Book Review: Becoming by Michelle Obama- 7 mins
I can definitely see a part of myself in Michelle Obama—especially in her early years, when she was Michelle Robinson. The same striving, the same compulsion towards achievement—and the eventual confusion—I felt it all, and I’m still feeling it.
I was still young when she and Barack lived in the White House—too sheltered to understand or even care deeply about what was going on. But I still remember the happiness and excitement I felt when Barack got elected in 2008. I remember when our class, bright-eyed and hopeful, watched their inauguration nearly ten years ago on a small, black TV screen in the corner of our classroom.
Obama is the kind of woman I hope to become—strong, independent, self-fulfilled. She writes beautifully, even poetically. To catch a glimpse into her life—of what made her who she is, was heartening and inspirational.
Here are some of my favorite quotes from her memoir:
- “Even if we didn’t know the context, [my brother and I] were instructed to remember that context existed. Everyone on earth, [my parents would] tell us, was carrying around an unseen history, and that alone deserved some tolerance” (7).
- “If you’d had a head start at school, you were rewarded for it at school, deemed ‘bright’ or ‘gifted,’ which in turn only compounded your confidence. The advantages aggregated quickly” (18).
- “Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result. It’s vulnerability that breeds with self-doubt and then is escalated, often deliberately, by fear” (43)
- “I tried not to feel intimidated when classroom conversation was dominated by male students, which it often was. Hearing them, I realized that they weren’t at all smarter than the rest of us. They were simply emboldened, floating on an ancient tide of superiority, buoyed by the fact that history had never told them anything different” (79).
- “Beneath my laid-back college-kid demeanor, I lived like a half-closeted CEO, quietly but unswervingly focused on achievement, bent on checking every box. My to-do list lived in my head and went with me everywhere. I assessed my goals, analyzed my outcomes, counted my wins. If there was a challenge to vault I’d vault it. One proving ground only opened onto the next. Such is the life of a girl who can’t stop wondering, Am I good enough? and is still trying to show herself the answer” (89).
- “This may be the fundamental problem with caring a lot about what others think: It can put you on the established path—the my-isn’t-that-impressive path—and keep you there for a long time. Maybe it stops you from swerving, from ever even considering a swerve, because what you risk losing in terms of other people’s high regard can feel too costly” (91).
- “Barack was more content to spend an evening alone, reading up on urban housing policy. As an organizer, he’d spent weeks and months listening to poor people describe their challenges. His insistence on hope and the potential for mobility, I was coming to see, came from an entirely different and not easily accessible place” (101).
- “Barack, I knew, wrestled with what he wanted to do with his life, which direction his career would take. He had an uneasy relationship with wealth. Like me, he’d never had it, and he didn’t aspire to it, either. He wanted to be effective far more than he wanted to be rich but was still trying to figure out how” (105).
- “Until now, I’d hung around with good people who cared about important enough things but who were focused primarily on building their careers and providing for their families. Barack was just different. He was dialed into the day-to-day demands on his life, but at the same time, especially at night, his thoughts seemed to roam a much wider plane” (113).
- “. . . I could see his character reflected in other small ways. His long-lasting friendships with his high school buddies showed his consistency in relationships. In his devotion to his strong-willed mother, I saw a deep respect for women and their independence. Without needing to discuss it outright, I knew he could handle a partner who had her own passions and voice. These were things you couldn’t teach in a relationship, things that not even love could really build or change” (124).
- “. . . I hated being a lawyer. I wasn’t suited to the work. I felt empty doing it, even if I was plenty good at it. This was a distressing thing to admit, given how hard I’d worked and how in debt I was. In my blinding drive to excel, in my need to do things perfectly, I’d missed the signs and taken the wrong road” (132).
- “They were unapologetic about prioritizing the needs of their children, even if it meant occasionally disrupting the flow at work, and didn’t try to compartmentalize work and home the way I’d notice male partners at Sidley seemed to do. I’m not sure compartmentalization was even a choice for Valerie and Susan, given that they were juggling the expectations unique to mothers and were also both divorced” (168).
- “I knew I was no smarter than them. I just had the advantage of an advocate. I thought about this more often now that I was an adult, especially when people applauded me for my achievements, as if there weren’t a strange and cruel randomness to it all” (166-167).
- “It was possible that I was more in charge of my happiness than I was allowing myself to be” (206).
- “We made our schedule and stuck to it . . . The routine was ironclad, which put the weight of responsibility on Barack to either make it on time or not. For me, this made so much more sense than holding off dinner or having the girls wait up sleepily for a hug. It went back to my wishes for them to grow up strong and centered and also unaccommodating to any form of old-school patriarchy: 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” (207).
- “Having lost a fifth-grade classmate to a house fire, having watched Suzanne die before she’d had a chance to really be an adult, I’d learned that the world could be brutal and random, that hard work didn’t always assure positive outcomes” (225).
- “Barack was a black man in America, after all. I didn’t really think he could win” (226).
- “But it was too serious, too severe—at least given what people were conditioned to expect from a woman . . . The easiest way to disregard a woman’s voice is to package her as a scold” (267)
- “As a kid, you learn to measure long before you understand the size or value of anything. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you learn that you’ve been measuring all wrong” (313).
- “We wanted to highlight the importance of exposing children to the arts, showing that it’s not a luxury but a necessity to their overall educational experience” (357).
- “I grew up with a disabled dad in a too-small house with not much money in a starting-to-fail neighborhood, 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” (416).
- “It’s not about being perfect. It’s not about where you get yourself in the end. There’s power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice. And there’s grace in being willing to know and hear others. This, for me, is how we become” (421).
This was quite possibly one of the best memoirs I’ve read. She writes as honestly as she could, knowing that her words would be scrutinized; while there were times when I could tell she was refraining from voicing her complete opinion, I still appreciate how she could still convey her voice in a way that seemed genuine and un-politicized.
This memoir is about the journey of owning who you are, wholly and completely—of finding the courage to listen to your inner compass, and then helping bring out the voices in others. It deserved every glowing review, and more.
I highly recommend this book to anyone trying to figure out what it means to live with intention and value. For me, I know her story is one I’ll think about and refer back to for many years to come.