Book Review: Schwarzenegger’s New Autobiography Total Recall

The Legends and Lies of Austria’s Last Action Hero

Arnold ­­Schwarzenegger left Styria for ­Hollywood and politics: It was all part of the “plan” | Illustration: Katharina Klein

arnold schwarzenegger

Arnold ­­Schwarzenegger left Styria for ­Hollywood and politics: It was all part of the “plan” | Illustration: Katharina Klein

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography is a big book in every sense of the word. It is voluminous, covering the life story of a larger-than-life global “action hero”. Written with Peter Petre, former executive editor of Fortune Magazine who also co-authored the autobiographies of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and General Norman Schwarzkopf, it tries to keep under control an oversized ego that is relentlessly self-absorbed and, as amply illustrated, insists on showing off bulky mountains of steroid-induced muscles – our “action hero’s” most obvious characteristics.

But while the title Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story suggests a seamless and factually-accurate narrative of this larger-than-life character, there are many voids in this book, with his incorrigible cravings for casual sex and his ambiguous relationship with his native Austria perhaps the biggest missing chapters.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, the humble boy from the Styrian backwoods, tells his life’s trajectory in four large segments: 1) his upbringing in Austria; 2) his career as a bodybuilder; 3) his movie stardom; 4) his political career as the “governator” of California. It’s a life that unfolds according to a “plan”. Schwarzenegger from early youth had the burning ambition to go to America and become successful.


Seeking success “on steroids”

Becoming the world’s greatest bodybuilder was the secret to his success. He works extremely hard with daily doses of steroids and grueling work-out regimes (his life’s motto is “reps, reps, reps”, endless repetitions of exercises as a bodybuilder, stunts as an actor and practice runs for speeches as the governor). Making bodybuilding a respectable sport is not enough for Schwarzenegger once he moves to Los Angeles in 1968. Becoming the “global action hero” and also wealthy was part of his “plan” too. He stars in blockbuster after blockbuster and decides to go into politics and “save California” from its ruinous gridlock in politics. “Total recall” also refers to the recall of Governor Gray Davis in 2002, who failed to address the Golden State’s deepening budget shortages.

The “action hero” becomes a union-buster in Sacramento. He savours the images of being a lifelong rebel (against his father, against the Hollywood moguls, against politics-as-usual), relentlessly outrageous (walking in his briefs through Munich in November to “sell” bodybuilding to the man in the street) and not conforming as a politician (pushing environmentalism and universal health care as a Republican).

Schwarzenegger prides himself in his success as a self-taught businessman. As soon as he has made some money he invests it in real estate. He buys a small apartment complex and doubles its size every few years. He launches the “Planet Hollywood” restaurant chain. These real estate investments make him rich even before he became the action hero.

The bodybuilding career drives him to develop his biggest asset – his muscular body. He is in love with his own body and sports it like models do in fashion shows. “Chiselling” and “sculpting” it with barbells and exercises (“reps, reps, reps”) becomes his life’s mantra. His “natural gift” was his “body frame that could handle more mass than the frames of any of the guys I was going to face” (p. 72). “Blowing away the competition” became his strategy for success.

This body lands him in the movie business and launches him on the highly profitable path to Hollywood success. The gun-toting “Terminator” transforms him into global superstardom. Whatever Schwarzenegger does, he becomes his own relentless self-promoter of success.

Testosterone-“Arnie” revels in the “gym” language of bodybuilders. He loves to spice up his language with four letter words and neologisms like “ballsy” (his wife, Maria Shriver was “ballsy” when she accepted his running for governor); he savours the “studly” (p. 599) world of action heroes. He admits to smoking dope but conveniently fails to address the casual sex easily available in the bodybuilding world of 1970s California, dismissing stories that he was an habitual “groper” of women in the wildly promiscuous film industry. His claim to have converted into a genuine “family man”, once he married Shriver, is not entirely persuasive. The leopard cannot change his spots and he submits to a sexual adventure with his housekeeper in 1994, siring a son out of wedlock. When his wife confronts him with this casual affair – the offspring being the spitting image of Arnold – it destroys his marriage.


Wrapped in the flag

Schwarzenegger is a firm believer in American exceptionalism. He celebrates his American citizenship by running through L.A. clad in an American flag. He insists that the American dream attracted him magically as a young boy growing up in Austria and claims to be “the poster boy for the American dream” (p. 420). Sociologists usually associate it with modest success in life – the rise of millions of immigrants to middle class status, owning a house and sending the kids to college.

Schwarzenegger does not associate any higher principles with the American dream (freedom, democracy, tolerance), but only celebrates material values (driving Hummers, smoking the most expensive cigars, flying in a private jet). He has become one of those rich Americans who simple-mindedly conflate the American dream with capitalism and excessive consumerism. His marriage to a Kennedy – the equivalent of entering the American aristocracy – is part of it. Some observers today see the American dream dying, Schwarzenegger is flogging it like his action movies.


An Austria of mystification

Schwarzenegger’s feelings towards his native Austria are ambivalent. His favorite trope vis-à-vis Republican audiences is that he left “Russian-occupied Styria” and “socialist Austria” behind, when he came to California in 1968. Never mind that the Russians had long left Styria when he was born in 1947 and the conservative Klaus government was in power in the late 1960s. What he is rejecting really is a strong welfare state and Viennese “cradle-to-the-grave socialism” – the fruits of the social partnership Austrians treasure.

As governor he aspired to a universal health care plan for California not unlike European health care systems. He is a firm believer in Milton Friedman’s free market economics – not the fashionable anti-state “Austrian economists” (Hayek, Mises) lionised by right-wing Republicans these days. To Schwarzenegger, Austrians are an unaspiring people in love with big government and “frozen in time”. Europeans are stuck in “bureaucracy and stagnation” (p. 464).

In fact, Schwarzenegger is a very representative figure being raised in postwar rural Austria. He grew up in poverty with a loving mother and an authoritarian father who had been a Nazi, which he denies (he admits that he was never fond of him but makes excuses for having failed to attend his funeral).

He had passed eight years of basic schooling and a three-year apprenticeship when he left Austria (he later added a college degree). Compared to the immigrant cohort of the late 1960s, he was uneducated and naïve when he arrived in California. Much of his thinking about Austria is mystification, fashioned later in life to elevate his American success story.

Autobiographies are often “apologias pro vita sua” – Schwarzenegger’s is no different. He leaves out a lot (his sexual infelicities), he dismisses unwelcome facts (his father’s Nazi past), he exaggerates (his success as governor), he reimagines the past according to his own needs (“the plan”). On reflection, then, maybe the title of the book should be Total Remake.

arnold schwarzenegger book coverGünter Bischof is a native of Austria; he teaches American history and directs Center Austria at the University of New Orleans.


Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story

by Arnold Schwarzenegger with Peter Petre 

Simon & Schuster, New York (2012), pp.646 

Order this book online


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