My Unbelievably True Life Story
Simon & Schuster: 656 pp., $35
It’s much too early to predict the nature of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s final Wikipedia entry, much less his legacy. The former body-builder-turned-action-movie-star-turned-California-governor is still very much alive, having just started a new think tank at USC. And Americans have an endearing and frustrating habit of nostalgic reconsideration, especially when it comes to movie stars and politicians.
Currently, however, he is best known for the scandalous betrayal of his former wife, Maria Shriver. Last year, after Schwarzenegger ended his second term as governor of California, it was revealed that he had fathered a child 14 years before with the family’s housekeeper, who remained employed by the family even as he secretly supported their son. Shriver, who over the years had steadfastly weathered numerous reports of her husband’s infidelity, including accusations of sexual harassment, knew nothing about the boy’s true parentage — until she did. And then she left, eventually filing for divorce.
Not, perhaps, the best stage in one’s personal mythology to launch a memoir. But then Schwarzenegger, as he repeats ad nauseum throughout said memoir, “Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story” (written with Peter Petre), doesn’t believe in “can’t” or “shouldn’t” except as obstacles to be overcome. With the equally well-documented pride he takes in his marketing skills, it is quite possible that he hopes the scandal will drive sales of the book, which is being positioned as a “tell-all.”
For the record, “Total Recall” is about as far from a “tell-all” memoir as it gets. Although an exhaustive and at times exhausting documentation of Schwarzenegger’s unique and amazing career, it is a book almost completely devoid of self-examination. Given the author, that is not nearly as surprising as is its resolute PG rating — for all the salacious behavior that has been attributed to and admitted by Schwarzenegger over the years, he portrays himself as a reasonable, earnest kind of guy who has merely made a few high-spirited mistakes, none of which he cares to discuss here.
So it is difficult to read “Total Recall” without searching for signs that would preface or explain the sort of man who would betray his wife, whom he claims to still love very much, and his own son in such a manner. It is also difficult to have a lot of faith in much of what Schwarzenegger does reveal, not only because he seems incapable of describing any event without putting himself in the best light possible but because when he finally addresses Shriver’s discovery he offers, as an excuse, his lifelong tendency to keep secrets.
“Secrecy,” he writes, “is just a part of me.”
This is not what one wants to learn on Page 593 of an autobiography — one might consider it (to use a journalistic term) “burying the lead.” People are entitled to be secretive, of course, but it’s not the ideal characteristic of a civic leader or a memoirist. Neither is it the hallmark of most role models, which Schwarzenegger clearly considers himself to be. Why else devote the book’s final chapter to “Arnold’s Rules” for success?
That success, however, is undeniable. Whatever one thinks of Schwarzenegger as a person, an actor or politician, he is successful by most definitions. Raised in an Austria still devastated by World War II, he decided early on that he needed to be where the action was — in America. Bodybuilding launched him into a life that seemed to have no limits. With the exception of his marriage and, of course, the California state budget, everything he touched seemed to go his way — bodybuilding competitions, film roles, real estate deals , and political influence.
It’s difficult to imagine an activity more intimately and powerfully obsessive than bodybuilding, and the years Schwarzenegger spent bending his own physiology to his will appear to be his most formative. (He also took steroids, when they were legal, which he has admitted and subsequently lobbied against.) He devotes almost 200 pages of the book to his bodybuilding career, far more than he spends on either acting or governorship. A passage in which he rather plaintively compares losing his first Mr. Olympia competition to losing the special election he held in 2005 is unintentionally hilarious, but the importance he gives his bodybuilding is not. The ability to reconfigure his own flesh in such a spectacular way seems to have cemented Schwarzenegger’s belief in his own personal power. That confidence was — and remains — his greatest asset.
“Total Recall” offers windows on many worlds, from Hollywood behind the scenes — “Control freaks like Jim [Cameron] are big fans of night shooting. It gives you total command over the lighting because you create it” — to descriptions of Thanksgiving with the Kennedys. Read one way, it is the ultimate believe-it-and-you-can-be-it testimonial. Read another, it’s a love letter to Shriver, who is portrayed from first to last as a beautiful, talented woman who was far too good for her husband. Either way, it evolves into a portrait of a man who defines himself almost entirely by the goals he has reached, no matter the cost to those around him.
At one point, he describes his decision to switch roles in “The Terminator” — he was originally up for the more romantic Reese. After meeting Schwarzenegger, Cameron believed he had a greater feel for the robot, and Schwarzenegger agreed. “I had a very clear vision….” he writes. “No thinking, no blinking, no thought, just action.”
Which may wind up being a more telling tagline than even the famous “I’ll be back.”