Becoming by Michelle Obama. Crown, 429pp.
Becoming is a contemporary woman’s adventure told by an intelligent, funny narrator who took a leap out of her comfort zone and came out of it, with her family intact, to tell the tale.
By Helen Epstein
I began reading Michelle Obama’s best-selling memoir in hardcover but grew so intrigued by her intimate, surprisingly candid and moving narrative that I ordered the audiobook which she herself reads. Unlike First Lady memoirs by Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton, Becoming dives intrepidly into details of race, class, gender, and contemporary marriage. It is filled with feeling, but also historical and cultural frames for every phase of her life. It’s as romantic a story as Cinderella’s and as inspiring as Horatio Alger’s young adult novels were before they became a cliché: a life that begins in a second-story apartment on the South Side of Chicago and winds up in the White House.
Parts of her story have been worn smooth by years of her speeches and others have been researched and structured by a team of excellent writers, led by journalist Sara Corbett. Yet her own multi-layered voice rings through and, if you listen to the book, you hear the full tonal range of her voice — conversational (“I know it’s a weird thing to say but…”), sardonic (“In my experience, you put a suit on any half-intelligent black man and white people tended to go bonkers”), delighted (with every mention of “our girls”), and earnestly didactic (“Use school!”). She is aiming for a large diverse audience, including black, white, and brown readers, readers on every continent, retirees, teenagers and — especially — teenage girls. She even sings a few lines from her favorite song by Stevie Wonder. For me, a white, jaded reviewer not usually drawn to memoirs of former First Ladies, Becoming — despite its sappy title and misleading movie-glam cover — is a fascinating book and testament to the remarkable 21st century woman who wrote it.
Michelle Obama begins her story as, for the first time after leaving the White House, she is alone at home in Washington, D.C. and takes us back to her childhood home. This was a 900-square foot, second-story apartment on Chicago’s South Side with no A/C. The house was owned by her great-aunt Robbie Shields, a piano teacher who lived downstairs with her husband, a Pullman porter. Michelle’s large extended family arrived in Chicago as part of the migration of blacks from the Jim Crow south. She describes her Robinson grandfather, “Dandy,” as a stubborn, bitter, frustrated grandson of slaves who, like so many of his generation, had moved north “chasing industrial jobs,” only to find employers who preferred white immigrants and unions who locked him out. He became a postal worker and “lived with the residue of his own dashed dreams.”
His son, Fraser Robinson III, had wanted to be an artist, but instead took a job tending boilers at a municipal water filtration plant. His wife, Marian Shields Robinson, had been a secretary but, after Craig — Michelle’s older brother — was born, became a homemaker and hands-on mother at Bryn Mawr, the K-8 public school that had once been among the best in Chicago.
In 1950, Obama writes, Bryn Mawr was 96% white; by 1980, it was 96% black. Michelle was born in 1964 and, throughout her childhood, watched neighbors move away. House fires became a problem — sometimes landlord neglect was the cause. After a school friend died in one, she writes, her older brother became obsessed with fire drills and worried about getting their disabled father out in time. White flight, for Michelle, also meant being stuck with an unruly class in the basement with a teacher who couldn’t teach. “My mom was even-keeled,” she writes about complaining to her mother, “when things were bad, she gave us only a small amount of pity, when we did something great, a small amount of praise.” In this case, Marian Robinson obtained a promotion for her daughter to a better teacher and third grade. But growing up observing those who left and those who stayed generated doubts in Michelle. “Am I really good enough?” she asks repeatedly as she enters high school, Princeton, Harvard, her corporate law firm, and, the White House.
The Robinsons insisted that their children use proper diction; they had no use for the word “ain’t.” When, early on, a cousin asked, “How come you talk like a white girl?” Michelle was confused. She and Craig were “expected to inhabit their intelligence with pride” while avoiding being perceived as “uppity.” She noticed that her basketball-star brother seemed to be spared a scrutiny that she was not, escaping such questions as: Who are you? Can I trust you or not?
Michelle characterizes her mother as practical, frugal, and proactive: “You don’t have to like your teacher, but that woman’s got the kind of math in her head that you need in yours.” She portrays her father, despite his progressive disability, as the family’s warm, good-humored anchor: “a withstander — a man who never complained.” He withstood not only the multiple sclerosis that eventually confined him to a wheelchair, but everyday racist indignities. When the family was visiting a home in a white suburb to which her mother’s best friend had moved the family, someone keyed a long deep line on the side of his beloved Buick. She describes her father wasting no time on drama, just getting the car repaired. Fraser Robinson’s even temperament served him well as a precinct captain for the Democratic party. He took Michelle with him as he visited constituents and listened to their complaints, affording her an early view of how Chicago politics worked.
One of the pleasures of this carefully composed book is how the theme of her dislike for politics, like other themes introduced early on, course through it from childhood to maturity.
Tall and striking, adolescent Michelle learned to deal with “the liabilities” of her body early on, coping with catcalls, dangerous city blocks, and the threat of assault. She focused on succeeding at Whitney Young, the first magnet high school in Chicago. She got up at 5 am to travel 90 minutes from home, through downtown Chicago, to what seemed to her “a temple of learning.” Most of the 1900 ostensibly smartest kids in the city seemed more sophisticated and confident than the few who had gotten in from her neighborhood. “What if we were just the best of the worst?” she worried. For the first time she was not following in the footsteps of her older brother, who was attending a parochial high school and becoming one of the best high school basketball players in Chicago.
At Whitney Young, she came into contact with middle-class families, including — for the first time — Chicago’s African-American elite. “Their parents were doctors and lawyers. They belonged to an organization called Jack and Jill. They had been on vacations that required passports. One of them lived in a ritzy high rise downtown.” Though she was not a straight A student, she made good grades and understood that at Whitney Young “it was safe to be smart – you never hid your intelligence for fear of someone saying you talked like a white girl.”
Santita Jackson, daughter of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, became her best friend and visits to the Jackson household provided Michelle with another glimpse of politics, especially as Jackson prepared his presidential bid. After marching in a political parade with Santita, she writes that it all made her queasy. Political life seemed messy, noisy, and out of control.
A desire for control is another theme that courses through Becoming. Perhaps because of her temperament, but certainly because of Fraser Robinson’s illness, careful planning had always been part of her life. While attracted to freer spirits like Santita, Michelle describes herself as always diligent and “unswervingly focused on achievement, bent on checking every box.” She planned on following her brother to Princeton and was startled when her counselor at Whitney Young (where she was Treasurer of her class and in the top 10% academically) told her she was “not Princeton material.” Appalled, she obtained a recommendation letter from another administrator and, in 1981, was accepted.
Sonia Sotomayor had graduated from Princeton five years earlier and later wrote frankly about her experience as an Ivy League Latina in My Beloved World. Michelle Obama’s account is more detailed and even more candid. At 17, she attended the three-week summer orientation program for minority and low-income students who needed “more transition time,” acutely aware of the message of deficiency conveyed. Michelle had never been part of as white a community before, but, as she writes ironically, “you learn to adapt.” She noticed that while she spent her life on guard, her new classmates seemed to have infinite trust in the world, taking a lot for granted, including their five choices of breakfast. “The hope was that all of us would mingle — a worthy goal,” she recalls, “But the burden of assimilation is put largely on the shoulders of minority students. I needed my black friends. So many of us arrived in college not even knowing what our disadvantages were… It was like stepping on stage at your first piano recital having never played on anything but an instrument with broken keys… It takes energy to be the only black person in the lecture hall or trying out for a play.”
She made the Third World Center her home and found her first mentor in its director, Czerny Brasuell. Her best friend was Nigerian-born Jamaican Suzanne Alele, whose “Caribbean breeziness” and penchant for fun contrasted with Michelle’s description of herself as someone who carefully steps up every rung of a sensible career ladder. She majored in sociology and started a day-care center at the Third World Center. She dated a football player who was pre-med. She took the LSAT, applied to the best law schools in the country, and chose Harvard. After graduating, she writes, the rewards grew: a job with the prestigious law firm Sidley and Austin, and a 47th floor office in downtown Chicago. “At 25,” she writes, “you make more money than your parents ever have. You wear an Armani suit and sign up for a wine subscription. Because you can, you buy yourself a Saab.”
While her twenty-something colleagues were scoping out and buying condos, Michelle Robinson’s priority was to pay back her student loans. She moved back into the upstairs apartment of the house her parents had by now inherited. At 25, she had resolved on a dating hiatus and to focus exclusively on making partner when Barack Obama walked into her office.
He does that on page 97, about a fourth of the way through the book — a 28-year-old summer associate assigned to Michelle. She was to be his mentor, field his questions, and generally make the firm seem attractive to him. Her telling of the ensuing romance between Barack, the Hawaiian intellectual who plays basketball in flip-flops and the girl from the South Side of Chicago bent on making partner, is hilarious. She describes their courtship, rendezvous in Massachusetts (where Barack is at Harvard Law School), and trips to meet his family in Hawaii and Kenya. Her account of this marriage of opposites — its two-year, long-distance courtship, its infertility problems, a miscarriage, the births of their daughters, the tragic early deaths of close friends and family members (Suzanne Alele at 26; Fraser Robinson at 55), career choices, couples therapy, parenting — and, of course, politics — is worthy of a place on the shelf beside Nigel Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson.
But her portrait of an unconventional marriage is just part of this unconventional book. It’s also a coming-of-age memoir of a woman who becomes aware, early on, that she wants to reconcile two very different models of successful women, Mary and Marian: her mother Marian Robinson and TV career woman Mary Tyler Moore. She is afraid of being swallowed up in the career of her charismatic and successful husband who was already deep into politics when she married him in 1992, directing a voter registration drive that brought 400,000 African Americans into the Illinois electorate. Obama was so single-mindedly registering voters, we learn, that he missed the deadline for his first book and had to return his $40,000 advance. That was a large chunk of money for two former Law School students with loans to pay off. The solution? Newlywed Barack Obama flew off to a shack his mother rented for him on a Bali beach to complete what became Dreams for my Father while his new wife worked in Chicago. The manuscript was sold to a new publisher and came out in 1995.
For the most part, Michele Obama leaves it to us to interpret the episodes she describes. But when it comes to party politics she is consistently ambivalent and pessimistic. Her husband, who is teaching part-time at the University of Chicago, sitting on several boards, and working for a law firm when he files to run for the Illinois State Legislature in 1995, is a consistent optimist. After he is elected, Obama begins to spend four days a week in Springfield — just as the couple have identified fertility problems and are trying in vitro fertilization. His schedule does not become any lighter when their two daughters are born. Barack’s experience of his parents’ families and marriages was that they were “ephemeral;” the Robinson model was that married people “locked in early” and lived in the same house for the rest of their lives. The details of the couples’ therapy are left to our imaginations — but she can’t help noting her husband wondered why they couldn’t just read a couple of books about marriage and her own expectation that, obviously, their therapist will take her side.
Michelle was 39, with two young daughters, when Barack ran for U.S. Senate in 2003, and 40 when he delivered his break-out speech at the Democratic Convention in July of 2004 and the young Obama family hit the national spotlight. The fawning as well as hostile press attention intensified as Barack Obama battled Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007, then Republican presidential candidates John McCain in 2008, and Mitt Romney in 2012.
Michelle Obama became the first African-American First Lady and also one of the few who had no extensive prior experience as a political wife. As her husband’s national profile grew, Michelle Obama fought for control over her life: trying to maintain her professional workload, run a household, and raise her daughters. She was sure that she would not play the role of the doll-like wife who stood beside her husband, gazing adoringly as he spoke. She had not accompanied him to D.C. when he became a Senator — the family even preferred to stay in a hotel when they visited rather than in his apartment. Like Barack, Michelle Obama had left a lucrative career in corporate law for jobs deeply meaningful to her, first for the city of Chicago, then for the non-profit Public Allies, which identified and trained young leaders from Chicago neighborhoods for pubic service. She had found lifelong mentors in older professional women and mothers such as Valerie Jarrett and Susan Sher, and wound up as an executive at the University of Chicago, where, she notes, she had never once set foot as a child even though her mother had worked there. This part of her memoir — during which she is Vice President for Community and External Affairs at the Medical Center — reads like a manual for working mothers. It covers when, where, and how to find babysitters while you exercise; how to hire household staff; locating a one-stop strip mall near work where you can buy groceries, school supplies, and a quick lunch that you can eat in your car during a lunch break while making phone calls. Like many mothers, she only realizes how the fast foods she buys to save time are affecting her children’s weight when a pediatrician tells her. It’s not hard to trace the origins of her White House initiatives focusing on healthy food and exercise to this moment.
Michelle Obama also gives us lots of psychological themes to chew on in Becoming: the attraction of opposites; the importance of family history; the workings of what seemed to be a permanent long-distance marriage. The first time the family could reasonably count on having dinner together every night of the week was, ironically, in the White House. She writes movingly about the invaluable support of her mother Marian and her brother Craig, as well as of meetings with famous strangers that were brief but significant: an eclectic group that includes Queen Elizabeth, Nelson Mandela, and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Although some readers or listeners will be put off by an occasional Oprahesque cliché, dry patch of policy justification, or the overuse of certain clunky metaphors, it’s clear why Becoming has become an international bestseller. It’s a contemporary woman’s adventure told by an intelligent, funny narrator who took a leap out of her comfort zone and came out of it, with her family intact, to tell the tale. I loved listening to all the 19 hours Michelle Obama takes to read her memoir. And I may read it again.
Helen Epstein is the author of a trilogy of memoirs beginning with Children of the Holocaust and ending with The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma which has just been released on Audible.com. She has reviewed for the Arts Fuse since its inception.