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Katey Sagal is best-known for playing Peg Bundy on the hit ‘90s sitcom Married With Children (1987-97) or perhaps as Gemma Morrow on Sons of Anarchy. But her new memoir, Grace Notes, reveals the rich life beyond those iconic roles.
Sagal eschews much of the usual name-dropping and showbiz stories — though there are some fun ones: She dated Kiss’ Gene Simmons, sang backup for Bette Midler and experimented with drugs with childhood pal Lorna Luft, the daughter of Judy Garland. But the book is an unusually honest and moving account of her struggles with her body image and her insecurity, her fraught relationship with her parents (her mother died in 1975, when she was 21, her father in a helicopter accident in 1981), her addiction to diet pills and meeting husband Kurt Sutter (creator of Sons of Anarchy) in a 12-step program.
Sagal talked with The Hollywood Reporter about how the book changed her view of her parents, her insecurities about her body image and the lesson Gene Simmons taught her that changed her life.
The book is very honest. What was the hardest part to write?
None of it was really easy. The beginnings of the book were somewhat easy because there wasn’t going to be a book. It was really more like a journal that I was writing for my children. I just spent a lot of time with my parents, which was an interesting thing because they’ve been passed on for a long time. So I kinda journeyed back in my brain and in my heart and tried to remember what I remembered.
Did you reference old photos or objects that belonged to your parents?
Those things aren’t what jarred my memory. I remember my mother teaching me how to play the guitar. I remember her — this sounds so weird, but I can feel her hands showing me how to play the guitar. I could feel that. Then I had to figure out, how do you describe that? I had to find ways in to telling about my children that was interesting to me. What was not interesting to me was to write a book that was really like, they were born, then this happened, then they went to preschool. That’s not interesting to me. So I had tried to find other ways to get in.
Were there some stories you didn’t want your kids to read or that they objected to in the book?
I was truly trying to be sensitive to the fact that it’s my perspective. With my older kids, I let them read the pieces before I sent them off to be published, and they definitely had some notes. (Laughs.) My daughter had a few things she asked me not to say and my son, not so much, but a little bit. I let my husband read the piece on him. I didn’t write it to upset anybody. I know it’s really honest, but I don’t really know how to not be that way. For me, it’s honest mostly about my own process. What I really tried to focus on was this is who I was at this age, which can maybe benefit my children.
Was there a part of your story that was fun to revisit?
Well, certainly a lot of my musical experiences were great. Singing with Etta James was great. Singing with Bette Midler was great. Having my children was a great experience, even though I don’t actually talk about the process.
What I got from the book after I finished it and read it back, really reflected on it, was I’m a person with a lot of duality. I like the moments that are happy moments of my life, and I don’t like them that much. It’s weird. It’s just a dichotomy that seems to have always been with me.
So much of the book feels like it’s about body image. Did you notice that when you were writing it?
I knew that about myself, and I knew that in the book I would talk about my addiction. For me to talk about my addictions means I have to start — talk about where it started, which definitely was body image. And I became addicted to diet pills. Then I became addicted to alcohol. I’m sure the influence of growing up in Hollywood had a lot to do with that. You had to have a certain — this is a very hard town to grow up in, and my body image became sort of something that not only I focused on, but my parents focused on too. So I knew that that stuff would all come out in the book, and then, once again, I never really saw myself as the way some of my characters have portrayed themselves as. I know people used to think Peg Bundy was so sexy, and I didn’t really perceive myself like that because once you’re a fat adolescent, you never quite lose that.
Your dad was a director, and now you have kids that are growing up with parents in show business. What did you teach them in terms of body image?
We don’t focus on physicality too much in my family in terms of the way I always felt in my growing up. I’ve always told my children they’re beautiful and unique and wonderful the way that they are. My older ones are both going into this business, and I think they both have pretty good self-esteem about who they are, which I didn’t really have. I wrote in the book about at one point I was told I would never work in television because I didn’t look right. I didn’t look like the other people that were on television, which just compounded my already feeling like I’m not pretty enough. I’m too heavy. I’m too this. I’m not gonna fit in.
You said you let your kids read and comment on it. Your youngest one is not really old enough to comment on it. You write about her and tell some personal things about her. Did that cause you any hesitation?
Yeah, Kurt read those pieces too. I edited those pieces a couple of times. My older kids’ feelings about that piece was that she is an extraordinary kid. And you know she thinks outside the box. She is just a little bit different than other kids. I don’t think different is a bad thing. I celebrate it. I think it is a good thing. When you have children, each of them is pretty different.
One of the things I learned was that you dated Gene Simmons of KISS in the mid-70s. Are you still in touch?
I’ve seen him over the years. I’ve seen he has a wife and kids, but it’s not like we are close friends anymore. I kind of wanted to write that story, and he was very helpful to me, whether he knows it or not. He was very instrumental in me getting serious about what I was doing. That’s kind of why I drew him in there.
The part about his story I liked, which I also thought was insightful and seemed to have an impact on you, was when he told you to not lose yourself for men.
I think he did have an impact on me. He was like “Don’t be this kind of insecure person,” feeling like a guy would make me feel better. It’s the point [of the story] that I never stopped working because of something like that. I always kept my work as a solid thing, and I am happy about it. I am glad that my kids thought I am a working mom. I am glad that my children know that their mom has something that they should love. I think that’s been a very important thing for them.
Did writing about your parents change how you think about them?
I went through most periods like most kids do. When I was a teenager, I was mad at my dad a lot. My mom, you know, I would get mad at her. I was not that compassionate as a teenager. What I learned since I’ve been with my own kids is that it helped me be much more compassionate. I think what I learned through writing the book was how much I love them. I allowed myself to — it makes me emotional — it allowed me to miss them, which is something that I don’t spend a lot time with; I kind of live my life in the present. But to revisit them is just a way for me to acknowledge how much I love and miss them. If I had to say something to them now, it would just be that much more compassionate than the way I was when I was with them. You know, it’s a big deal to raise children. You make mistakes, you do a lot of things, you know, so I think that’s kinda what I learned.
Don’t you think that’s the best part — at least I think it is — of getting older, that it makes you more empathetic?
Absolutely. I would say wisdom. I would say empathy. I would say I am less afraid. I find it a lot easier to stay in the present.
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