Books that Built Us: ‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama

Monday, December 10, 2018 - 12:47pm

Michelle Obama

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I didn’t think I would ever be able to write a Books that Built Us column. I read a lot, but my memory of anything beyond my freshman year of high school is spotty at best. I have plenty of favorite books from my childhood, most of which proved formative enough to warrant me writing a column like this. But, alas, I’d have to reread each of those books, cover to cover, to understand what about them made them great. And even then, I’d never fully remember the ways in which those books impacted me; I’d only remember that the impact they carried was profound.

But then I read “Becoming,” the recently released memoir by Michelle Obama, and I realized that I’m not finished building myself. According to Michelle, even her identity has yet to completely round out. Call it corny, call it meta, but “Becoming” is a book about building ourselves; it built me by proving that this journey never stops. Like Michelle, I’ll spend my entire life constructing the woman I want to become, creating change on a scale that’s even a morsel of what my Forever FLOTUS has managed to enact. The opportunity for lifelong growth is a beautiful thing, and I was too caught up in my insular college bubble to notice that until now.

“Becoming” is divided into three sections. In “Becoming Me,” Michelle takes us from her early childhood on Chicago’s South Side through her tenure at high-power Chicago law firm Sidley Austin. In “Becoming Us” she explains how a former mentee, named Barack, became her partner in life and, eventually, the 44th President of the United States. Finally, in “Becoming More,” Michelle details how she, her husband and their daughters Malia and Sasha navigated eight years in the White House, holding themselves to standards infinitely more stringent than those of former First Families, whose everyday actions weren’t seen as representing an entire racial group. The life of Michelle, a working-class Robinson turned world-leader Obama, clearly hasn’t been an easy one, but she makes it known that it’s been fulfilling in ways she never imagined.

The book is peppered with gloriously honest anecdotes that transform Mrs. Obama from an almost otherworldly superwoman into a real-world role model, one who struggles to balance the needs of a country with the needs of her family and who embarrasses her kids on a regular basis. She recalls Malia’s prom night (then 16 years old, she asked her mom to “Just be cool please”) with the same level of detail as her feelings toward Donald Trump (spoiler: She’s not fond of him). Michelle’s choice to take equal care when discussing candid family moments and global politics speaks volumes. This, I thought while reading, is a woman who has her priorities in line.

I now see a little piece of Michelle Obama within myself, and lately, that has been enough to lift me out of my most insecure moments. I watch my talented friends secure internships at Fortune 500 companies as my email inbox runs dry, and instead of moping, I remind myself that Michelle was waitlisted at Harvard Law, a fact I hadn’t known before reading “Becoming.” When I catch myself getting frustrated with an unexpected shift in routine, I remember her resilience as her husband’s political career uprooted the life she’d built in Chicago, catapulting herself and her daughters across the country into a world of opulence and cynicism unlike anything they’d ever seen.

We’re all building and building ourselves. As Michelle conveys through “Becoming”’s melancholy epilogue, that process is full of ups and downs. At some point, each of us will see our hard work upended by our own personal Trump administration. It’s inevitable, but it’s up to us to decide how we respond. We can lose hope and retreat, or we can be like Michelle. “In my most worried moments, I take a breath and remind myself of the dignity and decency I’ve seen in people throughout my life, the many obstacles that have already been overcome,” she writes, adding: “I hope others will do the same.” Consider this column my answer to that call. I will continue to struggle against my personal evils, but I will continue to build myself. No matter what comes my way, I’ll be like Michelle and I’ll never stop becoming.