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Sally Field on the childhood abuse that cast a shadow over her later relationships ... and how husband Burt Reynolds belittled her acting

In her startlingly honest memoir, In Pieces, the Hollywood actress reveals how her mother failed to protect her from her predatory stepfather... and the long-lasting impact of what she endured as a child

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Sally Field

Sally Field

PA

From left, Sally's brother, Ricky; her half-sister, Princess; Sally, and their mother, Margaret

From left, Sally's brother, Ricky; her half-sister, Princess; Sally, and their mother, Margaret

Sally Field with Burt Reynolds

Sally Field with Burt Reynolds

Sally Field

Sitting in the library room of London's Charlotte Street Hotel, Sally Field cuts a delicate figure. She's dressed down in black jeans, ballet slippers and a cashmere sweater of the palest pink. Framed behind dark-rimmed spectacles, her eyes, fringed still with the thickest of thick black lashes, are wide and earnest, and she greets me with an expression that conveys both openness and caution.

In September, Field published her first book, In Pieces. The beautifully written memoir is not just her life story but also an exercise in breathtaking emotional honesty.

As our narrator takes us through the heartbreaking experiences she's lived through - the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her stepfather (the television actor Jock Mahoney), the illegal abortion she underwent in Mexico as a teenager and her self-destructive five-year relationship with screen idol Burt Reynolds, we can almost sense her daring herself, as she writes, not to flinch at the truth laid bare.

It's no surprise then that when she first sat down to put pen to paper, she hadn't banked on any audience at all.

"I wrote it for myself," she says softly. In the book's acknowledgements she declares that the influence of the psychiatrist Dr Daniel Siegel is "on every page", and it is apparent from the first pages that this book is more than just a writing exercise for Field, but an act of deep self-interrogation.

The urge to write, she says, came after the death of her beloved mother and sprung from "something that wouldn't rest in me".

It's a project driven by her determination to excavate uncomfortable truths that, as a survivor of childhood abuse, she'd spent much of her life trying to avoid.

"When my mother was gone I felt so deeply disquieted," she says. "There was something urgent and malignant. Something festering that I needed to find."

She set out to "uncover all the pieces I needed to uncover, to know what it was that wouldn't rest in me", she says. And her means of doing that was to devote herself utterly to a new craft.

She's already attained the highest level of achievement in the craft of acting. Field has won two Oscars during the course of her long career, and endeared herself to global audiences through roles in classic films such as Forrest Gump and Steel Magnolias, as well as her television work, latterly the hit series Brothers and Sisters and the mini-series Maniac in which she stars alongside Emma Stone.

Since her earliest days as a TV actor and a keen student of acting teacher Lee Strasberg, Sally has always applied a serious-minded and reverent approach to artistic endeavour. The same has been true for her foray into literature - for in writing her memoirs she takes an unapologetically literary approach.

As she set out she knew "full well that to be good at any craft it takes many, many, many a mile in the saddle. And I would say to myself, 'well, it could take me until I am 112, but that's what I will do".

This was to be her therapy. "It would be only then that I would go into those boxes of memorabilia that I'd carted around, that I would look at the things that I didn't want to know. That I would look at the pieces of myself I didn't want to know," she says.

"And there wasn't any other way to find the answers. I wasn't trying to portray a better picture of myself. I was trying to find something."

Field was born in Pasadena, California in 1946 - the year her father returned from serving as a medical registrar in Paris and London during the Second World War to the beautiful wife he had left behind and the son he had never met.

It wasn't a happy reunion. In the years he'd been away, Field's mother, Margaret Morlan, had been talent-spotted by a Hollywood producer and had started working as an actress. By the time Sally was four years old, her parents had split. Her father remained for the rest of her life a remote, unknowable figure, never able to connect to his children.

The portrait of him in In Pieces is hazy, impressionistic, says Field, because she never really knew him. "We never had a conversation!" she exclaims when I ask her about him.

"He never took me to the movies, or he never took me to have a hamburger and talk about... anything. Anything... so I don't know anything about him. And I wish I did. I wish I'd had the strength to have a conversation with him. But I couldn't."

There have been times when she desperately "needed a father, and I wanted to go to some place and cry and have him say, 'you know what, we're going to make up your bed, and we're going to make you a cup of tea and you're going to stay here a few days. And you and I will walk around the streets and talk'".

But he was never available for her in that way. If her father has only a walk-on part in her life's narrative, it's the figure of her mother who remains at the story's heart. Theirs was an intense, cherished, knotty relationship. Field adored her and in many ways Margaret devoted her life to her daughter. And yet, the moment Field finally faces the truth and acknowledges that her mother failed to protect her from her stepfather's abuse is one of the most poignant in the story.

In the painful chapter, Field recalls how her mother, having married Jock Mahoney in 1952, would send her daughter up to the marital bedroom to "walk on his back" to help with his back pain. What started as an uncomfortably intimate experience led to assault and culminated in an occasion of near-rape, though Sally 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. But he didn't. Was that love? Was that because he loved me?"

Writing down what happened had been not only an expurgation of the truth but a vital exercise in redress. During the abuse, Field, who had been a child who loved books, became unable to concentrate in school (a known response among children experiencing trauma), retreated from academia and left school early.

"Part of this exercise for me is that I have felt intimidated by my own brain," she says now. "All my life, because it came from when I put myself in a fog as a child and could hardly read a book and was getting bad grades and thought that I was stupid."

All her adult life, she's been driven by a yearning for an education. "All of the books that I loved were underlined. And I would take passages and write them again in my journals, for whatever reason I don't know. I wanted to read it, I wanted to have it, I wanted to own it. I wanted to have it be lodged somewhere in my body. And I always had poems and phrases all over the walls and on the refrigerator and in my office and my bedroom. Things that I liked and scraps of paper everywhere."

Writing a book, then "all had to do with my final need to undo this web that had been woven around my own brain - my own intellect that said I was stupid, that I couldn't pass grades, that I hardly got out of high school". She sees now that "it wasn't that I was stupid, it was that I had to survive".

It was not an easy decision to make, to publish - not least because not only Sally, but so many people she has known and loved would also be exposed -her children, her parents, her half-sister, the daughter of her mother and Mahoney.

"I thought of them, I never really wanted to invade other people's lives." But, she says, in a tone balanced carefully between humble and steely, "my account is my account".

She knew too that her account of her relationship with Burt Reynolds would have been wounding to him. Their high-profile, five-year relationship might have looked like a Hollywood love match, but Field reveals its dysfunction. She has said they were a "perfect storm of flaws". He treated her like an accessory, belittled her achievements, and couldn't see beyond his own pressing emotional needs to even begin to make out the shape of any she might have had.

The night she won an Emmy, she wasn't at the ceremony. He refused to attend and discouraged her from doing so. When the same film was billed to open the Cannes Film Festival he tried to talk her out of attending, saying, "You don't expect to win anything, do you?"

Now, she says, she sees the relationship and her investment in it as continuing a relationship pattern set up by her abusive stepfather.

As it happened, Reynolds died three days before the book was published. "It was just so odd," she says. "I couldn't help but feel, how odd. I felt relieved and disappointed. Both. And grieved... but also not grieved, because I think he was hurting, physically hurting. He was a very active man and I don't think he liked being an older man. I think it made him really angry. And so I was glad that he wasn't suffering. But I know this book would have hurt him. And so in that way I'm glad I didn't hurt him any more."

Was there, I wonder, a sense of frustration that he would never know what her experience of that relationship had been? "I think even if he read it, he still wouldn't have known. And that is what is unfortunate. Because I still don't think he could have seen it except through the eyes of his own childhood trauma."

The violation of normal boundaries she experienced as a child meant she remained vulnerable to coercion, exploitation, as she navigated show business as a young star.

She mentions in the book how one director insisted she kiss him for a role, and recalls an occasion when she once woke to find her then boyfriend, the singer Jimmy Webb, having sex with her.

"We were all of an era," she says today. "I didn't see any choices I had. I didn't feel it in society and even within my own complex web many things that happened that I didn't baulk to. I could have said 'you know what, I'm out of here. Thank you! It's not for me', but I didn't because they fed into my already ongoing pattern. And I didn't see what was anything different to what I had already gone through in my childhood. So it felt familiar. It was pre-formed in my road.

"And those are the things that are hard to back away from, when you can't see that what you are reacting to is familiarity. And not necessarily pleasure. I understand this, I've done this before. I've done this before. I can do this. Rather than, I don't like how this feels."

Crucially, the people who matter the most to her, however, have all given their blessing to the book.

She was worried about how her two eldest sons would react but has found them to be "remarkable and loving and generous", in their response. She has three sons, and two former husbands, her childhood sweetheart Steven Craig, and the producer and actor Alan Greisman.

"And it has opened and will continue to open new dialogues. And not only between us, I think in themselves, between (for example) my second son and his wife. My daughter-in-law Sasha who read it was so supportive. I gave it to her the same time I did my son. She was the only one, but my sister had read it before, she was one of the first ones.

"But what was also interesting, and I was so pleased by, was that they all gave me notes. And I thought, right… did I ask for notes? And they're all three writers, she says of her sons. Wonderful writers, my youngest is just out of the master's programme at Columbia in screenwriting.

"At first I went, 'oh no! I don't want notes'. And then when I read the notes, they were so smart. And they were so right... they were generous and loving and supporting. All of their notes... were treated like it was professional. I was like a colleague now," she says with a smile in her voice.

Eli, her second son, was most worried about the account of his father, Field's first husband Steve Craig, whom she'd known from childhood. "He was worried about his dad," she says. "I did give it to Steve shortly after that. And he too was so amazingly generous. He's a very private person, he's not a public person, and I had no right to do that - to talk about the intimacies of our existence. But he was amazing. He was extraordinary, he said 'let it out there!'"

  • In Pieces, by Sally Field, published by Simon & Schuster, £20
  • Belfast Telegraph