It might come as a surprise that there was a time when former First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama subconsciously ordered her life for the approval of others and constantly wondered if she was good enough.
In the preface of her autobiography Becoming, Obama writes that as a child, she used to tell people that she was going to be a paediatrician when she grew up.
“Why? Because I loved being around little kids and I quickly learned that it was a pleasing answer for adults to hear. ‘Oh, a doctor! What a good choice!’”
And then, when she was accepted into a secondary school for high-performing students, her worry was “Am I good enough?” – a refrain that lasts throughout her college years.
The subconscious wish to gain approval resulted in her going to law school and becoming a lawyer, even though the law was not her passion.
As she writes: “Really, it was simple: The first thing was that I hated being a lawyer. I wasn’t suited to the work. I felt empty doing it, even if I was plenty good at it.
“This was a distressing thing to admit, given how hard I’d worked and how in debt I was.
“In my blinding drive to excel, in my need to do things perfectly, I’d missed the signs and taken the wrong road.”
This is not to say that in this, her first autobiography, Obama reveals herself to be an insecure person, but rather that she shares herself – her thoughts, her life – with candour on the written page.
In fact, it is evident that her independence and strength have been with her since childhood, encouraged by her parents’ style of allowing their children – Michelle and her beloved older brother Craig – to make their own decisions, rather than setting out rules for them.
For example, when a teenage Craig, agonising over an invitation by a girl he liked to come by her house while her parents were out, admits to his mother that he and the girl will be alone at home, all mum Marian Robinson says is “Handle it how you think best”.
Obama writes: “I’m sure that in her heart my mother knew already that he’d make the right choice.
“Every move she made, I realize now, was buttressed by the quiet confidence that she’d raised us to be adults.
“Our decisions were on us. It was our life, not hers, and always would be.”
All this is covered in the first part of the book titled “Becoming Me”, which ranges from her memories of growing up in the South Side of Chicago right up to her days as a young lawyer and how she eventually fell for her husband, Barack Obama.
In fact, this section ends with their first kiss before heading into the next part, entitled “Becoming Us”.
The romance is fast-moving, as Obama describes, especially as Barack has to return to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to resume his law studies at Harvard a month after that first kiss.
She shares with us her point of view of not only their burgeoning romance, but also her deepening insights into the type of man Barack is.
It is also here that she writes about her first trip to Africa, when she travels with Barack to Kenya to meet his half-sister Auma and his paternal grandmother Granny Sarah.
Descendants of a diaspora will probably be able to relate to her feelings of visiting the land of her forefathers: “I hadn’t been expecting to fit right in, obviously, but I think I arrived there naively believing I’d feel some visceral connection to the continent I’d grown up thinking of as a sort of mythic motherland, as if going there would bestow on me some feeling of completeness.”
She adds: “It’s a curious thing to realize, the in-betweenness one feels being African American in Africa.
“It gave me a hard-to-explain feeling of sadness, a sense of being unrooted in both lands.”
This section also describes how she reluctantly comes to terms with being a politician’s wife, the difficulties of being a working mother with a husband away for half a week, as well as their difficulties in conceiving.
It concludes when Barack first wins the US Presidential election in 2008, leading into the final part of the book, “Becoming More”.
This section deals with not only Obama’s transition into becoming the First Lady of the US, but also the process of moving to and living in the White House, while being a mother and supportive wife.
And it naturally ends with the inauguration of current US President Donald Trump.
Obama minces no words either about her feelings about Trump, nor hides her feelings about the brickbats she received while in the White House.
The heavy responsibility she had as the first African American First Lady weighed heavily on her.
“I was humbled and excited to be First Lady, but not for one second did I think I’d be sliding into some glamorous, easy role.
“Nobody who has the words ‘first’ and ‘black’ attached to them ever would.”
As you can tell from those words, her story is also a story about being black, being a successful black person, and being a successful black woman in America.
Overall, Becoming is written in a clear and natural writing style that balances description and emotion well.
Despite knowing how things eventually turn out, readers will still be sucked into Obama’s story and carried along as it unfolds chronologically – a good read by any standard.
Author: Michelle Obama
Publisher: Crown/Penguin, autobiography