Peripheral Terror: Total Recall by Samantha Giles

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The pinhole camera—or camera obscura—is among the oldest technologies still commonly used today. Dating back as far as 300 BCE, it was invented to allow astronomers to observe solar eclipses without damaging their eyes. The concept is this: A tiny aperture pricked into a solid surface will constrain the light that passes through it while still allowing an observer to view an image. Many variations on the pinhole camera include using photosensitive paper, allowing it to record an image, but most modern variations simply project the light onto a secondary surface, allowing the user to watch a potentially harmful event without enduring the harm it can cause: a phenomenon in which a moment is viewed by looking away from it.

Samantha Giles’s third collection, Total Recall, is a hybrid memoir that constructs itself in a fashion not wholly unlike a camera obscura. For a memoir that concerns itself so directly with trauma, as well as our memory of it, the book is almost eerily devoid of violence. There are only a few brief moments when the reader is invited into the site of brutality, made to reckon with that which Giles is not supposed to remember.

One of the most striking things about this collection is the kinetic pacing that Giles manages to create. Despite eschewing any form of traditional narrative structure, Total Recall is an extremely tense read, structured in a way that’s reminiscent of a horror movie and leaves its readers’ hearts pounding in a way that few thrillers, and even fewer memoirs, do. Several times in the process of reading it, I was forced to put the book down and go for a walk or make a cup of tea to give myself space to calm down. Like any good horror villain, this book’s monster—“The solidity of the memory of something [Giles] was not meant to know”—lurks just out of sight, appearing in glances and shadows. This book’s terror exists always in the periphery.

In the opening to the book, Giles weaves together the story of a family dinner during which her father challenges her recollection of being spanked as a child, the history of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (a group, largely composed of parents accused of abuse, who claim that psychotherapy is responsible for implanting false memories of childhood sexual abuse), and a plot synopsis of the 1990 sci-fi film that shares this collection’s name. It is not from the contents of these individual threads that the tension arises, but from the gaps and dissonances between and among them, from what is said by placing these stories side by side. When the reader arrives on the final page of the opening section, their mind will have already constructed enough of the actively untold story to anticipate what Giles reveals. When she admits to her father that she does remember him spanking her with a leather belt, he replies, “You have false memories,” followed by a half-page of white space, and then, “My mother corroborated his account, providing the expert testimony.”

This specific choice of language—“expert testimony”—not only calls back to the legal history of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, it also lays the seeds for another story thread that will not emerge for nearly a hundred more pages. This sort of subtle narrative connectivity is not uncommon in Total Recall; multiple anchors appear throughout, pulling the reader into Giles’s head and allowing them to make the same connections that she did. Across the span of the collection, she notes the various terms that made “a linguistic impression,” that now act as sites for recollections—terms like “false memories,” “star witness,” or “extradited.”

The sense of dread that pervades and drags readers through Total Recall is reinforced by this exacting diction and the often rambling, minimalistic syntax she employs in the more prosaic sections. Devoid of any unnecessary punctuation, these sentences hurtle from period to period, never slowed by the detours of Giles’s recollection. In one passage, bridging the gap between Giles’s familial trauma and a court case in which she is called as a witness in defense of her father, Giles recalls:

I’m pretty sure that at the time I felt my role in this story was to suspend the timeline of my father and my mother and my father’s fathers and mother’s mothers and choose the moment, over and over for a series of years and two separate criminal trials where I am asked under oath, to remember things differently from how I remembered them.

It is deeply apparent from this passage, and so many others across the course of Total Recall, that, while Giles is intimately concerned with the structure of memory, she is far more concerned with the fallibility and subjectivity of its retelling: the ways in which recollection can be both recontextualized and weaponized. There is horror in how a memory can be altered or rendered “false” by exterior forces.

As a result, Giles never shies away from addressing the fungibility of her own memory, or the sense of unease and distrust she carries for it. There is an almost obsessive clarity to the way that lapses or mistakes in memory are not only addressed, but foregrounded in Giles’s account. Toward the end of the book, she admits to the reader:

The timeline is getting a little confused. I can tell you there are a series of things I know happened after the phone call and the milkshake and the cigarettes. I think I forgot to say that at some point in this narrative my father had moved three states away.

In Total Recall, Giles is constantly leaning into the revision and tangential rerouting inherent in oral storytelling, as though keenly aware that reconstructing these events into a clean, “literary” arc would ultimately fail to capture the truth of them. She does not take pains to sort the inconsequential from the consequential and readily admits that sometimes when she records an emerging thought she is “not sure this is important to the story.” Yet, I never found myself questioning her. There is a sense in which the narrator openly admitting to their unreliability engenders a greater sense of trust.

While the book’s subject matter has the potential to push a text into the realm of the unrelentingly bleak, the collection is balanced by two segments of reflective verse that reorient the focus away from trauma, and instead focus on how to live in its wake. The poems here take the form of an alternating series of “Instructions” and “Spell[s] for Forgetting” in the first section, followed by a series of “Charms” and “Spell[s] for Remembering.” In both form and function, these poems are antithetical to the rest of the book. They are airy and fragmented with white space, deeply reliant on the imperative, and most importantly—despite employing the same second person you as the other segments—are explicitly directed inward toward the speaker.

Where the rest of the book approaches the subject of trauma from a distanced, analytical lens, these poems are unafraid of sentimentality, or the value of linguistic play. In one “Charms” later in the book, Giles reminds herself to form

or in another poem, instructs herself to:

The effect of these poems is reminiscent of daylight in classical horror films: the tension momentarily suspended by an island of safety, but another source of fear and anticipation arriving in the knowledge that this respite must surely end. Without these breaks, the book would be nearly overwhelming, but their addition expertly manages the ebb and flow of tension, keeping readers on the edge of their seats.

If my discussion of the collection’s overall narrative as been sparse, it is only because revealing too much, or offering too many details removed from their context, would do a disservice to the intricacy of Giles’s work. The seemingly disparate threads of historical research, film, neuroscience, legal drama, and fragmented memoir coalesce into a stunning, unpredictable page-turner. Total Recall offers something increasingly rare, a unique and transformative piece of writing that will profoundly alter the way you think about memory, narrative, and how we, as a society, construct the truth.

torrin a. greathouse is a transgender cripple-punk & MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of boy/girl/ghost (TAR Chapbook Series, 2018) & assistant editor of The Shallow Ends. Their work is published/forthcoming in POETRY, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, & The Kenyon Review. She was a finalist for the 2020 Pushcart Prize & is the youngest ever winner of the Poetry Foundation's J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize. More from this author →