There is a scene at the beginning of Michelle Obama’s book that summarizes perfectly what leaving the White House meant for her, after eight years of living in a golden cage where her every move was observed. She describes the first night that she experienced post-first-lady freedom. The family had moved to a new home, and the house was still full of unopened boxes containing presidential memories: gifts from Native American students, photos from trips to Camp David, and even a signed book from Nelson Mandela.
Michelle was home alone, since Barack was away, Sasha had gone out with friends, and Malia was in New York, working and preparing to begin her studies at college. The two family dogs kept Michelle company, following her around the house. Sometime around dusk, she was hungry and went to the refrigerator, but it was surprisingly empty. Only a loaf of bread. She opened the package, took out two slices, toasted them, and went to the garden. This was the first time in years that she didn’t have to tell anybody what she was planning to do. And she felt alone, in the best possible way.
Michelle describes her childhood, her adolescence, and her university years, as well as her arrival at the White House, a place that is totally different from the neighborhood where she grew up with her parents and brother. She describes how the context of her youth helped forge her confidence and strength.
Michelle grew up in a lower middle class black family that had to scramble at times to make it to the end of the month. When she was young, her father was diagnosed with a degenerative illness that prevented him from working, so he was unable to continue visiting the neighborhoods where the most humble and neediest Democrats lived. From her mother, Michelle inherited her strength, her love of books and reading and her love for her family. Michelle writes often and affectionately about her brother, Craig, who, according to her, inherited the sweet smile and optimistic spirit of their father, and the relentlessness of their mother.
As was the case with many other families of their generation, social gatherings often centered on day-to-day struggles and individual problems among family and friends. The feeling was one of a wide community that cared for one another in solidarity. Her community forged her tenacity, which she summarized this way: “I had to learn how to use my voice in many different situations, with thugs in the neighborhood, in the university classrooms, and in the world.”
The advice that Michelle’s mother, Marian, gave her proved to be quite useful to the younger woman: “First make money. Then look for happiness.”
Just after her wedding ceremony, still dressed in white and dancing with Barack to Stevie Wonder, Michelle felt a realization that her partnership was already growing, in stability and endurance.
I’ve read many biographies, and few are as sincere and accessible as Michelle Obama’s. She relates intimate aspects of her life, like the birth of their daughters, her miscarriage, and rough patches in her marriage. She summarizes her marital difficulties: “I want to make sure that people know that marriage can be extremely hard and also extremely gratifying.”
The Obamas’ marriage has passed through both the good and the bad, and they have emerged more robust for the effort. Their partnership and growth is a large part of the reason they both emanate such magnetism.