Samantha Giles is a poet living in Oakland, California, and the author of four volumes of poetry. Her most recent collection, Total Recall, was the recent recipient of the California Book Awards Gold Medal for Poetry. This hybrid memoir blends poetry and nonfiction into a stunning exploration of post-traumatic memory, familial violence, and the nature of narrative.
Each of the collection’s five sections take a different approach to cracking open the complex problem of repressed and blurry memories. Opening on a braided essay which combines personal and historical narratives with pop culture, the book quickly branches into loose lyrical poems, prose poetry, and more. The story of Total Recall builds by accretion and suggestion, resisting the comfort of certainty every step of the way. Brilliantly written and paced, Giles’s collection manages to be a page-turner in a way that few books of its kind can tout.
After reviewing Total Recall earlier this year, I was excited to have the opportunity recently to sit down with Giles and discuss her process, how she navigated the unreliability of memory, the demands that narrative places on a writer, and the idea of writing toward a sense of uncertainty.
The Rumpus: Reading Total Recall for the first time, I was struck by the decision to use the 1990 sci-fi film of the same title as an entry point for the narrative of the collection’s first section, which also delves into the history of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, as well as personal narrative. How did you arrive at this film as a framework for understanding the other threads this section weaves together?
Samantha Giles: I initially relied on the kind of tics I usually rely on in starting a project. Which is to say a writing project for me usually starts with a question or an annoyance that I can’t figure out how to answer without starting to tackle it—I guess poetically. But every project also begins with research to some extent and the Total Recall archival material, both the film that I reference and the Philip K. Dick story that it’s based on, wound up being a good door to walk through when I was trying to construct the room that would contain the personal narrative I was trying to tell. I liked that it was a narrative that was fuzzy—is he an agent or is he on vacation?—and that this is also a film that I initially saw with my father, is exactly the kind of movie I would see with my father, who plays a large role in that title piece. It felt right to situate there, both in the archeology of my life but also in the story this film attempts to tell. The historical synchronicity of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation being founded in the same year as the film was released in theaters similarly felt like a synchronistic click in the puzzle of of this room I was building, so I felt compelled to include that, too.
Rumpus: I’m interested in the idea of an annoyance as a starting point, or place of inquiry. Can you say more about the way that annoyance guided the work? Was it some kind of annoyance with the film as a text?
Giles: I started writing this book well before the current iteration of #MeToo, but I was experiencing a heightened sense of the ways in which sexual violence and trauma was dealt with both in the poetry community I’m a part of in the Bay Area and also in the larger culture. A heightened sense that infuriated and annoyed me. I mean, I know these are historical problems, but there was a resurgence of my awareness of the conversation that was happening when I first started writing this book that centered around the way that stories about sexual violence get told and who is entitled to those stories and who tells them. How the legal system is set up to discount the validity of stories because hard evidence is really difficult to come by if your violence occurs in a community, in a relationship, in a family. I was annoyed, too, that in books and films and conversations and also my own writing up to that point, the content of sexual violence is often either almost completely elided or overly exposed to the point of exploitation. The project started with the question of how to tell the story of sexual violence more directly. The answer that became the manuscript started to form around how it’s nearly impossible to tell that story because memory is irrevocably complicated by trauma. So then, we’re back to the film as an entry point to the trickiness of memory.
Rumpus: One of the most compelling things about this project is that, by necessity, it isn’t just a story about sexual violence, but more explicitly a story about memory itself. And perhaps more importantly, memory’s failures. When writing about trauma, there is an implicit push toward creating a sense of clarity. An expectation that writers will make these experiences legible in a way that they simply aren’t. How did you grapple with this expectation when putting together Total Recall?
Giles: This expectation was the exact thing I was pushing against. Or one of the things, at least. There’s a bit in the book where I reference something that a friend had said to me about a previous piece of writing I’d done that, on its surface, had nothing really to do with sexual violence. This thing she said was that the piece seemed to be about trauma but she couldn’t really be sure what that trauma was and that she wished people would just say something directly about whatever caused that trauma without hinting at it. And sure, I get that as an audience—whether a reader or a journalist or a jury—you want a clear, explicit, detailed narrative. But, as I hope I help elucidate a little in the book, that desire is impossibly complicated to fulfill. The trauma creates physical lasting changes in brains that make those details inaccessible. These experiences are, almost immediately, illegible. Part of Total Recall’s perseveration is to try to render this impossibility.
Rumpus: I’m interested in the way that you’ve sort of delineated the segments of the book, seeing it as existing in the modes of prose, prose-poetry, and poetry. How did the central section of the book, “Artifacts,” emerge? What led to you engaging with the material in this section in that form?
Giles: I’m realizing now that part of the conversation I was having with myself when writing this book was about time. Maybe time travel? Memory is kind of all twisted up in time travel, right? The way our memories are situated in the present body remembering but also in the archival body that experienced whatever we’re remembering. It’s an inaccessible method of time travel because the content keeps shifting the more that we remember it. Or do not remember it.
Also there’s something in my initial thinking in this project about how everyone tried to console me in anticipation of giving birth that it was the most painful thing I’d ever experience but that I wouldn’t remember it. But how no one knows how to remember pain except from the story around it. How the body erases its own archive.
So the middle section navigates the trails of thinking around that. The language in that middle section was generated through both looking at photographs of me as a kid and articulating those recollections through a third-person narration and talking about the after effects of trauma more conversationally in first-person narration. I guess I think of this section is poem-prosey, because the language is more heightened, even in the first-person pieces. Again, it appeals to my sense of balance of textures to have these pieces straddle the present and the past, poem/prose dynamics, and the ways in which memory is affected in ephemeral and also concrete ways.
Rumpus: I’m really interested by this idea of approaching memory almost through ekphrasis of these childhood photos. The way that a good ekphrastic poem invokes the craft and history of the art-object it is based upon, but also expands the context, parses out new potential symbolism, or navigates the ground between the art-object and the writer—or speaker—as its audience. This feels like a similar mode of engagement with these photos, but made more complex by your position as the subject of both the photos and your own ekphrasis. Can you talk a little about navigating this? What did it mean to you to navigate the space between yourself and the remembered, or imagined, former selves captured in these images?
Giles: I have just a handful of childhood mementos, one scrapbook really, and I found these photos of myself as a very little kid, maybe age two through eight, right around the time I started working on this manuscript. Well, that’s not entirely true. I re-looked at them. I’ve had these photographs memorized for a long time.
I’m pretty interested in the person described in the photos because I don’t really remember being her. Or rather, I guess I have the same curiosity that everyone has about who we actually were versus how we remember we were. How we never fully recognize ourselves even in the presence of photographic evidence. How that photograph either seems like it’s of another person or our conception of ourselves merges with this two-dimensional version to make a person we’re not quite sure we ever were. Does that make sense?
I guess the third-person omniscient voice in those prose block poems in the book is an attempt to traverse that impossibility of not really remembering yourself except from the way other people see you. Which, if you are a person who has been sexualized from an early age, can be a rather intractable impossibility. I wanted to find a way to document that convoluted way to tell a story about yourself that you’re not really sure how to tell and the photographic ekphrasis was an entry point that was both solid and shifting, and that felt right.
Rumpus: There is a sense in which the stories we are told about our own childhoods become repeated enough that the line between what constitutes an “actual” memory and a constructed one is difficult to ascertain. Sometimes this is an act of gaslighting, sometimes it isn’t. Either way, the mechanism operates the same. It leaves us with a childhood made up of composite memories. Which ironically runs parallel to the claims that organizations like the False Memory Syndrome Foundation weaponize against survivors.
It’s sort of impossible to refute these bad faith claims without digging into the actual science of memory, which proves that we are all—to some degree—unreliable narrators. One of the most fascinating parts of this section is how it balances these ekphrastic segments with an exploration of the neurological function of memory. It’s so well executed, which got me thinking about the way that this collection relies so heavily on research without ever feeling impersonal. How did you strike that balance? Was there any compelling research that you eventually chose not to include to maintain this balance?
Giles: Well, I do love research and can get bogged down in it just like everybody. I definitely swerved into a lot of territories that didn’t make it into the book. The final section includes a story about a criminal trial, and I spent a good deal of time researching trial testimony and also the McMartin preschool trial which was litigated in 1990, the same year that Total Recall the movie was released in theaters and also the same year the False Memory Syndrome Foundation began its trajectory. The McMartin case had a lot of influence on the trial that’s represented in the book, in as much that there was a kind of cultural backlash around the veracity of children’s claims of childhood sexual abuse and the way children are interrogated by the police. It had a sense of the puzzle click that I talked about, but in the end it felt like I was drifting too far away from the room I was constructing. It was in the same house, but I couldn’t contain it.
I also spent a number of hours reading about Total Recall the movie, the oral histories of sexual violence on set. Then there was all the Sigmund Freud stuff. All of these threads were in their own way compelling but it ultimately felt like any one of those directions would move me away from my central anchor of trying to as plainly as possible write a memoir about my own relationship to memory, leaning into the unreliability of the venture without tipping over.
Rumpus: The collection does an incredible job of striking that balance, holding care for both the reader and the people in your life. It places immense trust in the reader, not only to hold what you do tell them, but also the weight of what goes unsaid. There is also such a feeling of care in the more spacious poems that interrupt the narrative segments. I love the way that these “Instructions,” “Charms,” and spells for both forgetting and remembering explore trauma in a completely different way while also giving the manuscript a sense of breath, and a temporary reprieve from the intensity of the other sections. What lead you to this form? Did you experiment with other ways of segmenting the collection before it found this form?
Giles: It was a curatorial impulse. It just felt right to have this pyramid of two prose essays bookended by poems with a hybridity of sort of prose-poems in the very middle. The textures and variation, in form and content, in breath and breadth, all of this matters a great deal to me just in general as a writer. It’s a different kind of balance but just as important as the one I already talked about. I’ve been a curator for most of my working life and it’s a skill set I tend to utilize for all sorts of things that are not arts programming. Also, I always describe those as the “poem-y parts” which—I identify, for the most part, as a poet—and it just felt a little weird not to have a few moments that were somewhat lyric and delineated. I missed the poem-y poems, finally. I’m glad they are a source of comfort to more than just me.