Life as a Work in Progress: In Pieces, by Sally Field

Celebrity memoirs always give me pause because the ones I’ve read tend to feel as though they have a thick coat of veneer. They’re always conscious of their image, so what they present in the memoir feels calculated or even whitewashed. As such, reading a celebrity memoir usually feels like an exercise in futility: by the last page you are no closer to understanding the person behind the image than you were on page one. 

This is not the case with Sally Field’s memoir, In Pieces, which feels startlingly raw and honest–even in places where Field herself does not come across so very well. It’s as though Field is using the opportunity to write about her life as a form of therapy (a technique used to grand effect by Alison Bechdel in Fun Home but not so effectively in her follow-up, Are You My Mother?–incidentally, two books that also explore the writer’s relationships with her parents). Throughout, you feel Field questioning, interpreting, and in some cases re-interpreting the key moments in her early life. It’s a fascinating journey to follow.

In many ways, In Pieces feels like a personal memoir far more than a Hollywood memoir, which ends up being a mark in its favor. It begins, as all memoirs must, with Field’s childhood, where she was surrounded by the women in her family while her father lurked on the periphery (a choice that is as much Field’s as it was her father’s). Her mother remarries a stuntman whose abuse of Field haunts the rest of her life. Propelled into acting as a way to focus her confused emotions, Field begins an unlikely path to success–stumbling into her first big role as TV’s Gidget, then taking on her infamous television role as The Flying Nun out of fear of not working again, only to spend the next decade+ of her life trying to prove her worth as an actress (both to Hollywood and to herself). 

We meet other celebrities along the way, including Burt Reynolds, who had a relatively brief relationship with Field but nevertheless called her the love of his life in his later years (Field’s assessment of the relationship is far less romantic). But despite these appearances, Field’s focus is much more trained on her family, which gives the pages a deeply personal feel. This focus pays off very well in the final chapters. I am not ashamed to say that I shed a few tears at the end. 

I have seen this book criticized online for spending so much time on Field’s early work and fast-forwarding through the most famous parts of her career (Places in the HeartMurphy’s RomanceSteel MagnoliasMrs. Doubtfire, and Forrest Gump are all among the films that are only mentioned in a single sentence). I thought this made perfect sense. We spend a lot of time with Field in the build-up to the release of the movie that arguably made her career and proved her worth as an actress once and for all: Norma Rae. The point of interest was Field getting to that point as a woman and as an actress–so everything that followed was naturally a denouement, skipping ahead to Field’s return to television on Brothers and Sisters, her fight to play Mary Todd Lincoln (showing her development of resolve over time) in Steven Speilberg’s Lincoln, and the end of her mother’s life. Those events are a perfect note to end on. Would I like to see her write a second memoir covering the years in between? Yes. Do I think it’s necessary? No. 

As celebrity memoirs go, this one is a wonderful and thoughtful experience. I’m glad I gave my time to Sally Field, and I think you will be, too.

In Pieces Sally Field

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