April 24, 2019 by Jean
When my book group decided to read Michelle Obama’s autobiography Becoming (Crown, 2018) this month, I was willing but not eager. The book was on my radar, and I expected to read it at some point, but I didn’t expect to find it particularly compelling. I’m not sure what prejudiced me against the book. I’ve never been a big fan of celebrity autobiographies, and I may have read some less-than-enthusiastic reviews of the book. Whatever the reason, I was wrong.
I was hooked from the Preface when Michelle describes the heady freedom of a spring evening just weeks after leaving the White House when she is home alone and decides to make herself some toast, step out into the yard to eat it, and then open windows in the house to let in the mild spring air – something she had not been able to do during the eight years of living in the White House. I am a fresh air fiend who has windows open in the house 24/7 from May, when it gets warm enough to turn off the heat, until September. The detail of not being able to open windows brought home to me that the White House can be a luxurious prison.
Becoming is divided into three major sections: “Becoming Me” focuses on Michelle’s growing up on the south side of Chicago and her education at Princeton and Harvard. “Becoming Us” recounts the development of her relationship with Barack Obama, their marriage, their children, and the challenges of meshing family with his burgeoning political career. “Becoming More” is about the experience of being a public figure during the White House years.
The first section, “Becoming Me” was the most compelling for me. I didn’t expect Michelle Obama’s childhood experiences in a working-class black family on the south side of Chicago to resonate so strongly with my own experiences growing up almost a generation earlier in a working-class white family in a small industrial city in Massachusetts, but they did. The hard-working father who refuses to miss a day’s work even when he is ill, the homemaker mother who economizes by sewing family members’ clothes, and the value placed on children’s education were all achingly familiar. I was moved to tears by one scene from Michelle’s high school years at a magnet school a long bus ride away from her Southside neighborhood when she doesn’t even tell her parents about a planned class trip to Paris because she knows they can’t afford it. I understood the complicated balance the working-class child tries to negotiate between making the most of the educational opportunities your parents are determined to provide and sensitivity to the sacrifices they are making. Interestingly, when Michelle’s parents find out about the trip (from other parents), her father gently reprimands her for making the decision that it costs too much without consulting them, saying “That’s actually not for you to decide, Miche.” (p. 60) In the end, she goes to Paris with her classmates, although we never learn how her parents managed to cover the costs.
My interest flagged a bit in the middle section of Becoming, probably because I’m a single woman without children and the story of a romantic relationship, having children, figuring out the compromises that keep a marriage healthy, and working out the balance of family and career resonated less powerfully for me. My interest picked up again, however, when I got to the final section, about the White House years. The theme of the White House as a luxurious prison recurs here, creating for me a much deeper sympathy for Melania Trump’s fairly public reluctance to live there.
This section of the book is not the story of a presidency so much as it is the story of a wife and mother trying to figure out how to maintain stability and some sense of normalcy for her family within the constraints of security and public scrutiny imposed by the presidency. Michelle prevails on her reluctant mother to move into the White House with them, providing support for her daughter and stability for her granddaughters. (Interestingly, Marian Robinson manages to avoid some of the imprisoning aspects of living at the White House by refusing Secret Service protection.) From the beginning, Michelle insists that White House staff not make her daughters’ beds in the morning and that they continue to do this for themselves. She finds ways to attend her daughters’ sports practices and school events without too much commotion, and she negotiates changes to Secret Service protocols to make it possible for the children to participate in such mundane childhood events as an impromptu team ice cream outing after a game.
Trying to maintain some normalcy for herself and her husband proves more difficult. Although one room in the White House residence has French doors leading out to the Truman Balcony, overlooking the rose garden, she discovers that she cannot walk through those doors out onto the balcony without first notifying the Secret Service and waiting for them to close down the block of E Street that borders the White House and remove all tourists from the sidewalk there. When Barack tries to reinstate the Friday date night that had been a constant throughout their relationship, with a trip to New York for dinner and a play, they quickly realize that doing so is very disruptive for everyone else trying to enjoy these same activities or even just use the streets.
Over time, Michelle learns how she can continue becoming the person she wants to be, choosing initiatives for her role as First Lady that build on her strengths and her work experience and that focus on causes meaningful to her. She also finds ways to carve out space for herself within the constraints of Social Service protection. She hosts weekend getaways for a group of women friends at Camp David. At one point, she manages an incognito shopping trip to Target, accompanied by a Secret Service detail dressed to blend in with the other shoppers, and enjoys the giddy thrill of picking out her own toothpaste. I enjoyed her description of a minor rebellion she staged during her last year in the White House. On the evening after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage, the White House was bathed in the colors of the rainbow flag, a celebration was going on in the street outside, and Michelle decided she wanted to go outside and see it. She and Malia made their way down a back stairway and headed for the doors to the North Portico – where, of course, they were stopped. But a compromise was worked out, and they were allowed to go out through a delivery door off the kitchen.
It had taken us ten minutes to get out of our own home, but we had done it. We were outside, standing on a patch of lawn off to one side, out of sight of the public but with a beautiful, close-up view of the White House, lit up in pride. (p. 400)
I don’t know how someone who doesn’t like the Obamas would experience this book. I voted enthusiastically for Barack Obama (twice), and I always thought they were a class act. Becoming gave me a new appreciation of Michelle Obama as a person in her own right and as a kindred spirit. (And it also gave me a heartfelt appreciation of the ease with which I step out the door and into my garden whenever the mood strikes me.)