Becoming is the autobiographical memoir of former United States First Lady Michelle Obama published in 2018. Described by the author as a deeply personal experience, the book talks about her roots and how she found her voice, as well as her time in the White House, her public health campaign, and her role as a mother. Wikipedia
By Ann Treneman
You learn a lot from Michelle Obama’s candid autobiography and perhaps the most surprising thing is this: Barack Obama was a nightmare to be married to. Indeed, perhaps still is. It’s a miracle they got together, given their opposing temperaments. He was chronically, almost pathologically, late. She was obsessively on time. He smoked. She hated smoke.
“To me, he was sort of like a unicorn,” she writes, “unusual almost to the point of seeming almost unreal.”
Her romance with Mr Unicorn is surprising in every way. And it appears to be the only rash thing she has done in her tick-box life. The first third of this book is devoted to her childhood in Chicago’s South Side. She lived with her older brother, Craig, her stay-at-home mom, Marian, and her boiler-fixer father, Fraser, in a small upstairs flat. She was studious and a control freak even as a young girl, not wanting to invite friends over for fear they would mess up her tidy dolls.
She worked (very) hard at school, got into Princeton, studied sociology, then law, for no other reason than — tick — it was the safe thing to do. It wasn’t long before she was ensconced in a sleek high-rise law office in Chicago, ticking yet more boxes. This is where she met Barack: she was his mentor and, although his reputation preceded him, she wasn’t impressed. “In my experience, you put a suit on any half intelligent black man and white people tended to go bonkers.”
After a while, as they started dating, Michelle herself seems to go rather bonkers. “I was gripped all over again by the sense of how special he was,” she gushes.
He returned to law school back east while she stayed in Chicago, suggesting they communicate with each other by letter. “I’m not much of a phone guy,” he announced. Michelle told him to become a phone guy. He did. It was a rare capitulation. The only other area in which she appears to win out is marriage. She was pro, he against, but his proposal, a ring presented by a waiter at a restaurant as the dessert, was wildly romantic.
What fascinates throughout her 426-page book is the extent of their differences. “If my family was a square, then Barack’s was a more elaborate piece of geometry,” she writes, gloriously elliptically. This is code for exotic: his mum was white, his dad black Kenyan and they were married only briefly. He grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia. Michelle, on the other hand, had American roots that stretched back generations, in Chicago and the South: she is the great-great-granddaughter of a slave.
He likes solitude, she loves company. He’s messy and chaotic. She’s neat and organised. She makes no bones about disliking politics. “I had little faith in politics. Politics had traditionally been used against black folks,” she writes. “I had grandparents who’d lived through the horror of Jim Crow laws and the humiliation of housing discrimination and basically mistrusted authority of any sort.” Now she was married to a man who loved politics and saw it as a way to fix an unequal world.
The book is split into three sections: Becoming Me, Becoming Us, Becoming More. That’s a lot of gerunds. The first section, about her childhood, is written with the clarity and descriptive power of a novel. I was riveted by the detail and family dynamics. Her father, disabled with MS, never missed a day of work until the very end. Her parents poured their life savings into giving their children opportunities. “Barack sometimes jokes that my upbringing was like a black version of Leave It to Beaver,” she notes, a reference to the wildly popular TV show about the fresh-faced Cleaver family.
Michelle, now 54, is refreshingly frank about her shortcomings, including her inability to swerve from the appointed path. However, it is when Barack enters the picture that she starts to pull some punches here. The start of their marriage feels distinctly rocky. There is the fact, for instance, that six weeks after the ceremony he decided the ideal way to finish writing his overdue book was to go to a cabin by himself — in Bali. That is 9,000 miles from Chicago. “Outwardly it appeared to be a beach vacation — a honeymoon with himself (I couldn’t help but think in my lonelier moments) to follow his honeymoon with me.”
How did she cope? “We were learning to adapt,” she writes, although readers will notice that she was doing most of the adapting. Barack soon became taken with the idea of running for state senate. “I didn’t much appreciate politicians and therefore didn’t relish the idea of my husband becoming one,” she says primly.
This is the most fraught section and I suspect it was rewritten many times. They were trying to have a baby, not easy with her husband away most of the week in the state capital. She had a miscarriage and had to give herself IVF injections. “It was maybe then that I felt a first flicker of resentment involving politics and Barack’s unshakeable commitment to the work.”
First flicker? Ha! The following pages are carefully constructed as IVF was successful and, with two small children, she single-handedly juggled life while her husband politicked in Springfield, often failing to arrive home on time at the end of a week. He may have been “on my way” but, sometimes, she notes, that meant he was at the gym.
Furious? I should think so. Michelle is typing very carefully as she talks about their trips to see a marriage counsellor. The sessions ended with her realising that her husband didn’t need to quit politics for her to be happier. This (unbelievably) is what she did next: she got her mum to come over at 4.45am several days a week so she could have “me time” at the gym and be back by 6am. “The new regime changed everything: calmness and strength, two things I feared I was losing, were now back.”
This is the moment (halfway through the book) where you see that Michelle had no option but to drink the Kool-Aid in terms of her marriage. She glosses over how she went from political sceptic to fervent campaigner as her husband set his sights on the White House. Soon, she was all but subsumed into the political maw and moved to the White House as wife, mother and “hugger-in-chief”. She describes the White House as like a fancy hotel, but with no other guests. The idea that her children could order breakfast from a high-end chef gave her, she said, vertigo.
It is clear that she struggled here to find a role, to protect her children, to find a way to live and love her husband in the gilded security cage. This part of the book often descends into deep earnestness, a sort of literary version of “Yes We Can”. I skidded through, always on the look-out for the wry aside, for she has a good sense of humour. I loved it when she spotted the 20-car cavalcade that surrounded the presidential car. “Is there a clown car?” she asked her security man.
She’s out of that cage now. This book is the first step of what will be many back to finding her old self. This is a vivid and interesting account and all of that is to her credit. I certainly thought better of her by the end: she has put her heart into this. I think she can consider the autobiography box ticked.
Becoming by Michelle Obama, Viking, 426pp, £25
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