Sally Field’s “In Pieces” is not a typical Hollywood memoir.
The most powerful and revealing parts aren’t about Hollywood at all, but about the cruel, infuriating injustices foisted upon her during childhood at the hands of her stepfather, the stuntman and actor Jock Mahoney, who lived and breathed just enough Hollywood to keep his family marginally afloat and his ego in constant tatters.
His stepchildren, Field and her brother, Rick, were an easy outlet for his frustrations. He worked to make them feel small and afraid, even as he peppered them with enough gifts and adventures to keep their young hearts and minds constantly off-kilter.
He sexually abused Field for years. It began, she writes, with requests for her to walk up and down his bare, sore back when she was around 7 and escalated from there. The abuse continued into her teen years.
“Over the years, I slowly created a place where I could toss all the feelings I didn’t understand, or the ones I didn’t want to understand, was afraid of,” she writes. “Emotions that many times came to me as physical sensations without words, like the uncomfortable fingernails on the blackboard inside me. Instead of trying to verbalize what I was feeling, even to myself, I’d shove them away. I would pack them up and send those parts of me out the window to stay safe with the tree, while only one piece remained, muted and dulled, though dutifully performing the required tasks.”
Acting became her emotional outlet.
Field is 71 years old now. She’s won two Oscars and three Emmy Awards. She received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in 2015. Her stepfather died in 1989.
She could have kept her pain largely to herself, or chosen to share it with a few trusted confidants. She could have written a book about Hollywood exploits, Hollywood romances, Hollywood high jinks.
She could sit on various stages and talk about Burt Reynolds and “Lincoln” and “Gidget” and reflect on an accolade-rich life and career.
Instead, she opened her wounds and explored their permanence, their staying power. She gave us her life in pieces, even the devastating ones.
I think some of us (most of us?) want to be truly known and understood — in our relationships, in our communities, in our place in the world, whatever shape that place takes. I think people often reveal what they’ve endured to say, “All of this is me. All of these pieces. Don’t just look at the shiny, perfect parts.”
Field writes a passage, though, that helped deepen my understanding of why she’s delving so publicly into her painful past. Why, maybe, others choose to do so as well.
She writes about a relationship with Steve, a boy who started out as a friend and became, eventually, a boyfriend. He also endured a difficult childhood — abandoned by his father, in and out of military schools and correctional facilities, always pushing boundaries.
With Steve, she felt safe and understood.
“Steve never backed away from emotion; to the contrary, he thrived on it, would push to find it,” she writes. “He had an intuitive sense of anyone’s despair and like a hound dog on the trail of fugitive feelings, he’d root them out, lock his focus on the injury, then comfort and soothe.”
He never hurt her. She told him about her stepfather.
And here’s the passage.
“Because he was with me,” Field writes, “I began to feel what I had been afraid to feel alone.”
I will never forget that line.
Feelings too terrifying to face alone became approachable, explorable once she said them out loud. Once she felt them with someone at her side.
I can imagine how that would be true for all sorts of painful feelings, not just those conjured by abuse. It can feel tempting to cover our wounds and show them to no one. And for some people, that is the safest, most comfortable path.
But for those who show us where and how they’ve been cut into pieces, we should remember that our open ears and hearts can help them begin to heal.
Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @heidistevens13.