Arnold Schwarzenegger's new memoir: anything but 'total recall'?

Arnold Schwarzenegger's new memoir 'Total Recall' is disappointing many readers.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
The subtitle of Arnold Schwarzenegger (r.)'s new memoir is 'My Unbelievably True Life Story,' but many readers say the text doesn't live up to the billing.

Everything about “Total Recall,” by Arnold Schwarzenegger, written with Peter Petre, is larger than life. The book offers a length of 646 pages, an enlarged glamour shot on of Schwarzenegger on the cover, and an outsized claim in its subtitle: “My Unbelievably True Life Story.”

But according to early reports, that title is nothing more than empty grandiosity and its outsize claim is never delivered in any of those 646 pages. Most disappointing, perhaps, is Schwarzenegger's insipid explanation of his affair during his marriage to Maria Shriver (more on that soon).

“Schwarzenegger’s tale falls far short of total recall and fails to achieve either the depth or the emotional impact that would make us care more deeply about this fascinating public figure,” writes the Washington Post in a piece titled “Arnold Schwarzenegger’s memoir is something less than ‘Total Recall.'”

Echoes the LA Times, “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.”

What it lacks in introspection, however, “Total Recall” makes up for in recounting successes. And by the Arnold’s count, there were many. The author divides the book roughly into the three career arcs of his life – bodybuilding, acting, and politics.

He devotes almost 200 pages to his bodybuilding career, a line of work that brought him from Austria to the US and launched him into a bigger life. Here, Schwarzenegger writes about his seven Mr. Olympia titles, his use of steroids (they were legal at the time), and his sweet but strange Austrian upbringing that laid the foundation for his bodybuilding. Among descriptions of his Austrian childhood is Schwarzenegger's recollection that he and his brother were forced to do sit-ups to earn their breakfast each morning. (And, incidentally, a young Schwarzenegger had taped bodybuilders to his ceiling instead of pinups, causing his concerned mother to consult with a doctor about her assuredly red-blooded, heterosexual boy.)

Bodybuilding, of course, launched Schwarzenegger into Hollywood, where he leaped from “Pumping Iron” to “Stay Hungry” to “Conan the Barbarian,” a progression that cemented his reputation as an action star. And then, apparently, things got hazy for the newly minted celebrity. According to The New York Times, Schwarzenegger and his co-writer Petre “had to brush up on the details of his acting career by reading biographies and movie journals; his memory for slights, triumphs and salaries seems more reliable than his memory for work.”

Politics garners the least space and, perhaps surprisingly, the most modesty. Schwarzenegger seems to tread carefully through his retelling of his governorship of California, according to media reviews. He ran – and won – California’s 2003 recall election even after Karl Rove attempted to dissuade him, telling him that Condoleezza Rice was being groomed for that position. Schwarzenegger portrays himself as a centrist politician who favored a social safety net, solar energy, and stem cell research. But, by most accounts, he acknowledges, California’s budget woes and kept the swaggering minimal. “I do not deny that being governor was more complex and challenging than I had imagined,” he writes.

Disappointingly, nowhere is he less forthright than in his explanation of his affairs (plural). Of course, he recalls his life with Shriver in detail – meeting her at a tennis match in 1977, admiring her career as a journalist as a “true declaration of independence,” and gaining her support for his gubernatorial run only after Eunice Kennedy Shriver stepped in and told Shriver to “snap out of it.” But while Schwarzenegger professes his love for her repeatedly – “I could go on for hours about what draws me to Maria but still never fully explain the magic,” and “I was luckier than I deserved to have such a wife” – he fails to back it up with an honest explanation of his affair with his housekeeper Mildred Baena, with whom he fathered a child.

He spills perhaps the least ink on this, rather weak, explanation:

“It was one of those stupid things that I promised myself never to do. My whole life I never had anything going with anyone who worked for me. This happened in 1996 when Maria and the kids were away on holiday and I was in town finishing ‘Batman and Robin.’ Mildred had been working in our household for five years, and all of [a] sudden we were alone in the guest house. When Mildred gave birth the following August, she named the baby Joseph and listed her husband as the father. That is what I wanted to believe and what I did believe for years.”

We’re not sure we believe that – many reports, including one from the Daily Beast entitled “Is Arnold Schwarzenegger Still Lying,” have surfaced questioning the timing of Arnold’s version of events.

But more to the point, that measly paragraph is a colossal cop-out for a book that’s marketed itself as a “tell-all” memoir. It’s a “PG-account that suffers from a startling lack of self-reflection,” writes the LA Times, adding, “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.”

Oddly enough, one might argue the reviews painted a clearer picture of the Austrian bodybuilder-turned Hollywood star-turned politician than the 646-page memoir itself.

Concludes the LA Times in its review of “Total Recall,” “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.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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