Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and the author of “ . . . and His Lovely Wife.”
As first lady, every word Michelle Obama uttered and every action she took received advance scrutiny for signs of potential damage to her husband’s presidency. Now, freed of the constraints of the White House, she is ready to tell it as she sees it. Her new memoir crackles with blunt, often searing observations about politics, race and gender in America. Its title, “Becoming,” reflects her journey from modest beginnings on the South Side of Chicago to an incessant spotlight on the world stage.
Though her life has been full and large, Obama is still figuring out who she wants to be. For the first time in two decades, she is allowing herself to explore her own ambitions separate from the rest of her family. She writes that her little girls, Malia and Sasha, are now “young women with plans and voices of their own.” Her husband is “catching his own breath” after eight years as president. “And here I am,” she writes, “in this new place, with a lot I want to say.”
“Becoming” is a political spouse’s memoir like no other, and I say that as the author of one. Obama doesn’t waste time naming every person who helped to elect her husband. This is her book, not his. She also cites, by name and deed, some of those who offended her. This is not an act of revenge but rather a clear sign that she is unwilling to pretend none of that mattered. Good for her.
Life in the public glare has left Obama’s distaste for politics as strong as ever. “I’ll say it here directly: I have no intention of running for office, ever,” she writes. “I’ve never been a fan of politics, and my experience over the last ten years has done little to change that.”
During those 10 years, though, she learned a lot about herself and her marriage, and about America. She admits to insecurities and missteps. She acknowledges her many firsts as a black woman, and this fuels a sense of urgency in her writing. She wants to ensure that other black women get the chances she’s had.
But it hasn’t been easy. “Since stepping reluctantly into public life, I’ve been held up as the most powerful woman in the world and taken down as an ‘angry black woman,’ ” she writes in the preface. Those three words — angry black woman — make her want to ask her detractors “which part of that phrase matters to them the most — is it ‘angry’ or ‘black’ or ‘woman’?”
The insincerity and indecency of politics at times left her hurt and furious. “I’ve smiled for photos with people who call my husband horrible names on national television, but still want a framed keepsake for their mantel,” she writes. “I’ve heard about the swampy parts of the internet that question everything about me, right down to whether I’m a woman or a man. A sitting U.S. congressman has made fun of my butt. . . . Mostly, I’ve tried to laugh this stuff off.”
At its heart, this memoir is a story about a smart and talented woman who grew up never doubting how much she was loved and will never forget her working-class roots. She is, first and foremost, the daughter of Fraser and Marian Robinson, who taught her and her older brother, Craig, that education and self-discipline were the path to a meaningful life. She devotes roughly the first third of her book to her childhood in their cramped apartment in 1960s South Side Chicago.
Her parents’ ambitions for their children set Michelle and Craig apart early from some of the other black children in their lives, including relatives. When she was about 10, Michelle was playing with a few cousins when one of them gave her a “sideways look and said, just a touch hotly, ‘How come you talk like a white girl?’ ”
Obama was mortified. “But I knew what she was getting at. There was no denying it,” she writes. “I did speak differently than some of my relatives, and so did Craig. Our parents had drilled into us the importance of using proper diction, of saying ‘going’ instead of ‘goin’ ’ and ‘isn’t’ instead of ‘ain’t.’ . . . The idea was we were to transcend, to get ourselves further.”
In high school, a counselor discouraged her from applying to Princeton, where Craig was already a student. She ignored the advice and was accepted. Only 9 percent of her freshman class was black. This was a first for her. She writes movingly about “that everyday drain of being in a deep minority” and the pressure she felt to prove to herself, and to others, that she “belonged at Princeton, as much as anybody.”
There are many tender moments in this memoir, many centered on her father, whose health steadily declined from multiple sclerosis until his death at 55 in 1991. She describes how it hurt him to struggle against his encroaching disability, and she takes pains to show us the man separate from his disease. He fussed over his car and “loved any excuse to drive,” she writes. As a child, in the days before seatbelts, she would move forward in the back seat and rest her face next to her father’s in front so “we’d have the exact same view.”
She was with her father just hours before he died and struggled for months with her grief. By then, Barack was in her life. “On many evenings,” she writes, “when I still got weepy over the loss of my dad, Barack was now there to curl himself around me and kiss the top of my head.”
Nothing, she admits, could have prepared her for the likes of Barack Obama, who initially struck her as “oddly free from doubt, though at first glance it was hard to understand why.” She started out as his law firm adviser during his student internship, and soon he became “a wind that threatened to unsettle everything.”
She is candid about their ongoing differences: She is a perfectionist and a planner who leaves little to chance. He is an optimist who “sees his opportunities as endless, who doesn’t waste time or energy questioning whether they will ever dry up.” It was his nature to “get dinged up and stay shiny, like an old copper pot.”
She loved his confidence, but early in their relationship, she worried about what his relentless striving might do to her dreams. “I was deeply, delightfully in love with a guy whose forceful intellect and ambition could possibly end up swallowing mine,” she writes. “I did need to quickly anchor myself on two feet.”
He was a good counterforce to her fear of uncertainty. Barack, she writes, taught her how to “swerve,” offering “the lone voice telling me to just go for it, to erase the worries and go toward whatever I thought would make me happy.”
As both have acknowledged, their marriage has seen its challenges, starting when they had initial trouble starting a family. Her first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, which she describes as “lonely, painful, and demoralizing almost on a cellular level.” They went to a fertility doctor, who eventually recommended in vitro fertilization. Barack’s session at the Illinois legislature started at the same time that she, for weeks, gave herself daily injections.
“It was maybe then that I felt a first flicker of resentment involving politics and Barack’s unshakable commitment to the work,” she writes. “Or maybe I was just feeling the acute burden of being female. Either way, he was gone and I was here, carrying the responsibility. . . . He was doting and invested, my husband, doing what he could do. He read all the IVF literature and would talk to me all night about it, but his only actual duty was to show up at the doctor’s office and provide some sperm.”
While Michelle knew that none of it was Barack’s fault, she still bristled at the built-in inequality. “For any woman who lives by the mantra that equality is important, this can be a little confusing,” she writes. “It was me who’d alter everything, putting my passions and career dreams on hold, to fulfill this piece of our dream. I found myself in a small moment of reckoning. Did I want it? Yes, I wanted it so much. And with this, I hoisted the needle and sank it into my flesh.”
Barack Obama has been publicly candid about their marital tension when their daughters were young and he was a busy state senator so frequently on the road. Michelle describes her life at that time as a “working full-time mother with a half-time spouse.” Her husband’s “overloaded schedule was starting to really grate” on her, and his disregard for punctuality was “a straight-up aggravation.” His ambition, she feared, “would end up steam-rolling our every need.”
Couples counseling helped. Michelle found ways to be happy without Barack leaving politics, and she was mindful of setting examples for her daughters. “I didn’t want them ever to believe that life began when the man of the house arrived home. We didn’t wait for Dad. It was his job now to catch up with us.”
Always the reluctant political spouse, she made clear that if he didn’t win his U.S. Senate seat in 2004, he was done with politics. When he decided to run for president, she admits: “He wanted it and I didn’t.” Ultimately, she agreed because “I believed that Barack could be a great president.”
After Barack prevailed in 2008, Michelle eventually found her way as first lady, and she writes at length about her advocacy for military families and girls, and her campaign against childhood obesity. At times, her recounting of all this reads like an annotated curriculum vitae, but she is proud of her accomplishments and perhaps concerned that her legacy is lost in this current political climate.
On the night Donald Trump was elected in 2016, Michelle excused herself from the room where she and Barack and some friends were watching the returns. “I announced that I was going upstairs,” she writes. “I walked to the elevator, hoping to do only one thing, which was to block it all out and go to sleep. I understood what was happening, but I wasn’t ready to face it.”
She is unsparing in her criticism of her husband’s successor, and she takes aim at Trump’s racist rhetoric and his years of falsely insisting that Barack was not born in the United States. “The whole thing was crazy and mean-spirited,” she writes, “its underlying bigotry and xenophobia hardly concealed. But it was also dangerous, deliberately meant to stir up the wingnuts and kooks. I feared the reaction.” She blames Trump for his “loud and reckless innuendos” that put her “family’s safety at risk. And for this, I’d never forgive him.”
Throughout “Becoming,” Obama strikes an impressive balance in telling the truth of her challenges while repeatedly acknowledging her lucky life. “I grew up with a disabled dad in a too-small house with not much money in a starting-to-fail neighborhood,” she writes, “and I also grew up surrounded by love and music in a diverse city in a country where an education can take you far. I had nothing or I had everything. It depends on which way you want to tell it.”
By Michelle Obama. Crown. 426 pp. $32.50