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Arnold, the massive muscular body and the American dream

By Peter West - posted Thursday, 17 January 2013

Reviewing Arnold Schwarzenegger's autobiography, I'm reminded of the comment attributed to Philip Roth. "I write autobiography and I'm told it's fiction: I write fiction and I'm told it's autobiography".

Here is - we are told - Arnold's story, done with a co-author. Once people wrote books and then became famous. Now they become famous, and then write books. It's a fat book of some 630 pages and would be ideal for using to build up your biceps. Otherwise it's a rather long read. I must admit I skipped over some of the details of the bodybuilding competitions. Frankly, I wonder how many people would be interested. Arnold won Mr Olympia or Mr Universe, again. Do we care?

Arnold's story is full of contradictions and paradoxes. How did a fellow from an obscure town in Austria (Thal, near Graz) become a world-famous figure? How did some bulging bodybuilder rise to make many successful movies? How come when I Google his name I get some 60 million hits? How can someone with broken English become a successful American actor? The only answer seems to be- determination, cunning, and ambition. And a certain charm.


Arnold had a tough childhood, as did many who grew up in Austria and Germany after World War II. Meat was scarce. The food that was obtainable was often of poor quality. His father beat him frequently and set his two boys tasks which had to be done to his standards. If they saw a concert, they were required to write a 5 page review. Any errors had to be copied out correctly, fifty times. (The older son died in a car accident in his twenties).

In the 1950s, bodybuilding was not a popular thing. When the father saw Arnold had pictures of half-naked men on his wall, he came after him with a leather strap.

Bodybuilding had a poor image, Arnold says: of narcissistic, inferior guys who were weird and might even be homosexuals (151). Like everything else, it didn't stop Arnold achieving his aim of becoming wealthy and successful. Somehow Arnold decided that his dream was to become a successful bodybuilder, win a pile of awards, come to America and make movies. To do this he would build up a massive body.

Nothing was going to distract me from my goal. No offer, no relationship, nothing (p 142)

The death of his brother, his father and his mother are all mentioned. Yes, he was a bit upset. None of these events seems to have distracted him from pushing forward.

So we hear about numerous competitions. Arnold wins one after another. It's all told without a great deal of emotion and I can't resist asking 'And..?" or- "So what?". Neither Arnold nor the people who helped him write the book are terribly talented writers. As someone who sometimes teaches English, I puzzle at the level of English at which Arnold - and his co-author - write. There are numerous passages which don't quite sound like him. There are four pages of acknowledgement of people who helped.


Arnold comes to Southern California and he is hugely successful. He makes lots of friends, somehow. He is sponsored by Joe Weider, who plasters his image up constantly as the acceptable face of bodybuilding. Arnold's image is everywhere and he has no self-consciousness and a talent for self-promotion. He refuses to change his name. People want to be around him, but he doesn't ever seem to be a terribly nice person. He works out with friends but beats them in competitions without much remorse. It's hard to feel warmth for someone who is so calculating. Eventually he becomes Governor of California with apparently little effort.

There are some curious omissions and semi-omissions. Arnold says yes, he took steroids early in his career.

Steroids made me hungrier and thirstier and helped me gain weight, though it was mostly water weight, which was not ideal because it interfered with definition. I learned to use the drugs in the final six or eight weeks leading up to a major competition. They could help you win, but the advantage they gave was about the same as having a good suntan.

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Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story, Arnold Schwarzenegger with Peter Petre.  (Simon & Schuster, New York: 2012)

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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