A Woman’s Life: Sally Field’s In Pieces

Sally Field is a terrific writer, and I can’t say that I’m completely surprised: She’s been giving stunning, emotionally complex performances for nearly fifty years. Released this past September by Grand Central Publishing, In Pieces is a lengthy read — nearly 400 pages — but I could not put it down until I was finished. I loved this book. Field worked on it for seven years and it shows; this is no run-of-the-mill celebrity memoir. It is the story of an emotionally complex woman’s life, warts and all.

Field comes from a show business family; her mother, Margaret Field, also known as Maggie, was an actress in film and television, most notably the science fiction classic, The Man from Planet X. Her stepfather, Jock Mahoney, nicknamed Jocko, was a famous stuntman-turned-actor who starred in television programs such as The Range Rider and Yancy Derringer; he also played Tarzan in two Tarzan films, nearly dying from malaria during filming. Jocko was handsome, charming and physically perfect, but also abusive and monstrous in ways. He was cruel to Sally’s older brother, Ricky (a child who grew up to be a world-renowned physicist) and obsessed with competition, mostly games based on stunt work he performed in films. Diving, swimming, climbing ropes, and a variety of other physical feats of strength were expected of the Field kids.

He was also sexually abusive to his stepdaughter; it began innocently enough with requests that young Sally, a small child, walk on his back to massage his sore muscles, and then later, more explicit and invasive acts took place. She never told anyone, not even her mother, until much later and they never spoke of it in length until Sally was in her sixties. Field’s description of their reconciliation is a thing of beauty; it is something so honest and pure that I hope you read it for yourself.

Field grew up calling the adults closest to her by their first names: Her grandmother was Joy and her biological father was Dick. She hated her visits to Dick’s house after her parents’ divorce; mostly he ignored her and she was crippled with boredom. She has always been close to her younger sister Princess, even when she was a bratty teenager. Her mother was always Baa, like the sound a sheep makes. Field’s relationship with her mother is the tie that binds this memoir as well as her life. Margaret suffered from alcoholism throughout her life, and it worsened during Sally’s teenage years — prematurely aging her movie star features; her showbiz career suffered in the process. Yet, through the decades, she was always there for her family, even keeping a packed suitcase in the trunk of her car at all times, just in case she was needed at Sally’s house to care for her grandsons.

The emotional trauma Sally endured during childhood reared its head in a variety of different ways as an adult: Compulsive overeating (she was prescribed Dexedrine diet pills for weight loss; luckily she didn’t get hooked on them), violent temper tantrums, including throwing her baby son across the room in a moment of overwhelming stress, punching her husband in the nose repeatedly during an argument and throwing a tumbler of vodka in her mother’s face.

At seventeen she had an abortion in Tijuana; it was arranged by a doctor who was also a family friend. The man administering the ether untied her dressing gown and groped her breast before she was fully sedated; she pulled away, not taking any more ether. It wasn’t worth the price she had to pay for it. Apart from sexual abuse during her childhood, she also experienced a disorienting night on a date with musician Jimmy Webb; they smoked some hash and she soon became very disoriented and passed out on his bed. He proceeded to have sex with her, which was not exactly a consensual experience. It took Field well into her adult years to feel sexually confident and understandably so.

Acting is her greatest love, from the beginning of her career in Gidget to the horrifying spectacle that was The Flying Nun to important film roles; she has always kept her lovely nose to the grindstone. She suffered a breakdown on the set of The Flying Nun where she collapsed on the floor, sobbing that she could no longer keep going and for everyone to please leave her alone; soon afterward she began studying under the direction of Lee Strasberg with the encouragement of her costar, the stage and film veteran, Madeleine Sherwood. As soon as she started making a living in show business, both her father and stepfather asked her for $5,000, which was a huge disappointment. They could not manage to care for her emotionally, yet they had no qualms exploiting her newfound wealth; again, she found it terribly difficult to deny their requests and wrote them each a check.

She carried a fear of money well into her adult years, even after she began to earn her own living from acting; her parents often struggled financially when she was young, especially when their film roles dried up: They bounced back and forth between having a very comfortable home with a swimming pool and shiny new Cadillac to a small rented house with bare kitchen cupboards. As well-known as Field has been for so many decades, she doesn’t write of her life as one that has been full of luxury and material wealth.

Field has been married twice, first to her childhood sweetheart and confidante, Steve, who could never really focus enough to stick with a job or career path, despite being incredibly smart, self-educated and very talented as a carpenter and writer; he also experimented quite a bit with marijuana and psychedelics in the 60s and 70s. Her second marriage was to a film producer, Alan Greisman; she devotes less than one paragraph to their marriage, which is all we need to know. Sally has three sons, Peter, Eli and the much younger, Sam. She mentions being afraid to love her midlife baby and to give herself completely to another person again after raising two kids, but loving him immeasurably nonetheless. Her boys are the great loves of her life, apart from her mother and her work. There were huge differences between the births of her first and second sons: The first one was highly controlled; she was given a spinal block and strapped to the delivery table. The birth of her second son was a completely different experience, as she had been practicing Lamaze to prepare and had a fantastic breathing coach in her husband, Steve. Her enormous final push was literally orgasmic, which is now one of my life goals.

She writes at length about her first film role as Mary Tate in Bob Rafelson’s Stay Hungry. She had an affair with her married director during filming. Before being cast in the film — during an impromptu meeting alone in his bedroom — he told her that he must see her bare breasts, as there would be a nude scene in the film, and also that she had to kiss him because he could not hire an actress who was not a good kisser. She did these things without much pause; like many women of Field’s generation, she wanted to please men, even if it took something away from herself; saying no is something it took her a lifetime to learn.

Her relationship with Burt Reynolds was very complicated; she couldn’t express herself freely or talk about her work with him. He was controlling in ways, didn’t allow her to curse (something she loves to do), and her boys wanted nothing to do with him, even after he purchased each of them a shiny new go-cart. The night she was awarded the Best Actress Emmy for Sybil she was sitting alone in his living room with the television sound turned off. He would frequently double over with chest pains, and Sally was always afraid he was having a heart attack. They were actually more like panic attacks; I guess it’s not easy being the most handsome movie star in the world. She describes their relationship as a melding of flaws. He was not supportive of her as an artist, something she craved and worked at ceaselessly, and did not want her to take the role of Norma Rae, the role that brought her the first of two Academy Awards: He accused her of wanting to play a whore. Sally’s mother was the first to read the script for Norma Rae and filled Sally in on the details as she was rushing to audition for the lead. During the filming she developed a strong and lasting friendship with the director, Martin Ritt, someone who told her she was the real deal, which anyone who has seen her work can verify.

After decades of working in show business she continues to fight for good work, including the role of Mary Todd in the 2012 film Lincoln, even demanding from Steven Spielberg that he grant her a screen test in full period costume and makeup. That test didn’t go very well, but afterward she tested with Daniel Day-Lewis and he asked her to please be the Mary to his Abraham. Her performance in the film is exquisite. Field is a woman of great emotional depth; she is flawed and she is beautiful for it. I loved her as an actress before reading In Pieces but now I love her as a fellow woman in the world: Someone who is trying her best to make it through life while finding some meaning and joy along the way. No one is immune to suffering, not even the cutest little button nosed girl. Everyone makes a plethora of mistakes and no one has a perfect life, but having work that you are passionate about can make it worthwhile; we all have very rich emotional inner lives that need to be nurtured and cherished, and Sally helped me to remember that.