Her shocking untold story
It takes courage to face demons, dark truths buried so deep you dare not speak their name and let them out into the light for all to see. For Sally Field, one of Hollywood’s most admired and well-known actors, double Oscar and triple Emmy winner, such a venture is frankly Herculean. And yet as I sit in the soothing peace and quiet of her sundrenched Los Angeles home, high up in the hills and canyons overlooking the impeccably blue Pacific, I sense a weight has been lifted from Sally’s tiny shoulders. At 71, the mother of three and grandmother of five feels an urgent need to pull the multifarious pieces of her life together and it’s a journey which started seven years ago.
It was Sally’s 65th birthday when her mother, vivacious actress Margaret Field, whom Sally has always called Baa – “probably because [Sally’s elder brother] Ricky did” – died. She was 89, had been ill for some while and Sally was heartbroken. Mother and daughter were incredibly close, a bond that dictated both women’s lives and not always in a good way.
As a child, Sally craved the sparkle that was her mother. “It literally was like a jolt of electricity going through you that lifted you off the ground. I felt so intoxicated with her presence. I was just joyful that she was in
the room with me,” explains Sally. But when Margaret remarried and the controlling professional stuntman and actor Jock Mahoney turned family dynamics upside down, Sally lost her mum for decades as she faded into an alcoholic haze.
In the months before Baa’s death, Sally nursed her mother and one evening summoned the nerve to seize the moment and broach deep-seated family secrets she desperately needed exorcised. Sally achieved some resolution – “Mum handled it magnificently”, she tells me – but having let her mother go, she now had to make peace with herself.
“It felt that there was something festering and that I had to find out what it was,” she explains. “I didn’t know what it was and the only way I would know was to write it all down, bit by bit, piece by piece.”
Although Sally and Baa had talked, there was still so much unsaid; intimate details, incidents, feelings, repercussions she hadn’t had the guts to burden her dying mother with. Sally needed to set them free. “It was the real thorn that wedged its way into me because I couldn’t settle,” she says, hugging her knee to her chest as she nestles into the corner of her living-room sofa. “I thought I had done all the right things. We’d had those conversations. I had dotted the ‘i’s and crossed the ‘t’s but something was terribly unsettled in me and it did not get better. It was not like you’re grieving and this will move on. It wasn’t.”
Sally had always kept journals and now she felt compelled to write her life story exactly as it happened; things she had never revealed before and never thought she wanted to say out loud. She had no clue if she could write or where she was headed, only that wounds would be opened, and though petrified, she was resolute that this had to be done.
The resulting memoir, In Pieces, is not only audacious and deeply personal, it’s a seriously accomplished piece of writing. Sally’s passion and persistence to overcome shocking daily trauma and fulfil her destiny as an actor of substance takes your breath away, as does her ability to fearlessly recognise her own shortcomings.
I ask Sally if she thinks she could have written the book had her mother still been alive. “I don’t think so,” she replies, “because it was the loss of her that I couldn’t let go of and also because probably had she not been dying we would not have had those conversations that so jabbed at me, even at the end.
“Certainly, I would not have had all of her boxes of memorabilia that landed in my lap and all of a sudden I had all of the tools. I had all the memories. Even my own in things that I had kept for ever and ever and ever but never looked at because I didn’t feel I had the strength.”
Sally approached the project as she would an acting role, immersing herself in the research and the human emotion – much of it her own – reliving the past and facing every truth however painful. “I have left nothing unturned,” she explains. “I delved into the deepest part of me, whether I liked it or not. It was the same process as acting; that was the only way I knew that I would actually do it. I would actually open those boxes, read those letters, I would delve through my mother’s journals and look at the information that
I had always had but never, ever wanted to see or know.”
Scared and alone
Sally Field was born on November 6, 1946, in Huntington Memorial Hospital, California, the second child of Army Captain Richard Field and “drop your jaw beautiful” Margaret. When her parents met, Margaret was a timid 19-year-old and they were married just three months later. But in 1945, while Richard was serving his country running the pharmaceutical division in the main hospitals in London and Paris during the Second World War, Margaret was spied by a talent scout for Paramount Studios and her life changed forever.
“There was something festering and I had to find out what it was.”
According to the women in her family – Margaret’s mum Joy, her sisters Gladys and Perle and grandmother Mimmie – Sally was Richard’s favourite child, though she says she never really felt it. Her parents separated when Sally was a toddler and her most abiding memories of life with her father are of lonely weekends spent trapped in his house.
Richard Field had no idea how to communicate with his children. He was particularly dismissive of his son Ricky, who after a while managed to get out of the custodial weekends, leaving Sally scared and alone.
“We never played games. He never talked to me. We never read a book. He would just live his life and I would be there,” recalls Sally. “As a little child, I felt ‘I am alone here. Like in the forest.
Everyone has deserted me. There is a person there who is breathing, but I am alone.’ That was terrifying. Eventually I would try to bring things with me so that I could self-soothe – paper dolls, comic books, anything that would eat up the two days.”
Looking back, Sally wonders if war had changed her father. “He was gone a long time, three years, and he must have seen a lot of casualties … perhaps that affected him and he never got over it. But I always felt he was frightened of me, frightened of his own children.”
In contrast, Sally was captivated by her mother. “Anybody who looks at you, listens to you, sees right through your eyes and really wants to know you is rare and it feels so alive around somebody like that,” she says, sighing. But with her film career burgeoning, Margaret was often caught up with work and then with her new beau, Jock Mahoney.
About my stepfather
The towering, devilishly handsome “Jocko” – who looked like a cross between acting icons
Errol Flynn and Randolph Scott – became Margaret’s second husband and Sally and Ricky’s stepfather, with a baby, Princess, soon a new addition to the family unit as Sally’s half-sister. Jocko was the antithesis of Richard. He was noisy, physical, an unpredictable ball of energy and had a fiery temper.
On their first meeting he scooped up four-year-old Sally in a forcefully proprietorial fashion. Sally already had “a predisposition to be shy and anxious” – probably, she says, stemming from the fact that her mother “was not social at all” – and recalls her intuitive reaction to Jocko’s bluster. “He picked me up off the ground as if I were his. Not even a child, but a jacket or something. It was terrifying. He was so big and we were all just little. I was tiny. It just scared me to death, of course.”
I ask if Baa had sensed her daughter’s discomfort. “I think she did,” muses Sally. “But I think she didn’t want me to make a scene; don’t cry, don’t run away, just be brave, be a big girl. I could feel it, I could see it on her face. So, I remember from the beginning trying to be what she wanted me to be.”
Jocko became a major figure in Sally’s life from this moment on, and this incident a chilling portent of things to come. Unlike her father, Jocko was intensely interested in Sally.
He ridiculed poor Ricky, often making him cry, and Sally started to feel that it was her job to protect everyone else. As a stuntman Jocko was very sporty and loved danger. He tried to instil that level of physicality in Sally, creating assault courses around the garden and swimming pool, making her embark on all sorts of daring feats. Jocko was always in charge and, if challenged, his temper could be intense. Sally recalls one particular sunny summer afternoon when Jocko and her mother were entertaining friends on their back patio. Sally wanted to cool off in the pool, but when she asked one too many times, Jocko snapped, lifted Sally high off the ground and hurled her fully clothed and full pelt some 30 feet (nine metres) across the back yard into the swimming pool. “The water slapped me in the face,” recalls Sally. This was one of the few occasions when Baa defended her daughter and Sally ended up hiding her tears in her mother’s chest, but such support from her mum was rare.
Almost every day when Jocko was around Sally felt nervous and afraid, but confesses she relished the attention. “It was so complicated because I also adored him. This was a person who was different. My real father ignored me and that was terribly painful, so these were my choices. My choices are I can be terrified or feel the fingernails on my insides and be loved; or I can feel safe and be ignored. So, children make these very, very conflicting complicated trade-offs, and in doing it, as a child, it’s partially survival techniques, but when they hang on you as an adult, you lose pieces of yourself.”
Those “fingernails on the insides”, like screeching fingernails on a blackboard, which Sally continually felt growing up when she was most in danger, took a grip in earnest around the age of seven or eight. Margaret would call her daughter to walk barefoot on Jocko’s supposedly aching ng back on a Sunday morning in his bedroom and leave them together. Years of sexual abuse followed, shattering Sally’s childhood.
In her memoir Sally courageously lays out the facts, and as she describes the shocking scenes, her anguish is palpable, not just at Jocko’s twisted actions but at being abandoned by her beloved mother. It was this truth that Sally shared with her mother in those months before she died, and I wonder did Margaret ever explain why she didn’t intervene? Even if she didn’t know the extent of the abuse – and she says she didn’t – surely Baa must have noticed her daughter’s trauma?
“No, it’s only in this book that I began to ask those questions. I was asking them and trying to find her, trying to see enough of her to answer the question myself. But I never asked her that that,” ” says Sally with a troubled intake of breath. “At the end I asked her and told her some very important things that I needed to and she responded brilliantly, but there are so many things of course I didn’t ask her, I didn’t know to ask her. I think because of this book, because I’d put all the pieces out and then tried to put them together, to understand her and myself, then I think I see why this profound need that she had to be loved manifested itself in different ways, that she lost track of herself. It became bigger than her, bigger than her children.”
Does she believe her mother really didn’t know what was going on?
“I can’t second guess her. I believe that she didn’t let herself know. You don’t do these things on purpose.
You sometimes cut things off because
you can’t take it, you can’t tolerate it, you feel overwhelmed by things. When she was finally confronted with it by me, she handled it magnificently and I couldn’t ask and wouldn’t ask for anything more.”
A refuge in acting
Escape for Sally came in the form of acting. From an early age she discovered she had a rare talent for pouring herself into other characters. She was strong, fearless, powerful, in control: all the things she lacked in her own life. In the book we see Sally grow from her early successes in cult comic TV roles – Gidget and The Flying Nun – to challenge Hollywood to take her seriously as she plunges herself into “Method acting” with the prestigious Actor’s Studio. With this training under her belt, Sally soared in films such as Stay Hungry, Steel Magnolias and, more recently, Lincoln.
Under the lens of her memoir’s revelations, the standout performance in the chilling 1976 TV miniseries Sybil, when Sally played the 16 personalities of a woman whose harrowing childhood has left her in pieces, takes on a whole new meaning. The intensity of the performance blew critics away, and I can’t help thinking that in many ways Sally was also portraying pieces of her own life.
“I never connected it,” she says.
“It was agonising because that’s what the work had to be. It was really gloriously gruelling, in that it was such a wonderfully written role. It had to be just painful, every second of every day. Even when it didn’t necessarily show, that’s what it had to be because that’s what the character was. But I never totally connected, not totally, because I still was trying to distance myself from the truth.”
Soon the truth will be out. Sally has shown the book to her three sons, to her first husband Steve, who features heavily, and to her sister Princess and confesses, “I was concerned!”
“I was certainly frightened for
Steve, who is really a good man, lives in Oregon with his other family, his wife that he’s been married to a very long time, and I didn’t want to invade his life. But I couldn’t tell my story without telling his story because our lives were so entwined.”
But Sally needn’t have worried.
The reaction from her family has been positive and she says the book has “created with my sons a different dialogue between us. We’re able to perhaps talk on a different level.”
Sally starts and ends the book with Baa, hoping that her mother will haunt her and that on that day when Sally takes her last breath, she will be reunited with the woman she spent her life looking for.
Does she still think this?
“Yes,” says Sally, chuckling at last. “It’s a dreamlike thing. That moment, when you close your eyes for good, absolutely I want to believe that the image that I will see as my consciousness fades into eternity… I pray to God it will be Baa.” AWW
In Pieces by Sally Field, published by Simon & Schuster, is on sale from September 18.
“I was trying to distance myself from the truth.”
ABOVE: Sally as a baby in her mother’s lap, and taking the plunge into the pool while on a holiday in Palm Springs. LEFT: With halfsister Princess, her mother and the towering Jock Mahoney, whom she feared from the start.
Clockwise from above: siblings Ricky, Princess and Sally with “our beautiful mum” Margaret; Sally calling home on n the set of The Flying Nun TV series; Margaret and Sally in Florida in 1997.