ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Sally Field has worked with just about everyone in Hollywood over the last 50 years. She's won Oscars and Emmys playing legendary roles like Norma Rae and Sybil. So she could have written a predictable famous-people-I've-known sort of memoir. Instead her new book, "In Pieces," is deeply personal and revealing.
SALLY FIELD: I wrote it for myself. I didn't know whether I would ever have the guts to publish it. When my mother passed away seven years ago - over seven years ago now - I felt this urgency, this anxiety, this need to find something that was festering in me.
SHAPIRO: Sally Field writes about being abused by her stepfather when she was a child. And she says that forced her to divide herself into pieces, to wall off the pain and push forward. Now, at age 71, she has decided to confront the things that she spent her whole life avoiding. The complicated relationship Sally Field had with her mother provides a through line and a frame for the story.
FIELD: I thought I had done all the things that one should do when a parent is dying. I had the hard conversations. But then why did I feel like this? And I found out that I had to put all the pieces out in front of me and try to fit them together and see if I could witness something in front of me, if I could put it together and know the answer to why I was feeling like this.
SHAPIRO: When you talk about you wanted to put the pieces in front of you, you are literally pulling out in some cases letters you've kept from family members that were unopened for 40 years...
SHAPIRO: ...Reviews of performances you did in the 1970s that you saved and never read.
SHAPIRO: Why did you hold onto these things without ever looking at them until now?
FIELD: Ari, I don't know except, you know, I am in pieces and sort of always have been. And I think some part of me knew something the rest of me didn't know. And I saved it with the feeling that I would someday need it. I kept boxes and boxes of things. And I was afraid that I would find out things that I didn't want to know. And even in my own journals I was forced to go back and look at episodes that I knew I had written about and was horrified that I had purposely disremembered them.
SHAPIRO: And cumulatively, when you put all of those pieces in front of you, did you wish that you had read them earlier? Did you feel you had made the right decision in reading them now? Did you wish you would never open them at all? What was the effect?
FIELD: I know that I couldn't have done any of it before I did it. I guess it's George Eliot that had the great line, it's never too late to be what you might have been. And I think all of this has been pushing me to be what I might have been.
SHAPIRO: You write about many episodes of abuse and dysfunction. And there's one moment specifically that I'd like to ask you about because I think it's not uncommon for women of your generation but is not often talked about. And this is when you were 17, a boyfriend got you pregnant. And you describe going to Tijuana to get an abortion because it was not legal in the U.S.
SHAPIRO: How do you think about that experience in light of the debate happening in this country today?
FIELD: Well, I think I wrote about it because it is a deeply - it's deeply engraved in my psyche. But I think as I stand outside of it, I know how horrible it was for that little 17-year-old girl, how terrified I was and how I might have died. And I think of all the women all over the world who lose their lives or their ability to have other children or who are so deeply shamed because they live in a society or with a government that chooses to look at unwanted pregnancies in a certain light. I know firsthand what that's like.
SHAPIRO: And six weeks after you had that experience, you started filming this bubbly, happy role of Gidget, the teenage surfer girl, your first breakout starring role. It's such a juxtaposition.
FIELD: I know.
SHAPIRO: And it really captures the kind of ability to bifurcate yourself that you talk about in this book.
FIELD: Well, you know, I think that's true. But when you look at my life of my life really was, I think I represented the girl next door, the all-American girl much more than was visible...
FIELD: ...Because I think many women of my generation and even generations before and probably generations now are going through so many things that are similar and yet seen as just the virginal, sunny, happy-go-lucky, uncomplicated girl next door - ha.
SHAPIRO: Lights on, camera rolling, big smile, forget everything going on under the surface.
SHAPIRO: And when you finished "Gidget," you were more or less forced into this role of the flying nun which almost made it impossible for you to get the kind of credibility that you have since earned in your career. I mean, you talk about how difficult it was to break through to serious work roles like Sybil, Norma Rae, Mary Todd Lincoln. So what finally got you over that hurdle?
FIELD: It was a lot of hard work, especially in those days. Film did not want anything to do with those who came from television, especially women and especially situation comedy and especially the flying nun.
FIELD: I mean, she was like right up there at the top of the list, you know?
SHAPIRO: If sitcoms on TV were at the bottom of the barrel, "The Flying Nun" was at the bottom of the bottom of the barrel.
FIELD: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. So it was a matter of trying to break down those barriers. And I would just say to myself, if I'm not where I want to be, it's because I'm not good enough because I felt that if I said it was because I was facing a system that was unfair - you know, if I put it on the big bad them - I had no power to change anything. The only way that I could put one foot in front of the other and be energized and compelled was to feel that it lay in my hands, that I had to work harder, that I had to get better so that that was an energy and not a defeat.
SHAPIRO: One of the things that comes across so vividly in this book is that despite the awards, despite the success, despite a career that spans decades of legendary, immortal roles, you never really allowed yourself to enjoy it and believe that it was real or that it would last. Can you now look back and appreciate what you've accomplished?
FIELD: Yes, and that's the difference. Yes. Do I still have that gnawing, hair-on-fire feeling of needing more and wanting to reach out for something that's just outside of my grasp - yes, totally. But can I now look back and feel the length that I've traveled - yes. And I couldn't do that before.
SHAPIRO: Sally Field, thank you so much for talking with us today.
FIELD: Thank you, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Her new memoir is called "In Pieces." Elsewhere on the program, I talk with Sally Field about her relationship with Burt Reynolds. He died earlier this month at the age of 82.
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