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 the University of Southern California. 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 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 nauseam 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.
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 by the goals he has reached, no matter the cost to those around him.