By Mariyam Haider
Author: Michelle Obama
Publishers: Crown Publishing Group, Viking Press
Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, is powerful, personal and fulfilling. Her writing takes us with her on her journey, from growing up in Euclid Avenue on the South Side of Chicago to calling White House her home. In the course of this larger-than-life story, Michelle Obama offers her readers an insight into how a strong value-based system allowed her to take risks, commit mistakes and learn from them, address failure as a mentor, be honest to herself and develop authenticity as her crusading feature.
The book is divided into three segments: Becoming Me, Becoming Us and Becoming More. She sets the theme of the book in the preface by writing, “I think it’s one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child — What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.” The title of the book is thus the threadline of how each one of us is in a constant flux of evolution and rediscovery, embracing the unknown and resonating with the deeper voice that commands us to remain true to ourselves.
Becoming is the turf that Michelle Obama lays for every reader to explore and through it, find a place of belonging. Her narration is honest and enlightening, as she highlights the intersectionality of issues that a black woman, raised in a working-class family with limited means but immense determination, faces every step of her way.
“There are truths we face and truths we ignore,” she writes, recounting an episode where she expressed dissatisfaction with her job at Sidley & Austin law firm to her mother. Despite having always unabashedly supported her children’s dreams, her mother says, “I say make the money first and worry about the happiness later”. Michelle Obama viewed this as her mother’s clarion call to check her privileges that were unavailable to the earlier generations.
She thus learns how many live with piped dreams because the social system is structured against their interests, how death is the biggest equaliser of all, how true friends and mentors are priceless, how failure allows us to take ourselves less seriously and how devoting one’s life to service is the most gratuitous of all work.
The book is not only a peek into Michelle Obama’s life; it is also a friendly invitation to get to know her closely. The passages that highlight watching her father manage multiple sclerosis, losing her best friend to cancer and the anguish caused by a miscarriage are watershed moments that she expresses with immense vulnerability and honesty. Further, her companionship with her husband Barack Obama, their commitment towards each other’s aspirations and their continued support despite differences in opinions is endearing. “For better or for worse, I’d fallen in love with a man with a vision who was optimistic without being naive, undaunted by conflict, and intrigued by how complicated the world was,” she writes. Their compatibility in the face of uncertainty and confidence in one another to tide over every challenge is a master class on relationships.
Towards the second half of the book, Michelle Obama unfolds her life as the wife of a senator, later a presidential candidate and finally POTUS. She recounts her journey as a campaigner for her husband while learning the ropes to become a leading public figure. She recalls fighting the negative media spin, working on her public speaking skills and functioning with a sharp and trustworthy team.
The book’s strength lies in the depth of self-awareness that Michelle Obama projects, helping her readers understand the real picture behind being a POTUS. Living in constant concern for the safety of one’s family, losing access to one’s own time, always being in the public eye where one wrong gesture could cost weeks of media frenzy and striking a balance between maintaining both a public image and a personal self are the challenges that, perhaps, have never been voiced so openly.
She spells out that despite being the First Lady and having led a most privileged life, a person is first and foremost a human being, one who is susceptible to all kinds of emotions and doubts. Every chapter is an ode to being human, being real and feeling it all.
Though Obama’s life has often been viewed through a glowing public office lens, she makes it radically clear that this was not what she wanted. She disliked politics and the incendiary ways it could be used to misconstrue one’s message. Through her narrative, one discovers she did manage to use it as a platform towards creating a more equal and healthier society.
Her dedication towards her kids’ health turned into Let’s Move!, a national initiative to reduce obesity amongst children through better nutrition programs at schools. The initiative resulted in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 that funded and reformed school meals and inculcated healthier choices. Becoming highlights her strength in being adaptive, learning to let go of inhibitions and recognising change as a nurturing agent.
The book conveys that strength lies in finding your values and using them under every circumstance to become the best version of yourself.
Becoming is a definite read and a re-read.
Mariyam Haider is an independent writer and performance poet based in South Asia. She most recently worked with Financial Times journalist James Crabtree as the researcher on his book ‘The Billionaire Raj’ that won the 2018 TATA Lit Live Business Book of the Year. Her writings have appeared in Hindustan Times, Livemint, Feminism In India, and New Asian Writing. A journalist by training, Mariyam holds a Master in Public Policy from the National University of Singapore.