Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared on The Daily Show this week, his 65-year-old face taut, his chest puffed like a heron. Flogging his new memoir, Total Recall, Schwarzenegger spoke about his infamous marriage-wrecking affair with his housekeeper and the son it produced: "This is a mistake that I made. I feel embarrassed about it and ashamed about it."
That kid is 16 now, and likely able to work a television as well as read, so he will hear himself discussed, and probably encounter his biological father's memoir. There, he'll find that Schwarzenegger dismisses the affair as a diversion during the shoot of Batman and Robin, and an anomaly, though not for the reason you might think: "My whole life I never had anything going with anyone who worked for me." Even a philanderer has to have standards.
Later, of his efforts to cover up the truth, Schwarzenegger writes: "I wanted to protect my family's privacy, which remains a priority of mine today."
Obviously, this isn't so: The post-scandal celebrity confession clear-cuts a path toward absolution, no matter who's in the way, and usually that's a lot of injured people. The best protection for those he loves would be for Schwarzenegger to shut up. But here he goes, making the media rounds, and every jaw-flapping admission probably feels great for him – so light! So unburdened! – and like a kick in the guts to Maria Shriver, their kids, his former lover, and most profoundly, the child referred to as a shameful, embarrassing mistake.
Schwarzenegger is following the script of the modern public confession, which shows little concern for collateral damage, and is really a cathartic self-help exercise for the transgressor. Technology has made the sniffing of scandal a cultural preoccupation, and a form of mass entertainment. Kristen Stewart photographed in the clutches of an un-Twilighty man is a recent example of a gotcha moment that quickly multiplied in the electronic ether. Reality TV franchises like The Real Housewives and The Bachelor feast on scandal, sneaking and exposing, making amusement out of transgression.
Into this salacious moment struts consummate performer Schwarzenegger, wielding a book about a self-made man who storms through life with the conviction of an action hero. In the chapter "Arnold's Rules" he proffers wisdom like: "No matter what you do in life, selling is part of it," and: "Don't overthink."
Mixing these two bad ideas is not only a recipe for sexual indiscretion, but also answers the question of why this genre of memoir exists: to sell the protagonist, clearing his name so he can move on to the next phase of his career. Disgraced politicians with their spouses (wives, let's face it) at their sides, flanked by microphones, lips quivering, engage in the same ritual cleansing. Now that Schwarzenegger is a retired governor and senior citizen past his cinematic prime, it's comeback time. To get there requires an audience that will absorb the confession, which may be why, while watching Schwarzenegger on The Daily Show, I felt so used. But a scandal's fallen party relies on our own prurience – okay, I downloaded that book – to complete his purge.
With sensational details accessible with a mere click of a keypad, we're becoming conditioned to gawk. That rubbernecking is the raison d'être of 28 Seconds, the recent memoir of former Ontario attorney-general Michael Bryant. In 2009, bicycle courier Darcy Allan Sheppard was killed while hanging off Bryant's car after an altercation in downtown Toronto. Charges against Bryant were dropped, and a media blitz suggests an inevitable return to public life. Despite hinging on a recovered-alcoholic narrative, much of Bryant's self-serving book is devoted to subtly vilifying Sheppard and complaining of his own mistreatment. The author, alive and clearly still entitled to his power, casts himself as the victim, the subtext of many confessions.
Bryant refers to himself as an "egomaniac" and that's the true theme of Total Recall, too. Schwarzenegger's ego propels a poor Austrian boy to movie stardom, but also permits him to cheat and lie. Laura Kipnis, in her book How to Become a Scandal, argues that scandal springs from "blind spots," the pockets of failed self-knowledge that can bring down any of us. Social psychologists see them at work in the "holier-than-thou effect." Kipnis describes the phenomenon as "a self-inflating bias when it comes to assessing one's own motives and sincerity," which explains the inauthentic feel of books like Schwarzenegger's and Bryant's.
The aim of the scandal protagonist's confession is always the same: "I wrote down my personal story so we could collectively forget it." But is it worth the damage? Many years ago, Freud rejected the idea of recording his own memoir: "A psychologically complete and honest confession of life … would require so much indiscretion (on my part as well as on that of others) about family, friends, and enemies, most of them still alive, that it is simply out of the question. What makes all autobiographies worthless is, after all, their mendacity." The narrator of the celebrity confession isn't merely unreliable, he's inherently cruel.