A successful memoir from a former first lady must walk a fine line.
It must create a sense of intimacy with readers, by letting them into the presidential marriage and revealing a few secrets, but it must also preserve a certain distance, to keep the presidential family private and aspirational. It must spend enough time on politics to help build a narrative around the president’s legacy, but not so much time that people feel threatened — antiquated though that feeling might be — by the idea that the first lady might have political aspirations of her own.
It must create a case for the first lady as a compelling figure in her own right, someone who is worth reading a whole book about — but it must also reckon with her marriage and her presidential husband, because after all, that’s generally the reason the first lady is famous enough for you to be reading a book about her in the first place.
Becoming, the new memoir from Michelle Obama, walks the First Lady Tightrope with Obama’s characteristic aplomb. It is not a daring book; it is for the most part a safe and anodyne political memoir that does not aspire to any more ambitious territory.
But it is enormously effective at distilling Obama’s poise, intelligence, and warmth into a single 421-page package; at evoking the idea of the Obama marriage as an aspirational partnership while letting us in on just a few secrets; at arguing that Michelle Obama and her ability to wield soft power is worthy of being discussed as more than an accessory for her presidential husband. At its most compelling, the book delves wholeheartedly into Obama’s ambivalence about her status as a political wife.
Michelle Obama describes her decision to prioritize her own ambition as an act of self-preservation
Michelle Obama’s greatest aspiration before her husband ran for office, she writes, was to find a way to simultaneously live the life of both of her childhood heroes: her mother, Marian Robinson, and Mary Richards, Mary Tyler Moore’s character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
She’s a self-described control freak who craves order and stability and wants to build a stable home life for her children, the way her mother did for her, but she is also ambitious and independent, like Mary. “I wanted to have a work life and a home life, but with some promise that one would never fully squelch the other,” she writes. “I hoped to be exactly like my own mother and at the same time nothing like her at all.”
In the first third of Becoming, in which she focuses on her working-class childhood, Obama’s ambition takes the form of excelling at school, where she gets “a buzzy sort of satisfaction” from learning — and from proving wrong anyone who doubts her. When a neighborhood girl bullies her at age 10, Obama decides to earn that girl’s respect by punching her in the face. (It works!) When her high school guidance counselor tells Obama that she is “not Princeton material,” Obama works her way to a Princeton admission in part out of sheer spite.
But after college, she finds herself without a clear-cut direction. She falls into law school and then a position at a major Chicago law firm because it seems like the logical next step for her, and she excels despite her lack of passion for the work.
It’s not until she meets Barack Obama and starts to get serious about dating him that she begins to consider that she ought to direct her professional ambition elsewhere — and she is clear about the fact that her decision is, in part, an act of self-preservation.
“I was deeply, delightfully in love with a guy whose forceful intellect and ambition could possibly end up swallowing mine,” she writes. “I saw it coming already, like a barreling wave with a mighty undertow.”
She decides that she’ll have to make room in her life for the ideas that truly interest her — “education, teen pregnancy, black self-esteem” — and takes a pay cut to stop practicing law and start working in city hall instead. Eventually, she lands a position as a vice president at the University of Chicago hospital.
Obama’s unapologetic belief in her own worth, in the validity of her own ambitions and her own priorities in the face of her husband’s political aspirations, is part of what makes her such a compelling figure. She is not, she maintains as she chronicles her experience living through multiple grueling political campaigns, going to be swallowed up by her husband’s celebrity. She has no intentions of becoming an accessory to his career, and we love her for it.
Obama is also savvy enough to know that the American public is threatened by a first lady whose ambitions seem to come too near to a striving for hard, presidential power. She might not want to be swallowed up by her husband’s image, but she also has no intention of pulling a Hillary.
So she devotes the final third of her book to celebrating the uses of soft power, the vague, amorphous power of adjacency that accrues to the office of the first lady. The first lady doesn’t hold an elected office, so she has no official legal or political powers, but she has the power of influence and attention. The first lady has a platform, and Obama intended to make the most of hers.
The famous white house vegetable garden became Obama’s first solution to the question of how to handle the first lady’s tricky position, of how to use her soft power to get things done without making anyone feel threatened. “On the surface, a garden felt elemental and apolitical, a harmless and innocent undertaking by a lady with a spade,” she explains, but, she adds, “There was more to it than that.” She was establishing a reputation for herself that was as unthreatening as possible — but she also planned to use the garden to get things done. She was going to start talking about nutrition and fight childhood obesity.
Obama was never quite successful at neutralizing all of the criticism about her initiatives, but she came about as close as any first lady could, keeping her approval ratings at a near-constant 66 percent throughout her husband’s time in office. Becoming makes the case that in part, that’s because the balance of the first lady’s office — get things done, but not in a threatening way; support your husband, but maintain your own identity — was one that Obama had been practicing all her life. She wanted to be both a mother and a career woman, “both Marian and Mary,” and now she was doing so on a national scale.
Becoming is not the most interesting book in the world. But it’s a lot more interesting than it needed to be.
Becoming is not a riveting read. It is, at the end of the day, a political memoir, which means that its first and most important goal is to keep Michelle Obama likable (hold that approval rating steady at 66 percent!). The book takes few risks and makes few bold choices; instead, Obama spends a lot of time being pleasant and evangelizing on the need for exercise and healthy eating.
But Becoming does take more risks than it has to. There’s a spark of personality in the book that can’t be stamped out, a sense of intimacy that not every first lady memoir can even attempt to evoke.
Obama has already been widely praised for her decision to write about her trouble conceiving and subsequent miscarriage, flouting a common and harmful taboo against discussing fertility issues, and the passage in which she does so is one of her most viscerally emotional and moving. “A miscarriage is lonely, painful, and demoralizing almost on a cellular level,” she writes. “When you have one, you will likely mistake it for a personal failure, which it is not.”
Obama is straightforward about the ambivalence she felt when her husband decided to run for political office. She believed that he’d be good at the job, she writes, but “I feared that the path he’d chosen for himself — and still seemed so clearly committed to pursuing — would end up steamrolling our every need.” She agreed that he could run for president, she admits, in part because she didn’t think he’d win.
Even if Becoming is not always interesting, it is much more interesting than it needed to be to qualify as a successful first lady memoir. And as an example of how to walk the tightrope — how to seem charming but not like an intellectual lightweight; how to get things done without seeming threatening; how to do all of the impossible things we demand of women in general, of first ladies in particular, and of the first black first lady as an absolute — Becoming is a straight-up master class.