Book Review - In Pieces, by Sally Field (an autobiography)
Updated: Mar 18, 2021
I picked up Sally Field's autobiography - entitled 'In Pieces' (publ. 2018) - for 2 main reasons.
The first is that as an actress she appeals to me, often taking on emotional roles that leave an impact long after the watching of the films themselves.
She has a long and distinguished list of films and TV appearances, some of which many of us are familiar with. For myself, that is mostly her more recent work - I loved the Brothers & Sisters television series for example - and she is of course well-known for playing alongside Robin Williams in Mrs Doubtfire or roles like Mrs Gump in Forrest Gump (giving us those now-immortal words about a box of chocolates).
Her earlier work I am less familiar with. For example, her first Oscar win for Best Actress was for playing the title role in 'Norma Rae' in 1979. Or a few years earlier playing the title role in a less-known film for television called 'Sybil', based on an astonishing book of the same name about a woman with serious multiple personality disorder, the reading of which has stayed with me over the many years since.
And secondly, I wanted to know more about her activism - she is a staunch ally and outspoken voice for LGBT equality, vocally and publicly supporting her gay youngest son. She has been awarded the Human Rights Campaign's 'Ally for Equality' Award, and appeared on talk shows like Oprah and Ellen in support of gay rights.
She is a women's rights advocate, sitting on the board of women's rights organisations and working for gender equality.
And she has spoken out in support of action to combat climate change, most recently getting arrested alongside Jane Fonda during a climate change protest in Washington.
But in the end very little of this made it into her memoirs - her more recent filmography meriting only brief mentions in the book, her activism none at all.
I asked myself whether this reluctance to focus on her successes is a symptom of a life that has taught her to constantly doubt herself?
"Why is it easier for me to write about the times in my life that felt humiliating or shameful?", she asks rhetorically towards the end of the autobiography. "The moments of triumph stay with me but speak so softly that they're hard to hear - and even harder to talk about."
As it turns out though, the fact that the reasons I went looking for this autobiography are not a large part of the book, is not to say that I was disappointed.
'In Pieces' is a vivid and honest insight into the person that is Sally Field, and all the experiences that have led her to where she is today. And going on that journey with her is much more valuable.
I don't know why she decided to call this memoir 'In Pieces', but to me it certainly seems appropriate.
Most obviously, she is recalling for us the various pieces of her life. But maybe more pertinently, and certainly more poignantly, her life has not been an easy one. It has been one of struggle and neglect, destructive relationships and self-doubt - a constant series of experiences which have left her emotionally in pieces, and which she has spent much of the rest of her life trying to put back together, often unsuccessfully.
Her childhood years are destabilising ones, filled with father figures at various times unavailable, controlling or abusive, and an often well-intentioned mother who is ultimately unable to balance her responsibilities to motherhood, her desire for a career and a husband she is enthralled by.
We get plenty of insight into Sally Field's path to becoming a young actress - her work being the one stabilising factor in her life that she clings to tenaciously.
And her later revealing description of the years she spent with Burt Reynolds is a fascinating one, painting us a picture of this charismatic actor that is more intimate than his more usual movie star image, and is certainly less flattering.
Just one more example of a toxic male influence in a life that had already been shaped by them.
While reading Sally Field's autobiography, I was reminded of another book I read not that long ago: Hanya Yanagihara's 'A Little Life'.
In both, the protagonists have to endure some significantly painful experiences.
But the degree of emotion required from the reader is not the same. 'A Little Life' is a hyper-emotional read. A gut punch. It demands that the reader constantly 'feel' what the characters are feeling. I lost count of the number of times during the reading of the book where my tears left blotches on the page as yet one more horror befalls one of the characters.
Sally Field's autobiography is not that. And not because the experiences she has lived through and is candidly narrating for the reader are particularly easier. Especially as this time they happen to be the real thing.
Rather, it is because she has done her reader the kindness of allowing us a bit of distance.
Her personal stories are full of pain - the kind that no child should have to endure and no adult should have to try to make sense of. But she describes them in such a way that we can know them, and even emotionally feel them, but not too much. Like a 3rd person watching from a distance, rather than as a participant.
If I have to choose one word to describe this book, it would be 'brave'. It takes tremendous courage to put such intimate personal details on the page for all to see. All the more so for being the kind of memories that are filled with shame and loathing.
"We're all locked in the drumbeat of our history, but eventually you have to drown out that tune with your own voice", she tells us at one point. And while she wholly fails to hear her own voice at the time of that telling, this book is perhaps a way to do so now.
And so I am grateful - for the opportunity to read her memories, and for feeling like I know Sally Field even more than I had imagined I would when I had gone looking for this book.
I had known nothing of her childhood, had wanted to read her story more for her illustrious acting career and more recent public appearances. But at the end of the book, I am left feeling that the parts of her story more valuable to me are the early-years memories she so valiantly shares, despite the pain it must have caused to relive it all in the writing of the book.
And then again, maybe that was exactly the point.
Maybe the retelling is a way to give her past its place in history. To finally sort it all out, catalogue it neatly, and file it away. This past that has defined how so much of her adult life has been lived, and that she has only in the latter years begun to find the tools to deal with.
And maybe that is why the telling of it is done it such a way that we feel only some of her pain, anger and humiliation, but not all of it. Because that is how it has become for her. No longer the angry heat of open wounds, but rather the more distant dulled ache of ancient injuries.
I don't know, but I hope it is true.
I hope she has managed to pick up all those broken and scattered pieces, and put them back together into something almost whole. To build a life of which she can be proud, and that has brought her some peace.
What I do know however, is that Sally Field is for me much more alive than before the reading of this book. She is unexpectedly real to me in a way that few other autobiographies have managed.
And for that I am thankful.