WASHINGTON – When setting out to write his book “Michelle Obama: A Life,” Medill Associate Professor Peter Slevin didn’t want to write about a person. He sought to capture a legacy.
“As I saw the way audiences reacted to her, as I heard her tell her story and as I realized what a very strong, independent identity she had from Barack Obama, I felt that she deserved a book where she was at the center of her own narrative – not just wife-of,” he said as part of a presentation April 14.
Slevin regaled more than 50 Medill students, faculty and alumni with the book’s origin and stories about the first lady’s life and shared passages from the book during the evening reception at the Medill Washington newsroom.
Slevin said that he wanted to ground Obama’s depiction in the historical backdrop in which she was born and flourished. His research also included digging up her family history and finding relatives to decode the context in which her parents grew up “because they are so important to her.”
Remarkably, Slevin wrote the book without interviewing the first lady.
“The key, to me, is getting out of the office and finding people who know your subject,” he explained, saying the next steps are to talk to such people repeatedly, listen “very hard” and consistently challenge “your own assumptions.”
From that point, Slevin said, a journalist’s duty is to uncover the sum of a subject’s words and actions so that their voice can still become part of the final product.
Slevin said he hoped readers would delve beyond Obama’s surface and consider “what she represents, the history she has lived, how far we have progressed and how far we have not.”
Nicholas Kariuki, a Medill graduate student from Nairobi, Kenya, called the event “inspiring” and said the book “encourages perseverance” for stories whose sourcing challenges require journalists to find alternative ways to craft a narrative.
Christina Deshazo, a senior financial analyst from Baltimore, said she found an unexpected point of empathy with Obama via their shared connection to Washington’s Anacostia neighborhood, where Deshazo moved last year.
“I kind of feel some of the same things that she does,” she said, noting Obama’s humanitarian interests – as explained by Slevin.
Ashley Lewis, a proposal coordinator from Shady Side, Maryland, said that she found Slevin to be “very in touch, knowledgeable and unbiased in his approach to writing the book.”