Birthday greetings to Michelle (and Catrin) – and a review of “Becoming”

Today is the birthday of former American First Lady Michelle Obama (as well as my granddaughter no 1 Catrin) and this is as good an excuse as any to reprint my review of her bestselling biography “Becoming” and to recommend it to you (if you haven’t already read it).

“Becoming” by Michelle Obama

Barack and Michelle Obama occupied the White House for the eight yeara 2009-2017. He has already written a memoir – but only of the first three decades of his life – in the form of the 1995 work “Dreams From My Father” but he has yet to write about his time as President. She has now written a memoir of the first five or so decades of her life which includes, but does not major on, her time as First Lady. When “Becoming” was published in mid November 2018, it sold more copies than any other book published in the United States in 2018, breaking the record in just 15 days. It has since achieved outstanding sales all around the world and become a genuine literary phenomenon.

It is very well-written, having been researched and structured by a team of excellent writers led by journalist Sara Corbett. Above, though, it tells a remarkable story in a revealing and insightful manner, making this a joy to read. 

A working class black woman raised on the South Side of Chicago improbably manages to become a graduate of both Princeton University and Harvard Law School before starting her career as an attorney and then taking on a series of roles with a strong social justice agenda. And she meets and marries the man who will just as improbably become the first black President of the United States. By the time she leaves the White House, she has raised two wonderful daughters, supported her husband with utter professionalism, created a White House vegetable garden, launched four major initiatives supporting childen and veterans – and meanwhile “we’d managed two terms in office without a major scandal”.

How was this possible? 

It started with her own talent and determination. She studied and worked incredibly hard and describes herself as “a control freak” and “a box checker – marching to the resolute beat of effort/result” before she fell in love with Barack, an event which she calls “my swerve”. It was buttressed by wonderfully supportive parents and then great friends and mentors. She records how in turn she has always tried to encourage others – especially girls and women of colour – to aim high. And it was enabled by the transformative power of education at both her schools and colleges. But she has always suffered from an kind of imposter syndrome, never quite believing that she was good enough. Her life has not been trouble-free and she candidly refers to smoking pot, having a miscarriage, and needing IVF as well as fighting with and yelling at Barack and she and her husband using counselling to work through a rough patch in their marriage.

This memoir is very much about how Michelle Obama became the immensely impressive woman that she is and not so much about her famous husband. Barack does not appear in the text until a quarter of the way through the book; only three-quarters in do we reach her time in the White House; and the second presidential term is covered in merely a couple of dozen pages. While Barack Obama may be the consummate politician, Michelle Obama makes it very clear in this memoir that, at every stage of her husband’s political career, she was reluctant for him to enter the election. The price was so high – for her own aspirations as a talented professional woman and for their daughters who would see so much less of their father and, once he was President, have to live their lives in a kind of security bubble. 

Yet, in the end, she always backed his decision to run and gave him her total support. For herself, she makes it clear that “I’ve never been a fan of politics” and that at times she found it “demoralizing, infuriating, sometimes crushing” and she is adamant that “I have no intention of running for office, ever”.


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