Sally Field is telling her life story for the first time. She has a lot to say.

By David Canfield
September 17, 2018 at 09:00 AM EDT
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The first thing Sally Field and I talk about, as we settle into her Pacific Palisades home on a hot August afternoon, is my mother.

Field’s memoir In Pieces (publishing Tuesday) is anchored by the loving, troubled, deeply complicated relationship she had with her mother, Margaret (Field calls her “Baa”), over the course of her life. She recounts a traumatic childhood: Her stepfather, Jock Mahoney, sexually abused her, and her home life gradually fell apart as she charted her own path and embarked on a Hollywood career. In adulthood, Field’s relationship with her mother was defined by physical closeness and dependability, but also an unspokenness — a pain — manifested in sporadic bursts of anger. The emotional release only came just before Margaret’s death, in 2011, when she revealed to her daughter that she knew of an instance of Jock’s predatory behavior. “For years and years my mother had known,” Field writes of her thinking then. The moment is devastating, but it ends with the pair in an embrace, with a new understanding. However incomplete.

The book, I tell her, made me think about the unspokenness between my mother and her mother; the flashes of anger, the struggle to communicate. Field beams with empathetic recognition. “They’re from my generation, right?” she asks, warmly. “We grew up, as our mothers’ generation grew up, with these certain boundaries that are hard to break through. But it’s important. We all have to get to someplace else, I think. It’s hard. It’s really, really hard.”

Getting to that “someplace else” is a strong description of the seven-year journey Field, 71, took with In Pieces. “I had, at the end of my mother’s life, these very conversations that you’re talking about, that [needed] to go down before it was too late,” she says. “But even then, when she passed away, something in me would not be quieted. Quite the opposite.” After giving a speech about that climactic conversation with her mother at the Omega Institute’s Women and Power conference, Field was encouraged to write a book. But she initially balked at the idea. She didn’t know if she could pull a memoir off, and wasn’t about to go the easy Hollywood route. “People came to me [saying], ‘Won’t you write a memoir? We know who just can write it for you,’” she remembers, smirking. “I’d go, ‘Eh, no — I don’t think you know what this is.’” She adds, “At the time, I didn’t know what it was.”

She’d spend the next several years finding out, pairing up with a literary agent and turning in pages slowly until the book came together. In Pieces evolved into a memoir of discovery, with Field opening family letters, digging through old photographs, even reading reviews of her early acting work for the first time. “Something was growing in me, something cancerous in me,” she says of the time around her mother’s death. “I couldn’t understand why I felt like I was the one that was dying.”

In Pieces progresses chronologically, the bulk of it taking place through to her Oscar-winning breakthrough in Norma Rae (1979), in which she played a factory-worker-turned-labor-activist. But Sally Field the author is as present on the page as the young Sally Field she writes about. She presents a candid literary voice, letting the reader know when she can’t quite remember something, posing questions that seem as important to her ability to process difficult memories as they are to guiding the reader.

Her father, Richard, mostly left the picture when Margaret, a professional actress (The Man From Planet X), divorced him in 1951, before marrying Mahoney, a successful stuntman, the next year. Margaret, Sally, and her brother, Ricky, promptly moved in with him and his daughter, Princess. Field’s prose intensifies at this stage: She dedicates significant space to Mahoney’s imposing muscular build, teases her confused desire for him, and shifts to present tense as she wistfully looks at photos from that time period.

She stays in present tense for the book’s most harrowing section, when Mahoney sexually abuses an 11-year-old Field. Every beat of the encounter is so vividly described as she remembers it: She walks on his back, and the situation turns disturbing. (“I see what he wants me to walk on,” Field narrates, as he repeatedly commands, “Down.”) She conveys a misplaced sense of power — as any 11-year-old unable to fully comprehend the situation might — before the memory shifts, sharply, into disassociation: “I’m naked. How did I get naked? Did I do that? Did he?”

I ask Field why she chose such a raw, in-the-moment approach to revealing this trauma, and she replies that it came about naturally: After her mother died, she disclosed the episode to a psychiatry professor she’d been working with, Dr. Dan Siegel, and a lightbulb went off. “I went home that day and literally wrote exactly what it is [in the book],” she says. Field likens the process to acting exercises — to honing a “craft” — noting she used them to write much of the book.  “Those are the kinds of things you do at the [Actors Studio], when you do a real emotional memory or a room exercise — you’re just there,” she explains. “The things you see and feel just come flying out of you — and so cathartically. You are that child again. You see it so clearly.”

The conversation turns to the impact of working through such a personal experience so publicly. Fittingly, it’s where we really start talking about acting. “Part of me feels that it’s always been out there,” she admits. “Not exactly — I’d never been willing to say, as a child, what happened — but I realize as I’m talking about it now… so much of my work that I’ve had the opportunity to do over the years was such deeply emotional work. In some ways I feel I’ve already revealed this part of myself, [because] all the times I went to deeply emotional [places], I was calling on memories.… I was revealing the anguish and the anger and the fear — all of the things that child abuse brings out.”

This is central to In Pieces: At 18 years old, four years after she says Mahoney ended the sexual abuse, Field landed the lead role in Gidget. Her domestic life had gotten worse: Her mother was drinking heavily and barely present, and Mahoney’s terrorizing took shape in different forms. Gidget was a trifle of a sitcom, but one scene — in which Gidget begs her father for forgiveness after misbehaving — called for Field to get emotional. When “action” was called, Field cried uncontrollably, far beyond the script’s bounds. “I didn’t know where the emotion had come from, much less how I got to it,” she writes.

Then there’s Sybil, her Emmy-winning 1976 breakout role as a young woman suffering from dissociative identity disorder, severely damaged by extreme childhood abuse. Her performance in the miniseries drew raves for the level of commitment; Field’s intensity in the role seems nearly out of body. She describes instances of dissociation in the book similar to Sybil’s, and says now she sees a strong connection between them. “My own childhood, my own survival system, played into acting so beautifully,” she says. “It wasn’t because I was acting in my life, but because my own survival system was able to detach certain parts of myself that I felt threatened by.”

Perhaps with the exception of The Flying Nun — her second series, which she refers to as “complete nonsense” — Field expresses a remarkable intimacy with her biggest roles. Gidget was the “bubble” she desperately needed, having just left a broken home. She writes of reading the script for Sybil, “I knew her. She belonged to me.” And Norma Rae’s “struggle to stand up, her fight for respect, was the same as mine.… When she found her voice, I heard mine.” Each role spoke to Field’s very core.

Is this common for an actor? “I’ve always thought about this,” she quickly responds. “It’s like it was in my DNA, somehow, to play some of these characters.” She then considers an alternate example. “I wonder if John Wayne would’ve been John Wayne had he not played all those real macho cowboy guys — he was a real right-winging, gun-toting fellow,” Field muses. “[Was] part of his personality developed through, like, The Searchers? I don’t know. Certainly, acting fools with your psyche.”

Field doesn’t relive all her iconic celebrity moments in In Pieces — there’s no glitzy chapter on pre-awards-ceremony nerves, no reflection on her infamous “You really like me!” Oscars speech — but she examines her heavily publicized affair with the late Burt Reynolds in great detail. (The book was completed before Reynolds’ death on Sept. 6.)

Field had already married, had two kids, and divorced by the time she met Reynolds in advance of filming Smokey and the Bandit in the late ’70s. And Reynolds does not come off well in her portrait: He gently “housebroke” her, she claims, exerting threatening control over who she talked about and how she spent money, or “pinching” her whenever she ran into a man from her past, demanding a full report on who he was and how she knew him. When offered a People magazine cover story, she “worried and stewed, let days go by, phone call after phone call, not wanting to face his wrath.” When she was offered Norma Rae, the biggest role of her career, she asked Reynolds to read the script. “When he finished, he threw it across the room at me, saying it was a piece of s—, and in an outraged sneer accused me of simply wanting to play a whore,” she writes.

Field’s account is bracing. But as we speak, exactly a week before Reynolds’ death, she still doesn’t feel too comfortable discussing the affair. “I don’t want to give the press any more fuel,” she says.

I remind her of an interview she did with EW back in 2016, when she was asked about Reynolds calling her the “love of his life” and she replied vaguely, “Well, yeah.” She lets out a loud, sharp chuckle in response, before continuing: “I have a feeling I’d like to protect him — I don’t think I paint him as an evil, horrible monster.” In the book, Field draws parallels between Reynolds and the other men in her life, blaming herself at times for the way she acted. It gnaws at her: “If I could’ve been different, would he have been different? Was I being treated exactly, perhaps, as I was being asked to be treated? I didn’t know anything else. I didn’t know any other language.” (Field declined to add to these comments after Reynolds’ death.)

The #MeToo movement comes up next. In In Pieces, Field also alleges sexual misconduct on the part of Bob Rafelson, director of Stay Hungry (1976), which she starred in. (He denies her claim that he said, “I can’t hire anyone who doesn’t kiss good enough,” and that she kissed him out of fear in response.) “#MeToo, Time’s Up, all of that needs to happen,” she says, energized. “In the era that I was raised in, it was incredibly difficult to see how to maneuver. You just put your head down and didn’t know that you had the right to not feel humiliated. And in the quiet moments, by yourself, you felt deeply shamed — and got up and kept going.”

I note, again, how much of In Pieces is framed by questions — about her past, her memory, her family, and yes, her shame. “Why was the confidence of her youth so ephemeral?” she asks of her mother in the book. “Why is mine?”

“The questions I was constantly asking are questions that have always been lingering in me, but I never wanted to look at,” she says now. “I’ve never wanted to know the answers.” She believes, even if the book doesn’t explicitly give them, that she did find some answers.

But there’s one question she poses in the book that’s particularly striking, and incredibly aching: “Why is it easier for me to write about the times in my life that felt humiliating or shameful?”

I ask if, either in writing or editing or simply sitting with In Pieces, she ever came to an answer. She takes a long pause. “No,” she admits, softly. “I don’t know why. I don’t know why.”

For all the show-business intrigue, all the revelations, In Pieces is grounded by Field’s relationship with her mother. Her time on Gidget contrasts with the agonizing distance she feels between them. They reconnect as Field enters single motherhood. And Margaret sticks around from there, having divorced Mahoney and trying to make things whole again: being charmed by Burt Reynolds, helping her daughter with the kids whenever she’s needed. (Field had a third child, Sam, with her second husband, Alan Greisman. They divorced in 1993.) It wasn’t enough, however, to heal the wound of what happened when Sally was a child.

In between filming Brothers and Sisters, the ABC primetime soap for which she won another Emmy, and lobbying for the role of Mary Todd Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s presidential biopic — a long back-and-forth that eventually went her way — Field learned the truth from her mother about what she knew. This whirlwind of events takes up the heartbreaking final chapter, before the epilogue, where Field tenderly mourns her mother, and her mother’s mother.

She recounts one last instance of subconsciously, viscerally channeling her pain into her acting: a Lincoln scene in which Mary Todd was to kiss her dying husband before being escorted away. This filmed shortly after Margaret died. “[I was] blinded by tears of grief and loss that were not for the long-gone Mr. Lincoln, who lay on the bed in the form of Daniel-Day Lewis,” Field writes. “They were for my mother.”

Now, with Field having put some of the pieces in her life together, she’s ready to look ahead to exciting new projects: the Netflix series Maniac, which she giddily says is the “most insane” project she’s ever worked on, and a production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, which she’ll be performing at the Old Vic in London next spring, opposite The Sinner star Bill Pullman.

But the last thing we talk about is her mother. What did it feel like to, quite literally, close the book on this chapter of her life and write that final sentence? (“Till then, Baa.”) Field takes a deep breath and smiles: “I felt such deep love and appreciation for my grandmother; for my beloved, complicated mother; and for myself. That’s what I felt — for all of us.” She then concludes, poignantly, “Their lives are part of mine.” Indeed they are. Watch any Sally Field performance and see for yourself.