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.)

13 thoughts on “Becoming

  1. Isabel Valiela says:

    Nice book review, Jean. I read this book while visiting my daughter in Austin, Texas. I thought Michelle Obama made her family and neighborhood in Chicago come alive with her words. She has had to be so careful with her words and appearance during her husband’s presidency, and now she had a chance to tell her/their story in her own way. Good for her!

    • Jean says:

      Thanks, Isabel. I found the theme of being free after the constraints of her husband’s presidency a powerful one in the book.

  2. Jean R. says:

    I absolutely loved this book. She was so candid and open, even funny at times and my impression of her being a person with a solid character was confirmed tens time over by the end of the book. I didn’t connect with part one as much as you did which, given your background as an educator and mine as a student who struggled with dyslexia, is not surprising. But I passed the book on to my niece knowing that first part would fascinate and delight her. And it did. Her husband, also an educator his whole career also loved the book. I don’t understand how/why people can say they don’t like or trust the Obama’s. Like you said, they are a class act.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, I suspect that the first part of the book resonates most strongly for working-class girls for whom excelling in school was the ticket to upward mobility. My older sister, like you, suffered from learning disabilities — in an era when that concept hadn’t yet been invented. For her school mostly resembled one of the circles of hell.

      Like you, I came away from this book with even greater admiration for Michelle Obama.

  3. Judy Head says:

    Terrific review of Michelle Obama’s BECOMING, Jean. Captures the book so well and was fun to read. I liked the first section best, too. It seemed to reflect who she is, who she might have been and why she was such an active First Lady. The most telling sentence for me, though, was on page 411: “I will always wonder what led so many women in particular to reject an exceptionally qualified female candidate and instead choose a misogynist as their president.” Like MRO, many of us continue to wonder and find their decision astonishing. Judy

    • Jean says:

      Judy, I confess that I don’t find white women’s rejection of Hillary Clinton astonishing. Group self-hatred is a very common phenomenon among those who have been subjected to prejudice and discrimination. One way to cope with such inequality is to identify with the dominant group and distance yourself as much as possible from those who share your stigmatizing characteristic. I think the Civil Rights Movement did a much better job than the women’s movement of challenging the assumption that success would entail becoming more like the dominant group.

  4. Joan L Cyr says:

    Loved the book and enjoyed your review, Jean.

  5. Charlie Emmons says:

    Great review. Thank you.

  6. Diana Studer says:

    didn’t she start a vegetable garden at the White House?

    • Jean says:

      Yes. And she had a group of local school kids who came to the White House periodically to work in the garden with her. The garden was tied to her policy focus on childhood obesity and the importance of access to fresh, healthy food as well as of exercise.

  7. Dr Sock says:

    My book club has chosen to read this book and I am looking forward to it.


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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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