The book will bring actor Sally Field to Seattle Oct. 1 for an event sponsored by the University Book Store. In it she tells stories about her family, Hollywood and more, all in an effort to find her voice.
And yet, in the days after the book’s release, most news outlets focused only on two things: That Field had been sexually abused by her stepfather, Jock Mahoney; and that she had an abortion in Mexico at age 17, just before filming started for her first television series, “Gidget.”
Seven years of writing, of poring through old letters and news clips, mining the memories she had either buried or conjured to enhance her performances, and this was how it hit.
“I just have my head down,” Field said, when asked how she was dealing with the initial reaction to the book, which will bring her to Seattle on Monday, Oct. 1, for an event sponsored by the University Book Store. “And I don’t know. I am going into it kind of blank, and because I have been a performer for so long, another part of me takes over.
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“I guess I don’t like the fact that the more sensational aspects of it are going to be cherry-picked,” she continued. “But I also know that’s the world we live in.”
Few people know “the world we live in” as well as Field, who has spent nearly all her life in the public eye, first as that impish, carefree surfer girl. In doing so, she was fulfilling the ambitions of her mother, Margaret Field, who played small roles in movies — her biggest in the film “The Man From Planet X” — before ceding to motherhood.
A couple of years after her divorce from Field’s father, Richard, in 1950, Margaret married Mahoney, had a daughter, gave up her career and slid into drinking as he worked as a stunt man — first consistently and then less and less. (They divorced in 1968. Mahoney died in 1989 and Margaret in 2011.)
It was Margaret to whom Field looked when she finished a performance, when she sought reassurance, when she needed help raising her young sons after she divorced their father and her first husband, Steve Craig. Margaret stayed with the boys when Field went off to work on the 1976 television movie “Sybil” and the 1977 film “Smokey and the Bandit,” where she met and got immediately involved with her co-star, the late Burt Reynolds.
And it was Margaret who inspired Field to write the book in the first place.
“When my mother passed away, I thought I had done all the things I should do,” she said. “I thought I crossed all the t’s and dotted all the i’s and let her go and be at peace. But I felt terribly disquieted, and it grew and grew and it grew like it was something I needed to find, and I didn’t know where to look.
“I thought I had done everything.”
Then, in 2012, her friend Elizabeth Lesser asked Field to deliver the keynote at the Women in Power conference at the Omega Institute, a retreat center she had co-founded in Rhinebeck, New York.
“Are you crazy?” Field responded. “I can’t do that. I have nothing to say.”
“Yes,” Lesser told her. “You do.”
“And that was the moment,” Field recalled, “the bells rang.”
Field wrote a long speech “playing against the conversations with my mother, playing against my own feelings of panic and not knowing where it’s coming from,” she said. “What I felt, why I did that. And from this big, faceless, dark audience, from them to me, from me to them, it was so strengthening.
“And I thought, ‘I got it.'”
She knew she would have to “dig in” and learn to write (“A craft that I didn’t know”), but also to dig down into the things she didn’t know about her own life. Things she had avoided until now. It required her to read letters and clips that she had kept in boxes and moved, time and again, without ever looking at them. Some were from her father, others from her aunt, who also kept every magazine story, every gossip column.
Field found a chronicle not just of her career, but her heart. That explains why “In Pieces” reads like Field is talking to herself, sorting out her anxious mind and pained heart as she writes, while the reader follows along.
She also tells the story of Hollywood, for better or for worse.
In a chapter about her role as “The Flying Nun,” she described the unwieldy cornette she wore on her head, and how she once walked in costume to visit The Monkees, who filmed their hit show on the same lot. Field wrote of stepping into a trailer filled with marijuana smoke and sitting in the corner while Davy Jones questioned her about her sexual abilities while the others laughed. Jerks.
Her relationship with Reynolds was not so much romantic as maternal. When they met to make “Smokey and the Bandit,” their connection was immediate, and then Field found herself watching as Reynolds received mysterious injections and took barbiturates and painkillers, then having to care for him in the aftermath. Once back home in Los Angeles, he wasn’t interested in a relationship with her children, so Field would put her young sons in bed, pack up dinner and drive it to Reynolds’ home, where he would ramble on about his own neuroses, criticize or discourage her own ambitions or leave her watching movies while he went out.
For all her insecurities, though, Field was ever confident in her abilities as an actor — gifts that she nurtured in classes with the legendary acting coach Lee Strasberg, who more than once called her “brilliant.”
“He has a bum rap of being a Svengali and a puppeteer and not necessarily a good fellow,” Field said of Strasberg. “But he was an extraordinary teacher. And yes, he could be a buzz saw if he turned on you. But his knowledge of theater and acting and performance and psychology and music and how all the arts came together … he was a wonderful and nurturing man to me when I didn’t really have a lot of nurturing, certainly. He was instrumental, and saved me.”
“In Pieces” is in Field’s voice, but there’s another that carries through the pages — the inner voice she struggled to use in countless situations: When her stepfather summoned her to his bedroom in the mornings to presumably walk on his aching back, and beyond; when casting directors refused to see beyond the chirpy, chatty, comical characters who had made her famous — or forced her to kiss them for the part. You want her to say something, to walk out, to stand up for herself.
But that didn’t come until late in life, until this book, when she took stock of the career she has built, the things has learned as a mother of three sons, a grandmother and a two-time Academy Award winner, and found her voice. She is eager to share herself with audiences in a more personal way.
“It is going to be what it is,” she said of the book’s reception. “So I just hope that people will read it and see what it is, and that I am not out to exploit myself, but trying to tell a story not necessarily for them.
“I wrote it, originally, for me.”