Brave Heart

updated 12/15/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/15/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

When Sting—then known as Gordon Matthew Sumner-was just 7, he suffered a shock that changed his life forever. On a chilly morning in 1958, he woke early in his parents' house in dank Wallsend, England. Creeping downstairs, he heard muffled sounds; when he peered through a glass door, he found his mother, Audrey, making love to an employee of his father's. In his just-published memoir, Broken Music, he writes, "I can hear soft moans and the quickening of breath...and see the shapes of two heads pressed together." Fleeing, he huddles "under the stairs, entrusted with a secret I don't understand."

That secret—Audrey's infidelity—would poison their family of six and haunt Sting, 52, for years. His father, Ernest (a dairy owner), veiled his pain with cold silence for two decades while the high-spirited mother—a hairdresser Sting saw as "a rare and exotic bird"—continued to meet her lover when she claimed she was seeing friends.

Moving and mercifully free of anecdotes about private jets or glitzy pals, Sting's Broken Music resonates not just with rock fans but with mainstream readers: One week after its release, it reached No. 12 on The New York Times' bestseller list. "The great thing about the book," said Doreen Miller, a fan who stood in line overnight for Sting's Nov. 12 book-signing at a Manhattan Barnes & Noble, "is that you don't feel he's writing as a celebrity. I got a closer look at the man."

Relaxing in the drawing room of his duplex overlooking Manhattan's Central Park, the author confesses that breaking his silence hasn't been easy. At the book-signing, he says, "the child in me [felt] very vulnerable."

So why would he share the truth not only about his late parents (Audrey and Ernest both died in 1987) but about a failed marriage and an awkwardly timed crush on young actress Trudie Styler? As Sting says with a flicker of irony, "I essentially wrote the book to explain myself to myself. I realized that I was saving huge amounts of money on shrinks by bringing it [all] to the surface and putting it in perspective." Perhaps. But others will find inspiration in his escape from northern England and in his ability to stay anchored after selling 90 million records and collecting 16 Grammys. His journey, he says, began when he was 7; banging on his grandmother's piano to release his anger, he invented discordant tunes that she called "broken music."

After finishing teachers' college, he scraped out a living by teaching elementary school and moonlighting as a musician. When Sting met Styler (the mother of Mickey, 19, Jake, 18, Coco, 13, and Giacomo, 8) in 1979, he was married to Frances Tomelty, a dark-haired actress from Northern Ireland. The two had just moved to London with their son Joe, now 26 (daughter Kate was born in 1982), and Trudie was a neighbor.

Sting remembers a "stunning blonde" walked from the kitchen holding a pot of tea; he was struck by her "pale, pale green eyes" and a scar from a childhood accident "that curl [ed] like the violent memory of an animal claw on her left cheek."

"It was one of those moments when you see the person you want to spend the rest of your life with," he says now. "I just recognized her."

The attraction was mutual, but it would be three years before Sting's marriage ended and he and Trudie became lovers. ("It was a was painful," he says.) She was by his side when the Police hit and when he made his 1984 leap to a solo career.

Known as a politically conscious golden couple, the two work hard at their relationship. "We don't take it for granted," says Sting. "We assess it on a daily basis."

The same goes for their family life; learning from his parents' mistakes, Sting is more open with his six children. By his reckoning, their closeness has much to do with the hard-won lesson that he shares in Broken Music. "I think honesty about your emotions is essential to keep a relationship alive," he says. "Lies and secrets don't work."

Michelle Green. Joanne Fowler in New York City

From Our Partners