BOOK REVIEW: Becoming, an interesting, honest, and insightful autobiography from Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama

In Becoming, Michelle Obama offers a graceful, insightful, and eye-opening account of her life from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to the close of Barack Obama’s second term, when she and Barack accompanied the Trumps to the inauguration ceremony. The book has three sections: “Becoming Me,” “Becoming Us,” and “Becoming More.”

Even without being First Lady, Michelle’s story is interesting and valuable. Although she was surrounded by a loving extended family, she still struggled to feel seen and be good enough. With this pressure, she pursued a track through the Ivy League to a coveted job at a Chicago law firm without ever questioning if her goals reflected her values and priorities. After a lengthy reflection period, she took a position in the city government, one of the first propitious “swerves” from her life plan. Throughout her career, she had to struggle to balance motherhood and her work; she also had to figure out how to make peace with Barack’s political career.

Becoming also recounts her love story with Barack Obama, another swerve—they met when he was a summer associate at her law firm and she was his mentor. Not only did she think the relationship might be inappropriate, not only was she focused on her job and uninterested in dating—Barack smoked! Still, they fell in love. I enjoyed seeing Barack through her eyes. It only confirmed my positive impression of him. As much as she loves him, though, she revealed personal details about their relationship: a miscarriage, fertility struggles, and marriage counseling.

Once Malia and Sasha were born, Michelle struggled to balance her work and parenthood, especially since Barack was so often away due to his responsibilities as a state representative in Springfield, Illinois, then as a U.S. Senator in Washington, DC. Michelle honestly conveys the challenges which only increased once Barack ran for and became President. The girls didn’t ask to be in the public eye: how could Michelle and Barack keep things as grounded as possible for them?

Michelle also tells about her experience campaigning for Barack, particularly in Iowa, and how hurtful it was for both her and Barack to be the target of attacks, many racially based and which didn’t end once they moved to the White House. She reveals her stumbles on the campaign trail and discusses how “optics” ruled her words and behavior.

As FLOTUS, Michelle wanted to have an impact and spearheaded the initiatives with which we are familiar: Let’s Move!, symbolized by the White House garden, her advocacy for military families, and her promotion of education for girls. Less well-known was a leadership and mentoring program she created for high school students in Washington DC area. Michelle writes extensively about gun violence, especially how the Sandy Hook massacre affected her and Barack, and expresses frustration that lawmakers still would rather line their pockets with NRA contributions than pass meaningful gun control laws that would save so many. (And as I was reading this section, I saw breaking news that four people were killed in a shooting at a Chicago hospital.)

Although Barack and Michelle didn’t accomplish all they wanted, and although the Trump administration is malevolently undoing all the positive gains they made, she writes proudly of what they did achieve. Furthermore, though it is clear she dislikes Trump as a leader and as a misogynistic racist, she is much more reserved with her criticisms than I would be. It’s been widely reported that she wrote she’d never forgive Trump for his role in the birther controversy. What she said was more subtle than that. It wasn’t simply Trump’s unfounded attacks on Barack’s citizenship that angered her. It was the fact that those attacks stoked the fears of individuals who had every capability of traveling to Washington DC to harm Barack, her, or the girls. She said she could never forgive Trump for putting her family in danger, and I don’t blame her.

I learned so much from this book not just about Michelle and the Obamas, but about experience as a minority on a mostly white Ivy League campus, about strategies for advocating for oneself and finding one’s voice, and about life behind the scenes on the campaign trail and in the White House. Her insights and anecdotes were so interesting and rooted in history and current events. When talking about her family, she offers insight into the Great Migration and the discrimination blacks faced in Chicago in the segregation era, for example, being barred from holding union cards which kept them from skilled jobs. Her discussions of gun violence and education for girls are accompanied by current statistics and trends.

I though the three-part structure of the book was clever, and Michelle weaved in the theme of becoming, stressing it’s a never-ending process. Although I loved reading about Barack’s presidency and Michelle’s FLOTUS initiatives, I thought the first half of the book, when she discusses her childhood and her life a Princeton, was stronger. Those sections seemed more coherent and polished. The information in the second half of the book was fascinating (meeting the Queen! hanging out with Bo and Sunny!) but seemed slightly disorganized and rushed. On the one hand, it’s understandable—there is just too much information to fill one volume. On the other, maybe it shouldn’t have been a single book so that the material could have been given more attention.

But this is a relatively small quibble for a strong, well-written, and insightful autobiography. Multiple times I wept, sometimes with Michelle as she describes painful past events, sometimes in grief at how much I miss the Obamas and the intelligence and compassion they brought to the Presidency.

I was incredibly impressed with her candor, especially since she must know the extent to which her words will be dissected and criticized. Yet, I can’t imagine a woman who wouldn’t be able to see herself in Michelle, because of her childhood, poor in resources but rich in love, her job in male-dominated profession, her drive to seek work-life balance, her struggles with fertility, and her desire to find a career that conforms to her values and makes a difference while still paying the bills. Of course, she also speaks eloquently about being black in America.

Those who like Michelle Obama will like her even more after reading Becoming. Political opponents will only find superficial fodder to attack her and Barack. If you are in the former category, you will definitely want to read (or listen to) the book.

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