Review by Rev. Karyn Packard, Authored by Michelle Obama
I waited to write this review until Becoming had been read and discussed by our book club. It was unanimous, everyone loved it, and I believe that you will, too. Like the image we have all captured through the campaigns and the glimpses into the lives of this unique first family, we were mesmerized by her strength, flexibility and commitment to good values. During a time when these traits seem so distant, reading her memoir reflects a better time, a more honest time. It is a deep reflection and a mesmerizing story. We are invited into her world, public and private.
Becoming is written in three parts; Becoming Me (childhood and young adult), Becoming Us (her relationship and marriage), and Becoming More (her time as America’s First Lady). She moves back and forth in her recounting which becomes a little confusing. My favorite was Becoming Me, in my opinion, the most thoughtful and well-written. I suppose writing about her childhood was the most non-controversial, before having been connected to her husband Barack and their political life. It is an intimate tour of everyday African-American life and ambition. It recounts her rise from modest origins to the closest this country has to nobility. Until she was an adult, her family: father, Fraser, diagnosed with MS in his 30’s; mother, Marian; and brother, Craig, shared a house with her grand aunt and her fastidious husband. They lived in the second-floor attic in a brick bungalow. It was a stable home, surrounded by people who loved and cared for each other. Michelle describes living through the time where her previously diverse school experience in South Shore, Chicago, became, as described by an opinion piece in the Chicago Defender, a “run-down slum” governed by a “ghetto mentality.” She experienced all the white people and the better-off black people leaving the neighborhood. She constructs the shape of obstacles she and her peers were up against at the time. Her parents sacrifice for her, and their passion for learning for their children eventually takes her to Harvard and Princeton over the disdainful lack of recommendations by her high school guidance counselor. Princeton was the first time she was to be in the minority and picked up what she calls “the quiet, cruel nuances of not belonging.” Be clear, this is not a story that asks for pity. She relishes her upbringing and is raising her own children with the values of her youth. Interestingly, with all her accomplishments, she continues to ask, “Am I good enough?”
Later in the book, we see how her story comes full circle with her mother, Marian (with much convincing from brother, Craig), moving into the White House to assist their family. In the White House, Michelle has the platform from which to tackle issues of nutritionally improved school lunches and childhood obesity, establishing the White House garden.
In Becoming Us, we are introduced to her strong physical feelings. It’s this section where she can be the most bracingly honest, both in relaying the ecstasy of falling in love — “As soon as I allowed myself to feel anything for Barack, the feelings came rushing – a toppling blast of lust, gratitude, fulfillment, wonder, and the rough patches that follow.” Michelle Obama opens the door to let us into the difficulties of their marriage, from dirty socks to infertility, including a miscarriage. Ultimately, she reveals, they conceived both Malia and Sasha via IVF. Michelle grapples, as most couples do, with their differences in temperament and the mutual respect, patience and therapy required to become a team.
Michelle never wanted to have her family involved in politics. In Becoming Morewe experience the five campaigns in 11 years before the Presidential run, that, per Michelle Obama, “put a little dent in my soul and also in our marriage.” She did not want him to run for President, but agreed because, “I loved him and had faith in what he could do.” She didn’t expect him to win. True to her fears, the bigger the two of them got, the greater the scrutiny and criticism. But on Election Day it is Barack Obama’s face that flashes across television screens around the country as announcers declared him the 44thpresident of the United States. In a very touching account, it is inauguration night and they have presided at 10 balls. She looks in on the final opportunity for ball number 11. It is the personal gathering of friends and family at the White House. It is more than she can manage. She turns around, walks back through the unfamiliar hallways to her first night in their new bedroom and takes off her beautiful gown. It has been exhausting and she has reached her physical and emotional limit.
The place where I feel the book is less revealing is in the second term. She talks about the opposition party being “devoted to Barack’s failure above all else,” and she is crushed and infuriated. She says, “I felt emotions that perhaps Barack couldn’t afford to feel.” So often I thought of what it would be like to have such negativity being circulated about your own husband, your children’s father. Her comment to Barack when they got on the plane to leave Washington from an interview with Oprah Winfrey, “That was so hard, what we just did, that was so hard.” What was so hard, in Michelle Obama’s words, “Eight years of trying to do everything perfectly.”