Book Review

'Becoming' by Michelle Obama is a romance at heart, but a searing & honest one

Michelle Obama writes frankly about her love for, and early doubts about, Barack Obama

18 November 2018 - 00:00 By JENNIFER PLATT

There's a continuous ache when reading Becoming by Michelle Obama; it makes any reader anywhere almost personally feel the loss of an intelligent, inspiring woman in the White House, someone who was warm, thoughtful, elegant, and cared deeply about her family, friends, her country and the world.
Through Obama's elegant autobiography the reader also feels the loss of her husband as a compassionate leader of the world's most powerful nation. Perhaps he made a lot of mistakes but at least he avoided throwaway cruelty and absurd tweets.
Through Obama's eyes we get to see the making of the statesman who becomes Barack Obama, who lies awake at night in bed, not thinking about love or the recent loss of his father but about income inequality.
We get to know him as the young lawyer whose bad habit nearly put Michelle off dating him. They met at the law firm they both worked for in Chicago. Michelle had to mentor the young Barack, sharing lunches, listening to his cases, socialising him into the firm. She writes lovingly of him at the time, almost but not quite admitting she was falling for him.
"I found myself admiring Barack for both his self-assuredness and his earnest demeanour. He was refreshing, unconventional, and weirdly elegant.
Not once, though, did I think about him as someone I'd want to date. For one thing, I was his mentor at the firm. I'd also recently sworn off dating altogether, too consumed with work to put any effort into it.
And finally, appalling, at the end of lunch Barack lit a cigarette, which would have been enough to snuff any interest, if I'd any to begin with. He would be, I thought to myself, a good summer mentee."
Becoming is a romance at heart but a searing and honest one in which Michelle doesn't spare any details. Dating Barack, she writes, allowed her to think about her unhappiness at the thought of being a corporate lawyer. Dating him consolidated the person she would become.
"He steered himself with a certainty I found astounding. All this inborn confidence was admirable, of course, but honestly, try living with it. For me, co-existing with Barack's strong sense of purpose, sleeping in the same bed with it, sitting at the breakfast table with it - was something to which I had to adjust, not because he flaunted it exactly, but because it was so alive. In the presence of his certainty, his notions that he could make a difference in the world, I couldn't help but feel a loss of comparison. His sense of purpose seemed like an unwitting challenge to my own.
Hence the journal. On the very first page, in careful handwriting, I spelt out my reasons for starting it:
One. I feel very confused about where I want my life to go. What kind of person do I want to be? How do I want to contribute to the world? Two. I am getting very serious in my relationship with Barack and I feel that I need to get a better handle on myself."
The passages where she writes of trying to fall pregnant are poignant. "It turns out that even two committed go-getters with a deep love and a robust work ethic can't will themselves into being pregnant. Fertility is not something that you conquer."
She gives a no-nonsense description of in vitro fertilisation and how we need to accept it and move on. Later she writes of the hell she went through as wife of a man who wanted to change the world by working in government. Politics is still something of which she is sceptical and suspicious. She writes about how tough it was being on the campaign trail and opening herself up to horrific abuse. How she was "taken down as 'an angry black woman'" and how she always wanted to ask her detractors: "Which part of that phrase mattered to them most - is it 'angry' or 'black' or 'woman'?"
The resentment she felt was not only towards the political opposition who wanted to take down her family, it was also directed at the husband for whose sake she had to carry the household while he was mostly living in Springfield. When he ran for a seat in the US Senate, Obama confesses that she was lonely and angry.
"Our frustrations began to rear up often and intensely. Barack and I loved each other deeply, but it was as if at the centre of our relationship there was suddenly a knot we couldn't loosen. I was 38 years old and had seen other marriages come undone in a way that made me feel protective of ours."
They agreed to try therapy - Barack reluctant at first. Through that, the knot slowly began to loosen.
"I began to see that there were ways I could be happier and that they didn't necessarily need to come from Barack's quitting politics in order to take some nine-to-six foundation job. (If anything, our counselling sessions had shown me this was an unrealistic expectation.) I began to see how I'd been stoking the most negative parts of myself, caught up in the notion that everything was unfair and then assiduously, like a Harvard-trained lawyer, collecting evidence to feed that hypothesis."
One of the revelations in this dense book is that despite Michelle's simple aspirations - "I wanted a dog. I wanted a house that had stairs in it … I wanted, for some reason, a four-door station wagon" - she was also ambitious. Even as a preschooler, she demanded a second examination by her teacher when she could not correctly name the colour "white" in an exercise.
Her speeches during Barack's campaigning were often about her growing up in a middle-class neighbourhood on the south side of Chicago, in a family that looked ordinary but was in fact exceptional. Her father worked for more than 20 years as a boiler technician. He had multiple sclerosis and at the end could hardly walk, but he never missed a day of work. Her mother sewed the family's clothes, fed them and dispensed advice that would allow her two children to make their own choices.
"She loved us consistently, Craig and me, but we were not overmanaged. Her goal was to push us out into the world. 'I'm not raising babies,' she'd tell us. 'I'm raising adults.'"
Michelle's brother Craig was her close ally, walking her down the aisle on her wedding day in place of their father, who had died a year earlier.
Later, she shares vignettes of what it was like to be "Flotus" - first lady of the US. How she was scrutinised. How she had to wake up earlier than Barack to get her hair done. "Optics governed more or less everything in the political world and I factored this into every outfit. It required time, thought and money - more money than I'd spent on clothing ever before." No pith helmets though.
She has no ambitions to follow her husband into office. "Because people often ask, I'll say it here directly: I have no intention of running for office ever."
So that Obama-shaped hole in our world will remain.

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