Emmy- and Oscar-winning actress Sally Field could have written a famous-people-I've-known memoir. But her new book, In Pieces, is instead an intensely personal, vulnerable accounting of her life and career.
Field, now 71, got her start when she was a teenager on the 1960s TV sitcom Gidget, in which she played the title character — a squeaky clean surfer girl living with her loving, widowed father. But her TV persona was at odds with her home life. In the book, Field describes the abuse she suffered at the hands of her stepfather, actor Jock Mahoney. The abuse was both emotional and sexual, and Field says those experiences forced her to divide herself into pieces to survive; to wall off the pain and push forward.
That impulse showed in her acting. "Like flipping a switch, I began to bubble," she writes about her early roles on Gidget and The Flying Nun.
Her wholesome early roles on sitcoms made it nearly impossible to transition to serious projects, Field tells NPR. She remembers signing autographs while waiting in line for unemployment benefits after The Flying Nun was canceled. But she would eventually score serious, challenging roles like Sybil, a woman struggling with mental illness, in the TV miniseries of the same name. She would win Oscars for her turns in the films Norma Rae and Places in the Heart.
Throughout the book, Field writes unflinchingly about failed relationships, dubious decisions and missed opportunities. And she gave herself permission to write with such honesty because she wasn't sure she would ever end up publishing the book. "I wrote it for myself. I didn't know whether I'd ever have the guts to publish it," she says. "[But] 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."
On why she hung on to unopened letters and unread reviews for decades
I don't know. Except, you know, I am in pieces and sort of always have been since childhood. I think some part of me knew something the rest of me didn't know. I saved it with a feeling that part of me ... would someday need it. I kept boxes and boxes of things and [it] was only now — only over the last seven years — that I literally went through every scrap of paper. ...
I would deny myself certain things. I was afraid that I would find out things that I didn't want to know. Even in my own journals that I had written all my life — I guess from my mid-20s on ... I had never gone back to reread them — any of them. Not a page. And I was forced to go back and look at episodes that I knew I had written about and was horrified that I had purposely disremembered them.
On going to Tijuana to have an abortion at a time when it was not legal in the U.S.
It's deeply ingrained and engraved in my psyche. ... I know how horrible it was for that little 17-year-old girl: How terrified I was and how I might have died. And I think of all the women all over the world who ... lose their lives, or their ability to have other children, or who are so deeply shamed because they live in a society or with a government that chooses to look at unwanted pregnancies in a certain light — that, first of all, [it] is the woman's fault and that the woman has no choice as to how this impacts her life. That the cluster of cells — if you catch it early — is more important than she is. That is horrifying to me. I know firsthand what that's like.
On taking on the role of happy, bubbly Gidget, the teen surfer girl in the 1960s sitcom, just weeks after her abortion
I think I represented the "girl next door," the "all-American girl" much more than was visible. ... Many women of my generation — and even generations before and probably generations now — are going through so many things that are similar to that and yet seen as just the virginal, sunny, happy-go-lucky, uncomplicated girl next door.
On struggling to find work after being cast on ABC's The Flying Nun
In the sitcom days of the '60s, there was a clear delineation between film and television, and film did not want anything to do with those who came from television — especially women and especially situation comedy and especially The Flying Nun. ... So it was a matter of trying to break down those barriers.
I would just say to myself: If I'm not where I want to be it's because I'm not good enough. Because I felt even then ... that if I said it was because I was facing a system that was unfair, or I was facing typecasting, or you know, if I put it on the "big bad Them," I had no power. I had no power to change anything.
The only way that I could move one day at a time and put one foot in front of the other and be energized and compelled was to feel that it lay in my hands — that I had to work harder, that I had to get better. ... I had to be so much better than anyone else who came in the room. ...
I was lucky enough to be taken to The Actors Studio [the legendary acting school run by Lee Strasberg] in Southern California ... and it really changed my life because I could be doing The Flying Nun in the day and yet learning to do the craft at night.
On dating the late actor Burt Reynolds — a relationship she describes as controlling and emotionally abusive
I've always thought of him rather nostalgically. ... He was a very important part of my life, but for a tiny little part of my life. I was only with him for about three years and then maybe two years on and off after that. But it was so hugely important in my own existence, my own movement as a person.
I kind of was worried about him reading this — and now at least he's safe from that, because I think it would hurt him. It's not that I say really bad things about him, but I reveal ... what I was feeling and how trapped I was in an old pattern of behavior — and how I was predisposed. He was a preformed rut in my road. And I couldn't see it coming and I didn't know how to get out. I had been carefully trained to fall into this. ... We were a perfect match of flaws.
On Reynolds not supporting her desire to attend the Emmys ceremony in 1977 — where she won the award for outstanding lead actress in a drama or comedy special for her role in the 1976 TV miniseries Sybil
My predisposition [is] ... to try to not be seen ... to not speak up and say: "Look, this is important to me. I'm going to do it. If you don't feel good tonight ... I'm really sorry but I've got to do this." But I couldn't do any of that. So I ended up watching it alone in the rented condo with the sound turned down. ...
[There are] patterns that get set up in your life that as an adult you have to work your whole life to try to untangle. Because they might be survival patterns when you're a child, but as an adult they completely get in your way and they're unproductive. ...
As a child, because of my relationship with my stepfather ... in my mind, to be seen, to be loved, I also had to be terrified and I couldn't ever say what I was really feeling. So I had to be invisible.
On whether she can now look back and appreciate her accomplishments
Do I still have that gnawing, you know, hair-on-fire feeling of needing more and wanting to reach out for something that's just outside of my grasp? Yes, totally. Yes. But can I now look back and feel the length that I've traveled? Yes. And I couldn't do that before. And I think a lot of it had to do with the system that I had set up as a child to keep myself from seeing the truth.
Connor Donevan and Jolie Myers produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Jessica Reedy and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Sally Field has worked with just about everyone in Hollywood over the last 50 years. She's won Oscars and Emmys playing legendary roles like Norma Rae and Sybil. So she could have written a predictable famous-people-I've-known sort of memoir. Instead her new book, "In Pieces," is deeply personal and revealing.
SALLY FIELD: I wrote it for myself. I didn't know whether I would ever have the guts to publish it. When my mother passed away seven years ago - over seven years ago now - I felt this urgency, this anxiety, this need to find something that was festering in me.
SHAPIRO: Sally Field writes about being abused by her stepfather when she was a child. And she says that forced her to divide herself into pieces, to wall off the pain and push forward. Now, at age 71, she has decided to confront the things that she spent her whole life avoiding. The complicated relationship Sally Field had with her mother provides a through line and a frame for the story.
FIELD: I thought I had done all the things that one should do when a parent is dying. I had the hard conversations. But then why did I feel like this? And 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 in front of me, if I could put it together and know the answer to why I was feeling like this.
SHAPIRO: When you talk about you wanted to put the pieces in front of you, you are literally pulling out in some cases letters you've kept from family members that were unopened for 40 years...
SHAPIRO: ...Reviews of performances you did in the 1970s that you saved and never read.
SHAPIRO: Why did you hold onto these things without ever looking at them until now?
FIELD: Ari, I don't know except, you know, I am in pieces and sort of always have been. And I think some part of me knew something the rest of me didn't know. And I saved it with the feeling that I would someday need it. I kept boxes and boxes of things. And I was afraid that I would find out things that I didn't want to know. And even in my own journals I was forced to go back and look at episodes that I knew I had written about and was horrified that I had purposely disremembered them.
SHAPIRO: And cumulatively, when you put all of those pieces in front of you, did you wish that you had read them earlier? Did you feel you had made the right decision in reading them now? Did you wish you would never open them at all? What was the effect?
FIELD: I know that I couldn't have done any of it before I did it. I guess it's George Eliot that had the great line, it's never too late to be what you might have been. And I think all of this has been pushing me to be what I might have been.
SHAPIRO: You write about many episodes of abuse and dysfunction. And there's one moment specifically that I'd like to ask you about because I think it's not uncommon for women of your generation but is not often talked about. And this is when you were 17, a boyfriend got you pregnant. And you describe going to Tijuana to get an abortion because it was not legal in the U.S.
SHAPIRO: How do you think about that experience in light of the debate happening in this country today?
FIELD: Well, I think I wrote about it because it is a deeply - it's deeply engraved in my psyche. But I think as I stand outside of it, I know how horrible it was for that little 17-year-old girl, how terrified I was and how I might have died. And I think of all the women all over the world who lose their lives or their ability to have other children or who are so deeply shamed because they live in a society or with a government that chooses to look at unwanted pregnancies in a certain light. I know firsthand what that's like.
SHAPIRO: And six weeks after you had that experience, you started filming this bubbly, happy role of Gidget, the teenage surfer girl, your first breakout starring role. It's such a juxtaposition.
FIELD: I know.
SHAPIRO: And it really captures the kind of ability to bifurcate yourself that you talk about in this book.
FIELD: Well, you know, I think that's true. But when you look at my life of my life really was, I think I represented the girl next door, the all-American girl much more than was visible...
FIELD: ...Because I think many women of my generation and even generations before and probably generations now are going through so many things that are similar and yet seen as just the virginal, sunny, happy-go-lucky, uncomplicated girl next door - ha.
SHAPIRO: Lights on, camera rolling, big smile, forget everything going on under the surface.
SHAPIRO: And when you finished "Gidget," you were more or less forced into this role of the flying nun which almost made it impossible for you to get the kind of credibility that you have since earned in your career. I mean, you talk about how difficult it was to break through to serious work roles like Sybil, Norma Rae, Mary Todd Lincoln. So what finally got you over that hurdle?
FIELD: It was a lot of hard work, especially in those days. Film did not want anything to do with those who came from television, especially women and especially situation comedy and especially the flying nun.
FIELD: I mean, she was like right up there at the top of the list, you know?
SHAPIRO: If sitcoms on TV were at the bottom of the barrel, "The Flying Nun" was at the bottom of the bottom of the barrel.
FIELD: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. So it was a matter of trying to break down those barriers. And I would just say to myself, if I'm not where I want to be, it's because I'm not good enough because I felt that if I said it was because I was facing a system that was unfair - you know, if I put it on the big bad them - I had no power to change anything. The only way that I could put one foot in front of the other and be energized and compelled was to feel that it lay in my hands, that I had to work harder, that I had to get better so that that was an energy and not a defeat.
SHAPIRO: One of the things that comes across so vividly in this book is that despite the awards, despite the success, despite a career that spans decades of legendary, immortal roles, you never really allowed yourself to enjoy it and believe that it was real or that it would last. Can you now look back and appreciate what you've accomplished?
FIELD: Yes, and that's the difference. Yes. Do I still have that gnawing, hair-on-fire feeling of needing more and wanting to reach out for something that's just outside of my grasp - yes, totally. But can I now look back and feel the length that I've traveled - yes. And I couldn't do that before.
SHAPIRO: Sally Field, thank you so much for talking with us today.
FIELD: Thank you, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Her new memoir is called "In Pieces." Elsewhere on the program, I talk with Sally Field about her relationship with Burt Reynolds. He died earlier this month at the age of 82. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.