Michelle Obama attends MUSE New York 2018 at One World Observatory on February 27, 2018 in New York City. Photo / Getty Images

Michelle Obama's Inspirational Memoir Also Rings True & Tough

The former First Lady's new memoir Becoming is a work of realism

It’s the middle of the night in Chicago, the sweltering summer of 1989. A woman turns over in bed to find her new boyfriend wide-awake, looking worried.

“Hey,” she whispers to him. “What’re you thinking about over there?”

She wonders: Is it them? Is it the death of his father?

“Oh, I was just thinking about income inequality,” he says.

No need to summon Nora Ephron back from the dead: Michelle Obama has just written her own script. The relationship between the high-achieving, over-thinking, massively sceptical control freak and the oddly-named man with the “impish, I-got-this-covered grin” is romantic gold. And on the evidence of Becoming, Ms Obama’s extravagantly anticipated memoir, that private dynamic is a large part of what lay behind the long political moment that has come to an end.

READ: The Designer Behind Michelle Obama's Official Portrait Dress

You may have read some of the news stories that have emerged from Becoming. She describes the demoralising feeling of miscarrying a child; she talks about conceiving her daughters through IVF, and the resentment she experienced as she injected herself with hormones while her husband, Barack Obama, carried on with his normal working life; she says they went for couples therapy when he became a politician; she asserts that she’ll never run for office; she is fleetingly but emphatically negative about Donald Trump.

Yet more than any of these individual examples suggest, Becoming is a work of realism. That may be a strange conclusion to draw about a work of non-fiction, but one of the features of a certain kind of American memoir is an “inspirational” quality that soars above life, even as it includes “hardscrabble” beginnings. Michelle Obama is nothing if not inspiring. But her story rings true, and tough.

Those who have loved her for dancing on TV with Ellen DeGeneres or doing Carpool Karaoke with James Corden will find that her childhood is not a comedy routine but a history lesson, full of women who don’t speak up, black men who downgrade their hopes, black boys stopped by policemen because their bike is assumed to be stolen.

It’s a life in which an articulate black girl is asked why she speaks “like a white girl”; in which “you never quite knew what other folks saw you to be”.

READ: Michelle Obama On The Cover Of Vogue

She raises an eyebrow about politics throughout. One of her high school friends was Santita Jackson, daughter of the Reverend Jesse. Michelle spent time with that family as a teenager, and found straight away that “there was something about politics that made me queasy”. When her husband discusses his hope to run the country, she hopes instead for “normalcy and stability”. She encourages him, but that’s partly because she doesn’t for a moment think that he can win.

“Quite honestly, I thought he’d get eaten alive.”

At the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, at which her husband accepted his party’s nomination for the US presidency, Michelle Obama gave a speech.

I remember thinking at the time that it was too soft — or rather, that it was disappointingly necessary. She was seen in some quarters as an “angry black woman”, and, as she counters in this memoir, “which part of that phrase matters to them the most — is it ‘angry’ or ‘black’ or ‘woman’?” The book elucidates what led to her traditionally “feminine” focus in that speech: just beforehand, Obama’s advisers showed her video footage of herself with the sound turned off. She saw it straight away: she was “too serious. Too severe”. She felt, she writes, “tears pricking at my eyes”.

READ: Michelle Obama's First Lady Fashion

In the course of that speech she also spoke about her husband’s distinction between “the world as it is” and “the world as it should be”. Too often, both Obamas have said, we accept the distance between those things, and settle for the world as it is. Her memoir winds down on the same note. Speaking of their years in the White House, she says she thinks she experienced “what many did... A glimmer of the world as it could be”.

She really meant what she said a decade ago in Denver, and it wasn’t soft after all. It was pretty hard — in fact, depending on where you stand, it now looks almost impossible.

— The Daily Telegraph

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