Becoming by Michelle Obama
I hope you had a chance to pick up a copy of Michelle Obama's Becoming. If not, I hope you get to it at some point. She tells her story with incredible humility, downplaying all of her accomplishments and all of the sacrifices she made to be successful in her work. She made me believe that anything is possible, that the everyday (wo)man can take intentional steps to change the world in concrete ways.
As the plot accelerates towards the end she encourages her reader to "bear with me here, because this doesn't necessarily get easier. It would be one thing if America were a simple place with a simple story. If I could narrate my part in it only through the lens of what was orderly and sweet. If there were no steps backward. And if every sadness, when it came, turned out at least to be redemptive in the end. But that's not America, and it's not me, either. I'm not going to try to bend this into any kind of perfect shape." (379)
And yet, I thought it was perfectly crafted to show we are all a work in progress, that if we would just choose to do so, we could all "become."
She writes with increasing passion as she describes how she loved her country "for all the ways its story could be told." She writes:
"For almost a decade, I'd been privileged to move through it, experiencing its bracing contradictions and bitter conflicts, its pain and persistent idealism, and above all else its resilience. My view was unusual, perhaps, but I think what I experienced during those years is what many did-- a sense of progress, the comfort of compassion, the joy of watching the unsung and invisible find some light. A glimmer of the world as it could be. This was our bid for permanence: a rising generation that understood what was possible-- and that even more was possible for them. Whatever was coming next, this was a story we could own." (416)
I have never been a political person, but, reading her words, I thought maybe I could be. At the very least they made me wonder what more I could do in my own life to "invite one another in" as she admonishes in her epilogue.
Come on over on Tuesday and let us know your thoughts on Becoming. Suggested discussion questions are below.
1. Did you begin this book with any assumptions regarding what this book would be about or how the story would be told? (For me, I sort of expected a story of struggle, of rising above discrimination -- racial and possibly gender related. I also wondered how much would be truthful -- how do public figures choose what to tell about themselves?)
2. What did you make of the title Becoming? How does it relate to her writing: "I was ambitious, though I didn't know exactly what I was shooting for. Now I think it's one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child -- What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that's the end." What should we ask our children instead? Compare to later when she writes about making the transition to becoming a First Lady: "If I'd learned anything from the ugliness of the campaign, from the myriad ways people had sought to write me off as angry or unbecoming, it was that public judgment sweeps in to fill any void. If you don't get out there and define yourself, you'll be quickly and inaccurately defined by others" (285). And later, at the end, "becoming isn't about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn't end." (419) And how do we become? "Let's invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us. Maybe we can better embrace the ways we are the same. 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." (421)
3. What did you make of Michelle's mother and her parenting mind-set that Michelle describes as "a kind of unflappable Zen neutrality"? (46)
4. What happens to the Michelle Robinsons of Chicago who don't get to attend Whitney Young Magnet School? As Michelle's mother points out about her own children: "They're not special at all. The South Side is filled with kids like that." And Michelle adds that "we just needed to help get them into [VIP] rooms." (355)
5. What do you make of her memory of her guidance counselor saying "I'm not sure that you're Princeton material," and her observations about overcoming the doubts of others: "The noise doesn't go away, but the most successful people I know have figured out how to live with it, to lean on the people who believe in them, and to push onward with their goals" (67). Was there a time when someone doubted you? Were you able to push through that doubt?
6. Does the "burden of integration" fall mainly to one group over another? "The hope was that all of us would mingle in heterogeneous harmony, deepening the quality of student life across the board....But even today, with white students continuing to outnumber students of color on college campuses, the burden of assimilation is put largely on the shoulders of minority students. In my experience, it's a lot to ask." (74) (It's funny but I feel a burden to seek out people of color, to understand different people groups and feel like a failure when I can't break through cultural or language barriers.)
7. What do you make of Suzanne's story? Cautionary tale? Reminder that life is short? Reminder not to judge others' decisions?
8. While Michelle is suffering through law and realizing she wants a different path, what do you make of her mother's response: "I say make the money first and worry about your happiness later." Is there any truth to Michelle's statement that "fulfillment, I'm sure, struck her as a rich person's conceit"? (135)
9. When Michelle decides to set strict dinner and bedtimes for her girls and not wait up for dad, she writes: "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) Is this extreme feminism? Is it really playing to patriarchy to wait for dad? Or is it just about wanting to include the whole family and operate as one unit?
10. Michelle writes that her "goals mostly involved maintaining normalcy and stability, but those would never be Barack's", repeatedly pointing out how they differ from each other. (211) But does she give herself credit? Is she not brave and adventurous herself in her pursuit to improve the lives of those around her and engage in the world? How about the number of times she reinvents herself -- as a corporate lawyer, as a city hall employee, in a community relations role at the University of Chicago, in a community relations role at the University Medical Center, working her way up to be a vice president?
11. She shares many personal details. What is she not saying? About how she made her job decisions? About how she decided to move out of her mother's house (finally) to her own apartment, then condo, then house? About what her working mother home/work balance was like?
12. Relatedly, who is her audience? She writes that during the first presidential campaign she noticed that reporters "rarely asked about my work...[and speculated] that I'd been promoted at the hospital not due to my own hard work and merit but because of my husband's growing political stature" (241). And now? In her own book? Why spend so much time on his campaigns and not devote the same detail to telling the reader about her careers?
13. Were you as sheepish as I was when she wrote: "Along the [campaign trail in Iowa], reporters and even some acquaintances began asking me some form of the same questions: What was it like to be a five-foot-eleven, Ivy League-educated black woman speaking to roomfuls of mostly white Iowans? How odd did that feel? / I never liked this question. It always seemed to be accompanied by a sheepish half smile and the don't-take-this-the-wrong-way inflection that people often use when approaching the subject of race. It was an idea, I felt, that sold us all short, assuming that the differences were all anyone saw." (237) She continues to describe the ways she connected with those around her through what they shared. "These interactions felt natural, genuine. I found myself hugging people instinctively and getting hugged tightly back." (238) Did you make the same assumption? That the differences would stick out more than the similarities?
14. Have you read American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld? It's fiction (about Laura Bush), but I was struck by the difference in Michelle's reaction to voting for her husband. (274)
15. How hilarious is it that Michelle's mom was able to keep such a low profile in Washington that she could even deny her identity?! "Anytime a stranger commented that she looked exactly like Michelle Obama's mother, she'd just give a polite shrug and say, "Yeah, I get that a lot," before carrying on with her business. As she always had, my mother did things her own way." (296)
16. What did you make of the theme of being "good enough" and how it connects her to others? Michelle wonders this when she matriculates to Whitney Young. She wonders this when Barack begins each campaign. And then she hears the same question from within the girls around her at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in England...and she encourages them, acknowledges that they are enough, each and every one of them. (318-320)
Thank you so much for a great discussion of Michelle Obama's Becoming!
As readers, we found ourselves struggling with an interesting tension -- that of wanting to hold this First Lady to a certain ideal and preserve her story to be read for all time...versus craving more of the parts that were personally relatable to each of us in unique ways -- as daughters, wives, mothers, lawyers, natives of Chicago, Princeton alum, community organizers, and hopefuls for a better world. For me, I think this is a book I will be recommending to people for a long time -- and probably for different reasons since it speaks to so many kinds of people. That will be my small testament to her wish for us to discover our similarities rather than letting presumed differences divide us.
For next month...let's have a party! We traditionally skip a book in June in order to wind down and blow off some steam in the midst of a busy season. Then let's meet in July to discuss John Carreyrou's Bad Blood, a read that sounds salacious, thrilling and perfect for summer!
Hope to see you there!
The Tipsy Mamas' Book Club is co-hosted by Corinne Foster and myself, though the spirit of our discussions is flavored by many readers.