Sally Field

Her shock­ing un­told story

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Front Page -

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.

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