Michelle Obama challenged the archetype of the political spouse in spectacular fashion. The accomplished career woman and mother was reluctant to assume the spotlight—“I had to take off my wife hat and put on my citizen hat,” she recently told Oprah of the decision to support her husband’s campaign—but outspoken and captivating once she did. “I talked about everything—about my brother and the values we were raised with, about this hotshot lawyer I met at work, the guy who’d stolen my heart with his groundedness and his vision for the world,” she writes of the speeches she made during the early parts of her husband’s campaign. She attracted large crowds of supporters. And, of course, there was that small, complicating detail: Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, girl of the South Side, is black.
Her specific burden was such: A black woman campaigning alongside the first black man to secure a major-party nomination for the presidency, she was unwavering in her support—and in her countenance—partly because she had no choice. Barack Obama had to work twice as hard, as the adage goes, and so, too, did Michelle. Where success had once been a quantifiable entity for the high-achieving Michelle Robinson, Michelle Obama had to repeatedly recalibrate her affect to satisfy an electorate whose ideas about black women remain shaped by white supremacy. She had to be articulate but not intimidating, classy but not uppity, warm but not loose, sentimental but not hot-blooded. “I was getting worn out, not physically, but emotionally. The punches hurt, even if I understood that they had little to do with who I really was as a person,” she writes. “It was as if there was some cartoon version of me out there wreaking havoc, a woman I kept hearing about but didn’t know—a too-tall, too-forceful, ready-to-emasculate Godzilla of a political wife named Michelle Obama.”
Becoming is at its most striking when it offers readers a glimpse at the preternaturally composed former first lady’s moments of fear and frustration. In one passage, about the rise of public attention after the Iowa caucus preceding the 2008 election, she contrasts Barack’s thick-skinned optimism with her own tendency toward self-doubt in the face of external criticism:
We are built differently, my husband and I, which is why one of us chose politics and the other did not. He was aware of the rumors and misperceptions that got pumped like toxic vapor into the campaign, but rarely did any of it bother him … He’s just not someone who’s easily rattled or thrown off course by anything as abstract as doubt or hurt.
I, on the other hand, was still learning about public life. I considered myself a confident, successful woman, but I was also the same kid who used to tell people she planned to be a pediatrician and devoted herself to setting perfect attendance at school … Over time, I’d gotten better about not measuring my self-worth strictly in terms of standard, by-the-book achievement, but I did tend to believe that if I worked diligently and honestly, I’d avoid the bullies and always be seen as myself.
This belief, though, was about to come undone.
It’s a notable reflection on her own shifting interiority. The memoir goes on to detail the wave of virulent criticism that met Michelle Obama following Barack Obama’s clinching of Iowa. The former first lady zeroes in on the responses to a comment she made during two February 2008 speeches in Wisconsin. “What we have learned over this year is that hope is making a comeback. It is making a comeback. And let me tell you something: For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country,” she said then. “And not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change. And I have been desperate to see our country moving in that direction and just not feeling so alone in my frustration and disappointment. I’ve seen people who are hungry to be unified around some basic common issues, and it’s made me proud.”