being into memorable characters like union organizer Norma Rae, grieving mother M’Lynn Eatenton, and first lady Mary Todd Lincoln.

In Pieces is another act of generosity. And, I’m certain I won’t be the only one who found it very difficult to put down.

 

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.