In some ways, Obama’s desires for a stable home and family are quite conventional, and she uses the conventionally feminine, domestic metaphor of knitting to describe them. “We were learning to adapt, to knit ourselves into a solid and forever form of us,” she writes of the first months of her marriage to Barack. It isn’t easy: in the Robinson-Obama union, the South Side power-walker meets the Hawaii-born ambler; the meticulous planner and striver with an “instinctive love of a crowd” and a desire for family must adapt to the messy, cerebral dreamer who loves solitude and books at least as much as he loves people. Later, the woman who loathes politics must throw her life into her husband’s pursuit of the Presidency.
Things are complicated long before the campaign, as children both complete and unsettle the Obamas’ carefully cultivated “us.” Once Obama gets pregnant, through I.V.F., her resentment at Barack’s distance from the pain of miscarriage and needles gives way to feelings of maternal pride. Upon Malia’s arrival, she writes, “motherhood became my motivator”—yet, three years (and almost twenty pages) later, she is most galvanized by her new full-time job, at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Although she considers staying home when Sasha is born, she instead takes the job, which “[gets her] out of bed in the morning,” though Barack’s comparative absence, as a commuting state and U.S. senator, gets her home in time for dinner. Then, just as Sasha is about to start elementary school and Obama is “on the brink of . . . [firing] up my ambition again and [considering] a new set of goals,” it is decided that Barack should run for President.
Michelle is still driven, but now by a desire not to fail Barack’s growing base of supporters. In an effort to “earn” public approval, she talks a lot about her kids while campaigning—a safe subject for a black woman who was framed in negative contemporary press accounts as an unpatriotic shrew. As the Obamas near the Iowa primaries, Michelle’s growing commitment to Barack’s cause is reflected in her language. Her pronouns shift from “him” to “we”—“Our hopes were pinned on Iowa. We had to win it or otherwise stand down”—and she adopts Barack’s own sermonic listing mode, describing meetings with voters “in Davenport, Cedar Rapids, Council Bluffs . . . in bookstores, union halls, a home for aging military veterans, and, as the weather warmed up, on front porches and in public parks.” Her rhetoric itself knits her and Barack into a “we.”
The book as a whole, however, represents a different moment, and announces her ambition to tell her story in her own way. A long memoir by any measure, “Becoming” not only matches the length of Barack’s first book, “Dreams from My Father,” but it also shows Michelle to be a better storyteller than her husband—funnier, and able to generate a surprising degree of suspense about events whose outcomes are a given (the results of Barack’s first run for President, for instance). Having devoted herself to strategically remaking the office of First Lady, through such initiatives as the White House garden and Let Girls Learn, she now reflects on what she has done and who else she might want to become.
Of course, the choices she makes throughout—to focus more and less on work, more and less on family—are a function of privilege. It is a privilege to decide how much or whether to work, and a privilege to have children, whether through I.V.F. or otherwise. The ability to steer one’s own ship also relies on the sheer luck of evading any number of American disasters: layoffs, mass shootings, prison, domestic violence, lack of health care. Then there are the disasters perpetrated by the U.S. surveillance state, which can undo black women, such as Sandra Bland, or their children, such as Kalief Browder. Under these conditions of hypervisibility, no amount of strategic maneuvering can guarantee one’s safety. And, in light of this, the Obamas’ faith in the American system, and in electoral politics, can seem woefully insufficient.
It comes as something of a relief, then, that, even as Michelle seeks to bind her own story to that of her husband and, through him, to that of the nation, the story of her mother, Marian Robinson, hints at an exit. Robinson is a willfully marginal figure in the text, as she was in the White House—famously reluctant to move in, and evasive of its basic security protocols. She gave everything to her kids (“We were their investment,” Michelle writes of her parents’ devotion to their two children) and stood by her husband, Fraser Robinson III, while multiple sclerosis drained him of strength. And yet, it turns out, she harbored fantasies of leaving. It is here that Obama’s portrait of her mother grows most vivid: “Much later, my mother would tell me that every year when spring came and the air warmed up in Chicago, she entertained thoughts about leaving my father. I don’t know if these thoughts were actually serious or not. . . . But for her it was an active fantasy, something that felt healthy and maybe even energizing to ponder, almost as ritual.” Obama sees this ritual as an internal renewal of vows for Marian, akin to how doubts about God might be said to bolster one’s faith. But the fantasy also represents a wholly other possibility: not a knitting-together but an unfurling, a quiet dream of escape.
Trump is certainly not the first President to shape a story by inviting people to be lauded during his State of the Union address. Barack Obama invited twenty-three different people to his last address, in 2016; at least fifteen of them were activists, working on causes including homelessness, opioid addiction, access to education, same-sex marriage, discrimination against Muslims, and more. The stories they embodied were ones of overcoming adversity but also of working with others toward a better future. Trump’s guests, on the other hand, were all survivors.
They survived D Day.
They survived decades in American prisons and, through the study of religion, earned second chances in their late middle age.
They survived unimaginable grief.
They survived immigration.
They survived cancer. (Notably, although one of Trump’s more ambitious promises was to eliminate new H.I.V. infections within ten years, there was no guest with a story of surviving with H.I.V.)
They survived losing a child.
They survived a mass shooting.
And they survived the Holocaust.
The sole exception to this narrative was the astronaut whose achievement was fifty years old.
Living with a sense of danger so profound and so constant, a people would be unable to think of much beyond immediate survival. They could have little ambition for technological or scientific achievement. They could have no vision of organizing their society in a better, more equitable way. With fear as their only political motivator, their only goal could be a united front. If they felt constantly on the brink of extinction, that might help explain why, on the one hand, they armed themselves obsessively, and, on the other, they put people behind bars for decades at a time. And, living in this constant state of dread, they could not have the presence of mind, or the imagination, to tackle the longer-term danger of climate change—which, of course, makes it less likely that a future historian will be looking at Trump’s State of the Union address at all.
John of the Cross was invited by Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582) to join her in reforming the Carmelite Order by returning to a renewed fidelity to prayer, simplicity, and poverty. The priests of the order did not take kindly to the suggestion that they needed reform and demanded that John stop his involvement. John said that he would not stop because he discerned in his heart that God was calling him to continue with this work. The priests responded in a very harsh manner, capturing him and putting him in a small dark prison cell with little protection from the elements. John was imprisoned for nine months. During that time, on a number of occasions, he would be taken out of his cell, stripped to the waist, and whipped.
John felt lost. It wasn’t just because of the severity of his imprisonment. This was the Church! The priests who were mistreating him were people he had emulated. John went through what we could call the traumatization of spirituality, which can be described as a kind of dark night of faith in which we lose experiential access to God’s sustaining presence in the midst of our struggles. [I, Richard, imagine many are going through a similar experience as we learn about the Catholic Church’s extensive cover-up of sexual abuse.]
Trauma is the experience of being powerless to establish a boundary between our self and that which is about to inflict, or is already inflicting, serious harm or even death. It is one of the most acute forms of suffering that a human being can know. It is the experience of imminent annihilation. And so, when your faith in God has been placed in the people who represent God’s presence in your life and those people betray you, you can feel that God has betrayed you. And it is in this dark night that we can learn from God how to find our way to a deeper experience and understanding of God’s sustaining presence, deeper than institutional structures and authority figures.
For John of the Cross, his suffering opened up onto something unexpected. John discovered that although it was true that he could not find refuge from suffering when he was in his prison cell, he also discovered that the suffering he had to endure had no refuge from God’s love that could take the suffering away, but rather permeated the suffering through and through and through and through and through. Love protects us from nothing, even as it unexplainably sustains us in all things. Access to this love is not limited by our finite ideas of what it is or what it should be. Rather, this love overwhelms our abilities to comprehend it, as it so unexplainably sustains us and continues to draw us to itself in all that life might send our way.
This is why John of the Cross encourages us not to lose heart when we are passing through our own hardships, but rather to have faith in knowing and trusting that no matter what might be happening and no matter how painful it might be, God is sustaining us in ways we cannot and do not need to understand. John encourages us that in learning to be patiently transformed in this dark night we come to discover within ourselves, just when everything seems to be lost, that we are being unexplainably sustained by the presence of God that will never lose us. As this painful yet transformative process continues to play itself out in our lives, we can and will discover we are finding our way to the peace of God that surpasses understanding.
In each instance, it has been less than a year since the allegations against these men surfaced, and in each instance, the men have done little in the way of public contrition. When they have apologized, they have done so with carefully worded, legally vetted statements. They have deflected responsibility. They have demonstrated that they don’t really think they’ve done anything wrong. And worse, people have asked for the #MeToo movement to provide a path to redemption for these men, as if it is the primary responsibility of the victimized to help their victimizers find redemption.
“Should a man pay for his misdeeds for the rest of his life?” This is always the question raised when we talk about justice in the case of harassment and rape allegations against public figures. How long should a man who has faced no legal and few financial consequences for such actions pay the price?
I appreciate the idea of restorative justice — that it might be possible to achieve justice through discussing the assault I experienced with the perpetrators and that I might be involved in determining an appropriate punishment for their crime. Restorative justice might afford me the agency they took from me. But I also appreciate the idea of those men spending some time in a prison cell, as problematic as the carceral system is, to think long and hard about the ways in which they violated me. I would like them to face material consequences for their actions because I have been doing so for 30 years. There is a part of me that wants them to endure what I endured. There is a part of me that is not interested in restoration. That part of me is interested in vengeance.
We spend so little energy thinking about justice for victims and so much energy thinking about the men who perpetrate sexual harassment and violence. We worry about what will become of them in the wake of their mistakes. We don’t worry as much about those who have suffered at their hands. It is easier, for far too many people, to empathize with predators than it is to empathize with prey.
.. he has remained in control of the narrative. He gets to break the rules, and then he gets to establish rules of his own when he must answer for his misdeeds.
.. He should pay until he demonstrates some measure of understanding of what he has done wrong and the extent of the harm he has caused. He should attempt to financially compensate his victims for all the work they did not get to do because of his efforts to silence them.
- .. He should facilitate their getting the professional opportunities they should have been able to take advantage of all these years.
- He should finance their mental health care as long as they may need it.
- He should donate to nonprofit organizations that work with sexual harassment and assault victims.
- He should publicly admit what he did and why it was wrong without excuses and legalese and deflection.
.. Whatever private acts of contrition these men, and a few women, might make to their victims demands a corresponding public act of contrition, one offered genuinely, rather than to save face or appease the crowd. Until then, they don’t deserve restorative justice or redemption. That is the price they must pay for the wrong they have done.