‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama is already one of the bestselling memoirs of all time selling nearly 10 million copies just four months after it was first published towards the end of 2018. Rebecca, Laura and I optimistically attempted to get tickets for the former First Lady’s sell-out talk with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the Southbank Centre in December along with a mere 44,000 other people. We were, of course, unsuccessful, but I eventually got hold of a library copy of the much talked-about memoir which is split into three parts. “Becoming Me” covers her childhood growing up in the South Side of Chicago, college years at Princeton and Harvard and early legal career. “Becoming Us” begins with her meeting Barack Obama in the late 1980s through to the 2008 presidential election and “Becoming More” which covers the two terms spent at the White House.
‘Becoming Me’ details Obama’s extended family and is also a portrayal of the city of Chicago in the late 1960s to the 1980s with reflections on race, class and gentrification and how these played out in her experience of the education system. Driven to succeed from a young age, the question “Am I good enough?” follows her throughout and she cites education as the key to how she got to where she is today. The middle section is the most personally revealing part of the book. Her feelings about changing career from the law to community work, managing a difficult work-life balance, couples counselling, the death of a close friend from cancer and of her father after many years living with MS and conceiving both her daughters through IVF are all addressed very candidly. Her relationship with Barack is portrayed as one of contrasting temperaments which complement each other well.
In contrast, the whirlwind of the White House years might have been better left as a separate second volume, perhaps with more insight after a few years of distance and reflection. Obama conveys a very vivid sense of the absence of total privacy after her husband became a prominent public figure, in particular a constant awareness of security concerns and the effect these have had on her daughters. She says she will never forgive Donald Trump for putting her family’s safety at risk by spreading the false birther conspiracy theory that her husband was born abroad and therefore not eligible to become President of the United States.
Obama states in the epilogue: “becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self”. She is adamant that she has no intention of running for the presidency herself, often using the terms “ugliness” and “nastiness” when referring to politics. And although her decision will disappoint many people, it also makes sense after reading her observations and feelings about being in the public eye.
Like many memoirs, ‘Becoming’ is both guarded and revealing. It’s also unique in other surprising ways – how many First Ladies would refer to their husband as “sort of like a unicorn… unusual almost to the point of seeming almost unreal”? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what Melania Trump has to say further down the line…