Linda Burgess on the biggest-selling, most-loved book of summer: Becoming, the memoir by Michelle Obama.
Celebrity memoirs are usually written by someone else. I’m fairly sure this isn’t the case with Becoming. There’s a lengthy list of people to thank in the book’s acknowledgements (“Many of my former staff helped confirm critical details and time lines”) and she credits “all the resources of the Penguin Random House team behind this labour of love.” That’s pretty substantial assistance, and all published writers reading Michelle Obama’s memoir will be in for a spot of teeth-grinding. But don’t let it prevent you from applauding the quality of the writing. This is a brainy, articulate woman.
She writes with grim insight about how it is to grow up black in a country which is, quite frankly, racist. There’s not a hint of self-pity, indeed she was one of the lucky ones growing up in a family who were not well-enough off to own their own home, but fortunate enough to share an adequate one with an aunt. Her father was burdened with an incurable disease which saw him physically inexorably weaken. He chose to ignore it, focussing instead on his desire to get his two children educated. Michelle never stops pointing out that this was not unusual on Chicago’s South side. She watched the whites leave. She saw how, against all odds, those remaining continued to care. She is not in the business of misery memoir. She is not in the business of exclaiming how her especially hard work and aspiration saw her win through. She wants everyone to succeed as well as they are able.
With an aunt downstairs who taught the piano, Michelle grew up with some middle-class privileges that she acknowledges so many “children of colour” don’t have available. Her father’s reluctance to get into debt allows him to accept renting the part of a house available to him and also allows Michelle’s mother to stay at home, teaching her children to read, supporting them with gimlet eye all the way through school then on to Princeton.
Michelle on Barack: liking turned to lust turned to love. He’s messy round the house. He can irritate her by being a bit slow, stopping to talk to people when there really isn’t time. Inclined to spin his stories out too long. A fine, philosophical man who reads and thinks and reads and thinks again. A decent human being. A good dad when he’s around. A realist. When Barack Obama becomes president, and spends the next eight years behind bulletproof everything, he jokes that he’s less at risk of being shot now than he was before, when he could’ve been shot by police when just filling his car with petrol.
Michelle never ever stops recording the deaths of innocent people. Those who can’t afford health care. Often black. Shot by the police. Black. Those who were victims of the US’s slack gun laws. Almost always black. Coolly she records the fact that many victims of mass shootings are also often black. That those who open fire on innocent people are usually from the political right. And white. She’s not being racist, just honest.
There’s a fine balance that she’s obliged to maintain. Early in Obama’s presidency she’d been mocked for being angry. So anything she says that reinforces that stereotype leaves her open to further criticism. Quite frankly, she doesn’t give a stuff. She hates politics for its incessant belligerence: she has no intention of running for president. Not in a million years. From the first days in the White House she decides to be more than just her husband’s head cheerleader. She continues to work in the field she has been committed to since she left law school – health and education, most specifically when it relates to children. She becomes personally interested in childhood obesity when a paediatrician points out that her daughter is on the chunky side. She realises how easy it is when exhausted to reach for the takeaway. She planted those vegetable gardens in the White House’s grounds; you know the ones, which a Trump supporter joked soon after his election would now be known as “the putting green”.
Donald Trump stirs beneath the book like some kind of Loch Ness monster, a malevolent taniwha. It’s impossible to read this thoughtful, perceptive, tightly written book without knowing that there’s an unhappy ending. She doesn’t flinch from it either; while never overwrought, she chooses not to be in the slightest bit diplomatic, saying she will never forgive the danger which Trump, with his Obama-was-born-in-Kenya misinformation campaign, put her family in.
She’s also adept at analysis, and admits that in many ways having Obama elected as president gave racist Americans eight years to simmer away, ending in that cruel victory. Trump’s bullying, his attacks on journalists, free speech, Democrat politicians, on Republicans who don’t agree with him, his crude disregard of women in general, his crassness, repulses her. Like many of us, she can’t believe that women voted for him.
A reader can’t stop rueing the loss of this FLOTUS, and her replacement by that odd automaton who for some inexplicable – actually, sadly, explicable – reason chose to throw in her lot with that man. Michelle Obama hugged her way through her eight years, laying her loving paws in the very best way on children, on mothers who have lost children to avoidable gun slaughter.
Would Michelle have ever worn a jacket with I DON’T CARE, DO YOU? emblazoned on the back? God no. She’d never be that stupid, or that callous. She’s the sort of woman that other women like. Love.
Read it. Sadly, read it and despair. Or perhaps read it optimistically – this has happened, it can happen again. Now is not forever.
Becoming by Michelle Obama (Viking, $55) is available at Unity Books.