A couple of weeks before I was due to sit down with Oscar-winning actress Sally Field, I came across an interview with her in a weekend supplement. The headline brought me up short: “To be loved by Burt meant I had to stop being me.”
It struck an instant chord. Who hasn’t been in a relationship like that at sometime in their lives? A relationship where you have to suppress everything that makes you you, in order to keep the other person happy? On the spur of the moment, I screen-grabbed the page and put it on my Instagram. The response was instant and overwhelming. People liked it, tagged their friends and commented. And what they said fell mainly into two camps: 1) This is me; and 2) I heart heart heart her.
Women love Sally Field. And age has nothing to do with it, whether, like me, they think of her as the Sally Field of Steel Magnolias, like the younger women in the office as the Sally Field of Mrs. Doubtfire, or, like women of my mum’s – and Sally’s own – age, the Sally Field of Smokey And The Bandit, who was part of the supposedly golden couple of 70s Hollywood with Burt Reynolds.
And, now, she has transformed herself again into a new Sally Field. A Sally Field who, at 71, has ripped herself open and written one of the most exposing memoirs I have ever read. A memoir so honest and authentic it could not be more right for now if it had been produced by a trend forecaster algorithm. But, in fact, the timing is pure coincidence.
“I started writing it seven years ago, after my mother passed away,” she tells me, when we sit down in London’s Charlotte Street Hotel, “but I never wrote it with any intention of it being read. It was for me, really. I needed to solve something. I didn’t know why I felt so disquieted when I had done all the things you’re supposed to do before a parent dies. And yet, when she was gone, I felt I had to put all the pieces together, but first of all I had to find the pieces.”
The pieces in question – the pieces of the book’s title – were the pieces of Field herself. Because, to cut to the chase, Field was abused as a child, repeatedly, by her stepfather, actor and stuntman Jock Mahoney [Jocko], a fact she dealt with by hiding inside herself. She describes this as “fog”, that would come down in her mind and protect her from what was happening to her. She spent most of her childhood, from seven to 15, in this fog. “I created a safe place for myself where everything was muted and there were no sharp edges or colours,” she says now.
Unsurprisingly, she was hopeless at school. “The problem is you’re halfway not in the world. I couldn’t read a book, I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t do any school work. I think I was sending off all sorts of alarm bells that something wasn’t right, but the school didn’t notice.”
Nor, it seemed, did her mother, as time and again she delivered her daughter to her abuser with the words, “Sal, Jocko needs you to walk on his back…” Field is, understandably, reluctant to recount any of the occasionally grim detail that is in the book. And the only time she shows anything other than warmth, humour and empathy in our interview is when she tells me about an interviewer who asked her – live, on stage – to describe what her stepfather had done to her. “I had to say literally NO, I cannot do that. I wrote about it and that cost me. When I even go close to the memories, I begin to quake and I can feel my insides shaking. What’s with those people?”
It’s the same when people ask her why she didn’t speak up sooner, why she waited until she was in her seventies to come out. Her eyes flash and for a second I can imagine the strict mother her three sons [Eli and Peter, and Sam, from her marriages to childhood sweetheart Steve Craig and screenwriter Alan Greisman] must have occasionally come up against.
“Yup, one woman said to me, ‘Why didn’t you talk about this earlier? Why didn’t you tell your mother?’ But if you grow up in a complicated childhood that’s full of trauma, YOU DON’T TALK ABOUT IT. And throughout my life, I didn’t talk about it. And every time I would attempt to talk about it, literally the words wouldn’t come.”
The words only came, in fact, when, in her mid-sixties, she found a therapist [Dr Daniel Siegel] who “could see things in me that I had maybe unconsciously known but never been able to own. I was flooded, for the first time, talking about things as if they had just happened yesterday, clear and precise moments, and it had started when I was seven. I knew from my acting that I could call on these places in myself and they were distanced from me.”
Things really fell into place when Dr Siegel asked her if she could name the “bits of herself”. “I didn’t react at all. I just named them one after the other, bam bam bam. He asked me if I could remember when I became aware of each one. And there are clear moments when one piece of me would be in the driver’s seat, and the rest would just step back.” In the book Field describes them as “the powerful Madwoman”, the “deeply sad ragamuffin”, the “red rage of fire”, the “reliable rock”, the “airy entertainer”. The pieces that made up the whole Sally Field.
'I created a safe place for myself where everything was muted and there were no sharp edges or colours'
The whole Sally Field is sat in front of me now, very much alive; she’s fully exposed herself in her memoir. She didn’t have to. With a career like hers behind her, she could have put her feet up and lived off the proceeds, keeping her girl/granny next door image intact. She could have signed off on a production-line celebrity biography and people would have read it. Instead, she did this and, in so doing, put herself front and centre of the very urgent conversation we’re having right now about gender.
“That’s partly what I wanted to write about – this handed-down history, where men were idealised in a way and yet they dealt so much damage and then walked away unscathed. I don’t think that they are ‘the winners’. I think they are equally lost – that society has taught men to be this way, and women to be this way, and everybody loses because ultimately we are all human.”
Even the delightful Mr Trump?
She nods vehemently: “He is the quintessential stereotype and I can only assume it’s from how he was brought up. It’s terribly damaging and very, very sad. I mean, he’s doing terrible damage everywhere he goes, but you know… where is he?! As a human, where is he? Somewhere inside, there’s a little boy that got squashed like a bug and is still squashed and goes about squashing.”
We talk some more about #MeToo and Time’s Up and #WhyIDidntReport and both get a bit despondent about the whole Brett Kavanaugh situation. Field had her own #MeToo moment back in 1976, when she was auditioning for her role in the movie Stay Hungry and the director, Bob Rafelson, said he “couldn’t hire anyone who couldn’t kiss good enough”. Field kissed him. “I was the sole support for my family and I didn’t see that I had any direction but down unless I could get out of this spot that I was in,” she writes. Rafelson has since denied it. It’s the same old story. He said/she said. The story of many women’s lives.
When I tell her about the Instagram post, the reaction to it, the recognition, she sighs and nods sadly. “Women have a lot of stories. Such a lot of stories.”
Whether on stage or on paper, Sally Field is hellbent on telling them.
In Pieces by Sally Field is out now. Sally Field will be starring in All My Sons at the Old Vic in London next April.