REVIEW: Becoming by Michelle Obama
Allison Pearson says it's a 'wonderfully candid and affecting autobiography'
Allison Pearson reviews Becoming by Michelle Obama for The Telegraph
The word “journey” has fallen into disrepute. Beware any blubbering reality-TV contestant referring to “my journey” as though they have just made a Himalayan ascent in flip-flops.
There are sterling exceptions. If anyone has earned the right to call life’s steep path a journey, it is Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama.
A determined, perfectionist little girl, Michelle Robinson began life on the south side of Chicago (a ghetto she proudly refuses to call a ghetto) and ended up in the White House.
It was a residence where the master bedroom was bigger than the entire apartment on Euclid Avenue, which she shared with her father Fraser (an MS sufferer), mother Marian and big brother Craig.
“I had these thoughts sometimes, and it gave me a kind of vertigo,” she admits in her wonderfully candid and affecting autobiography, Becoming.
During Michelle’s childhood, her mixed neighbourhood suffered “white flight”.
By 1981, when she went to college, it was about 96% black. Her deeply loving and “crafty” parents insisted she pronounce her words properly. (“You talk like a white girl,” friends taunted her.)
When Michelle found herself in a classroom that was “a mayhem of unruly kids and flying erasers”, her mother lobbied the school to move the higher-performing kids into a separate set and told their haphazard tutor that “she had no business teaching and should be working as a drugstore cashier instead”. Whoa!
Exacting, strong women ran in the maternal line. Great Aunt Robbie, who owned the house the Robinsons lived in, was a terrifying piano teacher and Michelle’s earliest memories were of “listening to the sound of striving” downstairs. (Plink, plink, plink.)
At the age of four, she began lessons with Robbie and “internalised her devotion to rigour... with her it always felt like there was something to prove”.
In one of the book’s most telling scenes, Michelle and her family drove to the centre of Chicago for a fancy piano recital “the four of us travelling like astronauts in the capsule of my dad’s Buick”.
Michelle knew her piano piece by heart and wasn’t scared until she sat down at the gleaming baby grand and froze.
“I wasn’t used to flawless,” she recalls. The only piano Michelle knew had “a honky-tonk patchwork of yellowed keys and conveniently chipped middle C”.
Thus does it dawn on the unwitting child of deprivation that she is deprived.
“The disparities of the world had just quietly shown themselves to me for the first time.”
That sentence alone is worth most other political biographies combined.
Not that Michelle Obama would wish to be included in their company. Her suspicion and dislike of politics – even after finding herself married to one of its foremost practitioners – enable her to write about that avid, greasy, three-faced world with fearless lucidity.
Since stepping reluctantly into public life, Michelle has been accused of being “an angry black woman”.
What becomes painfully clear in this book is that rage can never be part of the survival strategy for an American-born female and coloured. After her brother is arrested for riding a bike that can’t possibly be his (because he is black), the Robinson parents tell the kids they need to shrug off such insults.
“The colour of our skin made us vulnerable. It was a thing we’d have to navigate.”
'YOU CONTROL WHAT YOU CAN'
When Craig develops acute anxiety, the whole family goes along with his neurotic fire-practice sessions. The lesson being, for poor black people, that in life “you control what you can”.
A lesson control-freak Michelle absorbed all too well. Naturally optimistic, she never quite managed to silence an insistent inner voice whispering, “Am I good enough?”
Winning a place at a top Chicago high school, she tormented herself, “What if we were just the best of the worst?”
Admitted to Princeton, where black students made up just 9% of her year (“poppy seeds in a bowl of rice”), she wondered “Was I merely here as part of a social experiment?”
Her carefully constructed existence began to unravel the day her Chicago law firm told her she would have a summer intern. The oddly named Barack Obama came with rave advance reviews. His mentor was sceptical.
“In my experience, you put a suit on any half-intelligent black man and white people tend to go bonkers.”
I love her for the caustic, unimpressible wit of that remark and for the droll way the story of their courtship unfolds.
Barack was both intensely cerebral and alarmingly laid back. Michelle drove a Saab, Barack drove a snub-nosed, banana-yellow Datsun with a hole in the floor. It occurred to Michelle that he “probably would never make any money”.
MEETING BARACK This brilliant, maddening man – “a sort of unicorn; unusual to the point of seeming almost unreal” – made her realise she couldn’t bear the high-paying, secure law job she had striven so hard for. (Plink, plink, plink.)
One night, she watched him give a speech in his role as a community organiser. It was electric. “Do we settle for the world as it is, or do we work for the world as it could be?”
She plucked up courage and opted for the latter. You cheer when the couple finally kiss outside an ice cream shop and Michelle submits to “a toppling blast of lust, gratitude, fulfilment, wonder”.
While she knew Barack could handle a partner “who had her own passion and voice”, there were already warning signs of what a life with him would cost her.
“All of his inborn confidence was admirable, of course, but try living with it.”
It was not long before the Obamas had two beloved daughters, Malia and Sasha.
Michelle found herself trying to combine motherhood with a high-powered hospital job while her workaholic, frequently absent husband weighed up whether to run for the Senate. Rightly, she feared the path he was committed to “would end up steamrolling our every need”.
Becoming is just brilliant on the pressure-cooker resentments of the working mother and her never-shrinking to-do list. After running lunchtime errands for her girls, Michelle wolfed down fast food in her car.
“This was what sometimes passed for achievement. I had the apple sauce. I was eating a meal. Everyone was still alive. Look how I’m managing, I wanted to say in those moments, to my audience of no one. Does everyone see that I’m pulling this off?”
WIFE AND MOTHER
Of course not. The role of wife and mother is to be taken entirely for granted. As Barack surged forward, his eyes on the far horizon, Michelle scaled back her own work to provide normality and stability for Malia and Sasha.
A stint in marriage-guidance counselling helped to rescue the Obama marriage from the fate suffered by so many political unions.
Becoming brims over with such emotional truthfulness. The author is on a mission to break down barriers and she certainly does that, generously sharing her worst of times to make others feel better.
A paediatrician told her that Malia’s weight was becoming an issue because the flat-out family had been living on takeaways.
“The news landed like a rock through a stained-glass window. I’d worked so hard to make sure my daughters were happy and whole. What kind of a mother was I if I hadn’t noticed a change?”
The book, so rich in perception that you keep forgetting it’s not a novel, paints a vivid picture of the White House’s privileged captivity.
Michelle did not relish the prospect of becoming the first African American First Lady (that strange “sidecar of a role”) because, as she ruefully admits, being the first black female anything is “like having your soul X-rayed every day, scanned and re-scanned for any sign of fallibility”.
Still, she survived it and lived to tell the tale. And what a tale. I’m not surprised to learn that Becoming sold a staggering 1.4 million copies in its first week. With its generosity of spirit, self-knowledge and hope, it is the perfect antidote to the man who now lives in the White House. Real news, not the fake kind.
It is a plangent, defiant, honest and uplifting book that could only have been written by someone who learnt to play on “a honky-tonk patchwork of yellowed keys and conveniently chipped middle C”.
The music that piano still makes is all the more beautiful for having travelled so very, very far. A journey, indeed. - The Sunday Telegraph..