At age 71, Sally Field has written a brutally honest account of her life that takes on difficult topics including the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her stepfather as a child.
“In Pieces” (Grand Central, 416 pp., ★★★ out of four stars, on sale Sept. 18) was written by Field herself, a rarity in the world of celebrity memoirs.
It’s a complex cri de coeur, alternately shockingly frank and maddeningly cryptic. The two-time Oscar winner devotes more than three-quarters of the book to her childhood and her life through the 1970s, when she became involved with Burt Reynolds on the set of “Smokey and the Bandit.”
She writes of an abortion she had when she was 17, right before her first starring TV role, in the 1960s sitcom “Gidget”; a #MeToo moment when she woke up, drugged, with songwriter Jimmy Webb “grinding away” on top of her; the eating disorder she struggled with as a young TV star; the day Davy Jones of The Monkees made a sexual innuendo about her; and how hard she fought to play Mary Todd Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film “Lincoln” opposite Daniel Day-Lewis.
But mostly, Field tries to unravel her hurtful relationship with her mother (how much did she know about the sexual abuse?) and understand the anger she’s felt much of her life.
And she writes of how, as a young mother frustrated by the silly TV parts she was being offered, she desperately wanted to be a serious actor. The encouragement and tough love she got from legendary acting coach Lee Strasberg paved the way.
“With both hands on the wheel, I headed directly toward what I wanted, and what I wanted was as clear as the full moon peeking over the dark horizon: to be an actor, to have the chance to explore where that took me, the places it would push me, lead me, teach me,” she writes.
But even after she won her second Oscar, for 1984’s “Places in the Heart,” she says, “I never saw myself as being an important, highly sought-after talent at the top of my game.”
Things we learn in “In Pieces”:
Her stepfather sexually abused her
Sally’s mother, Margaret Field, briefly an actress in Hollywood, married the stuntman/B actor Jock (“Jocko”) Mahoney when Sally was 4. He could be both a charmer and a bully. When she was about 7, her mother, on her way to make breakfast, would tell Sally that Jocko wanted her to go into their bedroom to walk on his back.
He would be lying face down, naked and tangled in the sheets, she writes. She walked on his back until he rolled over. “One foot in front of the other, up his chest I tiptoed, my nightgown hanging loose as his hands slid over my legs, then moved up. I’d turn my feet around, walking toward his stomach to be out of reach, and he’d whisper instructions, ‘Lower, lower’... I walked on this much-loved non-father of mine, carefully trying to avoid where he was aiming my feet…”
Field writes that these incidents were frequent and escalated until she stopped them when she was 14. “I couldn’t expect protection to come from my mother” who drank, she writes.
She also explains where her stepfather drew the line on abuse:
“He loved me enough not to invade me. He never invaded me. In all the many times. Not really. It would have been one thing if he had held me down and raped me. Made me bleed. But he didn’t. Was that love? Was that because he loved me?”
She also is troubled by questions of her own culpability, if any.
Her connection with Burt Reynolds was instant, but he was insecure and controlling
Field writes that as soon as she arrived in Atlanta to shoot “Smokey and the Bandit,” she got a call. “Hello, Burt Reynolds movie star here. What are you doing for dinner tonight?’’
He was incredibly charming, she writes, but also “both empowered and terrified” by being such a big star and a sex symbol.
He had frequent panic attacks, and she recounts feeding him Valium and Percodan to calm him down while he was driving on set.
His macho insecurity manifested in trying to control Field (“Burt began to housebreak me,” she writes), dismissing what she had to say and becoming jealous when she scored a People magazine cover.
Eventually, after he criticized her for taking the role as a union organizer in 1979’s “Norma Rae,” she’d had enough. She writes of the part, which won her an Academy Award for best actress: “As she (Norma Rae) unleashed her rage, I felt freed. When she found her voice, I heard mine. … If I could play her, I could be me.”
Reynolds, who died Sept. 6 at age 82, once called Field the love of his life. She concludes of their relationship:
“Still, woven through everything were so many good moments, real and lasting things.”