Book Talk: In Pieces

“Why is it easier for me to write about the times in my life that felt humiliating or shameful? Do I hold on to those dark times as a badge of honor, are they my identity? The moments of triumph stay with me but speak so softly that they’re hard to hear.”

“In Pieces” by Sally Field (2018)

You need not love little Sally Field to get much from her book, a self-written autobiography that reads like a compelling novel of a woman’s journey through life. I’ll be honest, sometimes it frustrates me that I can often find it hard to connect to a woman’s story. For obvious reasons, I can relate more to hearing about a man’s journey, his growing up, his dealing with success and failure, etc. And while women may get much more from Sally’s story than we dumb guys can, the writing here is engaging. Understand that much of her tale relates to generational issues handed down from the many women in her family who came before her and her fascinating descriptions of the births of her children will obviously resonate more with ladies.

But all that aside and no matter who you are, Sally Field presents her story in a way that draws you in. You’ll hang – as you might during a filmed presentation – on each episode between her and her mother and you’ll find yourself willing Sally on as she attempts to understand their complicated relationship.

Sally and her family. Her mother, Margaret, stepfather, Jock and half-sister, Princess. This is Sally’s photo and it appears in her book.

You’ll learn some things that will challenge your comfort and that will perhaps forever alter your perception of this fine and perhaps underappreciated actress. Her mother remarried actor Jock Mahoney who took an unhealthy liking to Sally and it became one of the many paradoxical and confusing relationships in her life. One revelation that challenged me personally was that Sally Field had an abortion. Before she started playing Gidget. This piece of news struck me. The little sprite many of us fell in love with on Sally’s first TV show had already gone through some very mature circumstances. This started for me a feeling of reconciling an actor’s characters with who they are in real life. Her account of her trip to Mexico to end her pregnancy will have you feeling soiled; and struggling to imagine how it must’ve been for Sally

“I felt I was changed, forever tainted, and I grieved deeply for the loss of something I couldn’t name.”

The first half of the book particularly is a bit unsettling as Sally reveals the psychological struggles and the self-loathing she endured through much of her young life. But I was happy to learn of her love for her Gidget co-star, Don Porter, who played her father. Having conflicted relationships with her own father and stepfather, she found in Porter a rock and a protector.

“From the first moment we met, Don put his protective arm around me, while at the same time treating me with respect as if I were a weathered professional…Don was my safety net, a constant and quiet friend…I never thanked him, not really. I wish I had”.

Her description of learning to surf for Gidget is exhilarating but you are quickly brought back to earth as she tells of the disgust she felt during her second series, The Flying Nun. As she escapes from that three-year run, you may emerge with the same thought I did. If you know the heights to which Sally Field would eventually ascend, you realize the enormity of her achievement. She didn’t start from zero, like most actors, she started from minus. After playing Gidget and Sister Bertrille, she was considered just a television actor and a lightweight one at that.

Sally and Burt.

Gidget is only one of the many boxes Sally checks. I knew with In Pieces I’d get Smokey and the Bandit stories and Burt Reynolds stories. Trouble is, Burt is described as a flawed person who placed expectations on Sally, expectations she couldn’t or wouldn’t live up to. He wanted her to be someone she wasn’t; or a version of herself that she wasn’t totally comfortable being. He had his issues, too and I felt guilty, in a way. Maybe I, like Burt, wanted Sally Field to be a certain way, too, and when she wasn’t exactly that, I had to deal with it. Also, I suppose, I wanted a story that was much lighter than the one Sally tells.

It sometimes feels like you are eavesdropping on a therapy session, hearing things that are difficult to hear. You will sometimes even find it hard to believe, the story Sally relates here. Here you have a gigantic story of life, of humanity. Her relationship with her mother has every single last element of the most absorbing human drama. The highs and lows of their relationship will have you reeling. I had to pause and work hard to fully fathom the import of what Sally was telling me at times. In a nutshell, she put her mother on a pedestal and this had lifelong ramifications. The closure they both found near the end of Sally’s mother’s life is incredibly moving. They had come such a long way.

“Mom, where are you? Even now I want to call out to you. I want to look up and see you coming to help me…I don’t know what to think. I’ve adored you all my life. But I’ve camouflaged the truth. I don’t want to discover that the piece I’ve been looking for is something I don’t want to see…my anger toward you.”

As a person who tries to live life seeing all sides of any story, I was absolutely stunned and definitely charmed to hear Sally’s assessment of her stepfather. Before Margaret Field died, Sally finally talked with her mother about “Jocko”. When Mrs. Field brokenly declares her ex-husband a “monster”, Sally replies “I don’t know if he was a monster or just a wounded, flawed human like the rest of us. Well, yeah. Okay. Maybe a little worse than the rest of us”. How discerning, classy and gracious.

Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP

I have felt charmed by Sally Field. I knew I would like her book because of what I thought I’d find in it. I found those things and more. I found Gidget, yes, but also Burt, Smokey, two Oscar wins and in-depth discussions on the craft of acting. But I also found a heavy and compelling story. I had my expectations challenged, too. Years ago I read Marlon Brando’s memoir, Songs My Mother Taught Me and I came away scratching my head. Not much skinny on the movies but lots of life talk. And that, of course is the difference between a biography and an autobiography. Sally’s is the same. She may discuss Norma Rae in some detail but glosses over Places in the Heart and talks nothing about Forrest Gump, for example. But she had a story to tell and she told it. While you may, like me, come away with some of the airy perceptions you have of this seemingly bubbly actress challenged and even dashed, you will also come away profoundly touched. And you will likely cheer the accomplishments, professional and personal, and the survival instincts of this lovely lady.

Quotes from In Dreams by Sally Field from Simon & Schuster

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