Portfolio by Mariana Cook: A Couple in Chicago : Reporting & Essays: The New Yorker
A Couple in Chicago
by Mariana Cook
On May 26, 1996, Mariana Cook visited Barack and Michelle Obama in Hyde Park as part of a photography project on couples in America . What follows is excerpted from her interviews with them.
There is a strong possibility that Barack will pursue a political career, although it’s unclear. There is a little tension with that. I’m very wary of politics. I think he’s too much of a good guy for the kind of brutality, the skepticism. When you are involved in politics, your life is an open book, and people can come in who don’t necessarily have good intent. I’m pretty private, and like to surround myself with people that I trust and love. In politics you’ve got to open yourself to a lot of different people. There is a possibility that our futures will go that way, even though I want to have kids and travel, spend time with family, and like spending time with friends. But we are going to be busy people doing lots of stuff. And it’ll be interesting to see what life has to offer. In many ways, we are here for the ride, just sort of seeing what opportunities open themselves up. And the more you experiment the easier it is to do different things. If I had stayed in a law firm and made partner, my life would be completely different. I wouldn’t know the people I know, and I would be more risk-averse. Barack has helped me loosen up and feel comfortable with taking risks, not doing things the traditional way and sort of testing it out, because that is how he grew up. I’m more traditional; he’s the one in the couple that, I think, is the less traditional individual. You can probably tell from the photographs—he’s just more out there, more flamboyant. I’m more, like, “Well, let’s wait and see. What did that look like? How much does it weigh?”
All my life, I have been stitching together a family, through stories or memories or friends or ideas. Michelle has had a very different background—very stable, two-parent family, mother at home, brother and dog, living in the same house all their lives. We represent two strands of family life in this country—the strand that is very stable and solid, and then the strand that is breaking out of the constraints of traditional families, travelling, separated, mobile. I think there was that strand in me of imagining what it would be like to have a stable, solid, secure family life. Michelle is a tremendously strong person, and has a very strong sense of herself and who she is and where she comes from. But I also think in her eyes you can see a trace of vulnerability that most people don’t know, because when she’s walking through the world she is this tall, beautiful, confident woman. There is a part of her that is vulnerable and young and sometimes frightened, and I think seeing both of those things is what attracted me to her. And then what sustains our relationship is I’m extremely happy with her, and part of it has to do with the fact that she is at once completely familiar to me, so that I can be myself and she knows me very well and I trust her completely, but at the same time she is also a complete mystery to me in some ways. And there are times when we are lying in bed and I look over and sort of have a start. Because I realize here is this other person who is separate and different and has different memories and backgrounds and thoughts and feelings. It’s that tension between familiarity and mystery that makes for some thing strong, because, even as you build a life of trust and comfort and mutual support, you retain some sense of surprise or wonder abo ut the other person.