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Clarity and Grace Shine Through the Darkness in Sally Field’s Memoir, ‘In Pieces’

In many ways, the same can be said for “In Pieces” itself, which serves as a kind of tribute to those women — her mother in particular — and others who would guide and protect Field throughout her turbulent childhood and an adulthood fraught by personal and professional upheaval. With a few exceptions, the men in Field’s book are vague, impermanent figures, either benign or sinister, who affect the course of her life but are never central to it. But, like the women who raised her, Field would frequently be expected to sublimate her own needs and desires to those of men, beginning with her stepfather.

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CreditSonny Figueroa/The New York Times

[ Field recently told The Times that playing roles like Norma Rae gave her strength: “I was able to feel something I didn’t feel before. I heard my voice. And I wondered what would have happened if I hadn’t. How long would it have taken me to feel that I had a right to be outraged?” ]

Less than a year after Field’s parents separated, her mother began seeing a strapping actor and stuntman named Jock Mahoney. Mahoney and Margaret would shortly marry and have a daughter, Princess. Mahoney was always affectionate with Field, and she adored him, but he soon began summoning her to the bedroom, where she was told to walk on his back as he lay naked in bed. Over time, he began touching her, then simulating intercourse, slowly escalating a pattern of sexual abuse that she would endure into her adolescence. Even now, decades later, her feelings about him are conflicted. Like many survivors of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a family member, she seems compelled to defend her abuser — or to minimize his behavior. “He loved me enough not to invade me,” she writes. “He never invaded me. In all the many times. Not really. It would have been one thing if he had held me down and raped me, hurt me. Made me bleed. But he didn’t. Was that love? Was that because he loved me?”

Only a quarter of the book is devoted to this time in her life, but it haunts almost every page that follows. The events of Field’s childhood seemed to fragment her personality into distinct and sometimes conflicting identities — the “pieces” of the book’s title — and shaped how she navigated both her romantic relationships and her career, as she rose from the teenage star of the perky 1965 sitcom “Gidget” and the absurd “Flying Nun” series, to her Emmy-winning role as a woman with multiple personality disorder in the mini-series “Sybil,” through the romantic sidekick role in the hit “Smokey and the Bandit,” before fully stepping into her power with her Oscar-winning performance as an indomitable textile-mill worker in 1979’s “Norma Rae.”

Repeatedly, Field faced sexual harassment, blatant sexism and casual cruelty at the hands of both the men she worked with and those she loved. The Monkees teased her with humiliating sexual innuendo on the set of “The Flying Nun.” The film director Bob Rafelson, she writes, invited her to his bedroom for her last audition and asked her to remove her top before he decided whether to cast her. Burt Reynolds, her “Bandit” co-star and then boyfriend, belittled and minimized her, expecting her to prioritize his career over her own.

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