When Michelle Obama’s Words Felt Like A Reassuring Echo Of My Own Thoughts

Posted: February 18, 2019

Becoming by Michelle Obama touches the reader in unexpected ways. “The book is not just her memoir,” says Piyusha Vir. “but extends Hope to all who read it.”

When the book was first released, I knew this one was going to be a winner! Not just because it was written by the first African American First Lady of the United States but also because here was a woman every bit as ambitious and driven – something she admits to in the book – as any other when it came to her dreams and goals.

When Shonda Rhimes first reviewed this book on her website, it included some inside stories of how she got to read the book before anyone else and was invited to be part of an exclusive book discussion, and her own experience of reading the book.

Shonda says she was all set to be the impressive intellectual reviewer and had readied her arsenal with highlighters, post-its and a notebook for some major note-taking. Except somewhere near page 15, she read something that was so relatable and honest that she had to put aside the highlighter and the sticky notes, and tamp down on the efforts to grab every free moment of reading in public places, and instead settle down for a comforting read. She writes, ‘On page 15, swiftly, and without warning, Michelle Obama showed me myself.’

Suddenly finding myself in there

The same thing happened to me too. Here I was all ready with Evernote, a sharpened pencil, and a highlighter to mark my favourite passages and take notes of my reactions as I read the book. Except that my moment of revelation came much earlier.

‘I wanted a dog. I wanted a house that had stairs in it – two floors for one family.’

‘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 a some point you become something and that’s the end.’

And just like that, Michele Obama showed me myself, right on page 1.

It was then that I realized that this wasn’t just another woman’s opinions I agreed with; but in fact; my own wishes and opinions expressed in someone’s else voice – that too, a former First Lady, no less!

It wasn’t just about another woman saying the exact same things I wanted to. It was more about holding the world to a higher standard. It was about being better versions of ourselves. It was about not asking the most redundant question to kids. It was about striving to become something or achieving the next goal or learning a new lesson.

The name ‘Becoming’ itself meant that to me – more than the idea of becoming Michelle Obama – even before I had picked up the book, and I rejoiced when saw one of the chapters was titled ‘Becoming More’; because that’s what we should all endeavour to be–becoming more than who and what we already are.

It was then that I too decided to put away the highlighters, turn off my cell phone, and snuggle into bed to read her story.

A no-holds-barred, warm and heartfelt reveal

What also made more special the reading experience was its timing. Becoming was this month’s pick in our small but intimate online book club spanning continents and time zones. Obviously, I was excited about being able to share and exchange notes with my friends.

Becoming isn’t a book; but a hugely intimate chat between you and Michelle while snuggled inside the blanket, accompanied with steaming mugs of hot cocoa, honest confessions and warm, but sometimes randomly funny, conversations. (At least, that’s what it felt to me, as I snuck under my blanket, and read the book while sipping hot chocolate. This was me blissfully experiencing the chilly Delhi winter at its best!) The extremely personal details that she shares with the utmost warmth, the luxurious lifestyle that she narrates with an undercurrent of humility, and the insights into her life that are rather matter of factly are what make this book a far deeper and meaningful read.

Never for a moment, despite those highly personal stories and intricate family details, does the read become uninteresting or irrelevant.

Was it Michelle, or was it me?

There are quite a few instances narrated in the book where it seemed as if the words that I was reading weren’t about Michelle Obama but instead, me. Whether it be her talking about the other rich school kids returning from foreign vacations, or her love for anything writing-related and dislike for Calculus, or even how she would come home and tell her mother all that happened at school. I am, even to this day, teased about how I would get back from school and launch into an endless chatter about what happened in class. I wouldn’t rest until I had narrated the day’s events in minute detail–a practice that continues, albeit with lesser detail, even today.

Like her, I had changed careers after I felt confused and lost despite gaining a premium education. Like her, I was lucky to listen to myself and follow my dreams despite pay cuts leading to financial struggles. Like me, she had self-doubts too and constantly questioned if she was good enough. (I am the self-appointed self-doubt queen! Am I doing the right thing? Will this work? Am I good enough?)

A question of identity

One particular part that stayed with me and which I related to strongest was about the confused identity as a child. There have been numerous instances when I have myself experienced the same indignation when people have tried to slot me in a certain box, and the subsequent insulting questions and judgements when they were unable to do so. Someone had once gone to the extent of tracing my ancestral lineage, ultimately declaring me a Pakistani, simply on account of my great-grandfather being from pre-partition Punjab, without realizing that in the pre-partition era Pakistan did not exist. It would have been laughable, really, had it not been so damaging, infuriating and hurtful. It wasn’t being called a Pakistani that actually angered me but the double insinuation of conforming to archaic rules to define one’s identity and that I needed help to figure out mine. That I chose to be who I wanted to be, and that caste and ethnicity were not in my list of criteria was something they couldn’t fathom.

There are several and more such instances where I felt a strong resonance to what she experienced or believed in. The incident she narrates about her friend suffering from cancer made me emotional and reminded me of the time when I had observed a neighbour lose their battle to cancer. The part about how she met and fell in love with Barack Obama strengthened my resolve to not settle down with just about anyone. It reinforced my idea of an ideal partner being one who appreciated me as a freethinking individual with opinions and dreams rather than my cooking or home-management skills. (Also, it made me develop a gigantic crush on the man, apart from already fan-girling over Michelle.)

An honest look at herself, under a strong spotlight

To say that the book is honest and heartfelt would be as obvious as saying the book is about Michelle Obama. She accords herself no indulgences or privileges as the author and ends up talking about her moments of inadequacies and weakness with the same objectivity as her strengths and achievements. It is this objectivity which gives the book an endearing and humane feel. Her struggles as a working mother barely managing time for herself to eat a decent meal or a feminist who had to make compromises because her husband’s career was more important are real and would come across as relatable to many mothers and working women.

Sample these:

  • ‘It was maybe then that I felt a first flicker of resentment involving politics and Barack’s unshakable commitment to the work. Or maybe I was just feeling the acute burden of being female.’
  • ‘We didn’t wait for Dad. It wasn’t his job now to catch up with us.’
  • ‘Look how I’m managing, I wanted to say in those moments to my audience of no one. Does everyone see that I’m pulling it off?’
  • ‘… it wasn’t equal, either, and for any woman who lives by the mantra that equality is important, this can be a little confusing.’

The narration about her husband’s meteoric rise to Presidency is emotional – the confusion at how fast their life was changing, the hurt that was a result of all the political mudslinging, the sense of disbelief at actually having won comes across well – and sweeps the reader in the same emotions.

Being the first African-American First Lady

I’ve always been fascinated by life in the White House. What does it feel to be living in the world’s most protected residence? What is their everyday life surrounded in such opulence like?

I had earlier read about their life in the White House in The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House and understood them to be extremely private and humble people, who, if they could help it, would rather avoid the public scrutiny. Becoming More offers more detailed insight into that and, since it is from Michelle’s perspective, gives it a quality no other ‘First Lady’ account can claim. Her acceptance of what the tough job entailed is evident in the following lines –

‘It’s not technically a job, nor is it an official government title. It comes with no salary and no spelled-out set of obligations.’

‘I understood already that I’d be measured by a different yardstick. As the only African American First Lady to set foot in the White House I was ‘other’ almost by default.’

Some lessons that I took away

The book also handed me – the writer, teacher-trainer, feminist, and, above all, the human being in me – some extremely valuable lessons –

  • ‘Kids will invest more when they feel they’re being invested in.’ (As a previous female employee in one of the most sexist industries who often felt not valued enough, and now as a trainer who teaches all age groups, I feel this extends to adults too.)
  • ‘Are you good enough? Yes, you are.’ (I am going to say this every time that dreaded monster called Self-doubt resurfaces.)
  • ‘You may live in the world as it is, but you can still work to create a world as it should be.’ (As someone desiring change but often feeling disgusted by the world around her, this shall offer me solace.)

All through while reading the book I tried describing it in words other than its one-word title. The book, or rather Michelle’s life specifically, is about making a difference. So, the words Change and Impact seemed to be most appropriate descriptions of what the book chronicles. It was only after I finished the book that the right word came to me – Hope. Her life may have been about bringing about change and impacting lives but what the book actually does is offer hope to others.

The book, overall, has been not just a brilliant and hugely impactful inspiring read but also one of immense learning and understanding – of her life and achievements, but more so, of me and my potential. Of becoming what we should be.

And for that, I am forever grateful to her – not just for writing the book but for showing us the path by the sheer virtue of becoming who she is.

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Piyusha is a sometime sane reader, part-time crazy writer and full-time wacky alien.

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