A book that so powerfully and strangely melds autobiography, poetry, ethnography, philosophical inquiry, and testimony: that would have been enough. But on top of that, Samantha Giles manages to make Total Recall a page-turner, a psychological thriller (really!) whose tension is constructed adroitly and painfully from what Georges Perec, in W: Or the Memory of Childhood, refers to as “gaps, lapses, doubts, guesses and meagre anecdotes.” Like Perec, Giles constructs a childhood narrative by fusing memoiristic writing with otherworldly narratives, and the “truth” emerges from the intermingling of these stories, from the silences that form between them. I could go on and on about how the book is written and the multiple forms it takes. Yet more significant than questions of form is the book’s content, which is heartbreaking, captivating, and terrifying, both for the traumas it reveals, the pathologies that manipulate and deny the traumas, and the pseudo-science of the real-life False Memory Syndrome Foundation—all presented in a voice and frame that doesn’t let us off the hook. There’s no self-indulgence here, no evocations of empathy or sentiment. There is, rather, brutality, affliction, and an indefinable presence in its presentation. I think this book is extraordinary.
In Total Recall, Samantha Giles has a story of fathers and abuse to tell, but finds only a vortex in the telling. “I am trying to tell you” she writes—it is easy to believe how anguish inevitably comes spurting out of the wasteland of our subconscious. “I do want to tell you,” she writes—it is difficult to recognise how often we substitute exposition for trauma. “I really do want to try to tell you everything,”—in a mobius strip of movie madness, lyric fragment and sub/ob-jective statement of fact, Giles diligently jigsaws her splintered memory into the misleadingly elegant frames of reality in order to present it—at least partially—to the paternal forces of world, to the law, even to herself. Indeed, Total Recall is significant, not for fixating on the moment of trauma itself, but for living within the kind of marked restlessness and intense isolation that comes with bearing an impossible burden of proof. Finding a hellish pleasure in the slow chiseling away of the false from the real, the real from the false, Giles peels our eyelids back with no hope of looking away from a nameless core. Don’t blink.
Policing of memory is a serious enterprise historically and always. Memory is forever at risk of becoming the disappeared. Social, political, and personal accusations of fake news, false facts, erased data, and implanted memories, are just a few of the many ways human beings like to terrorize each other in order to have a go at “truth” when truth is inconvenient and or damning. Samantha Giles’s Total Recall is so singularly stunning and uncategorizable that I can only speak to its power in terms of how she uses language to pull the reader into a very particular form of witnessing—one of simultaneously wanting to tune the ugly out and one of wanting to protect, contain, and make a safe space for trauma. Total Recall
is giving us a magnificent account of a self who, for better or for worse, knows that “we are in this together, we are in this together, we are in this together.”