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Sotomayor Opens Up About Childhood, Marriage In 'Beloved World'

Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor applauds during a reception in her honor at the White House.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor applauds during a reception in her honor at the White House.

Over the course of time, Supreme Court justices have written 225 books. Few reveal much about the justices themselves, but Justice Sonia Sotomayor's autobiography, My Beloved World, is a searingly candid memoir about her life growing up in the tenements of the Bronx, going to Princeton and Yale Law School, becoming a prosecutor and a private corporate lawyer and, at age 38, becoming a federal judge.

More important from a reader's perspective, this is a page-turner, beautifully written and novelistic in its tale of family, love and triumph. It is almost certain to become a best-seller.

Justice Clarence Thomas was the last member of the court to write a book that topped the list of national book sales, but while his vividly written autobiography sizzles with rage and resentment, Sotomayor's hums with hope and exhilaration.

Those who remember the stilted Sotomayor confirmation hearings will learn from this book that the real Sonia Sotomayor is a very different animal. She is a joyous, compassionate Latina who revels in her heritage; she is the child of an alcoholic father, a chilly mother and a grandmother who served as her source of "protection and purpose." She is, by her own telling, a logical thinker, who clawed her way to success through self-reliance, discipline and the help of mentors and friends.

Sotomayor's book is likely to be a best-seller not only because she has a great tale to tell and tells it well, but also because she is the first Hispanic to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. To watch the justice enter the kitchen of a large hotel to thank the staff after a big function is to understand her star power in the Hispanic community. And for those like Sotomayor's mother, who spoke mainly Spanish at home, the book is being published not just in English but also in Spanish.

The first revelation in Sotomayor's book is how three things dominated her childhood: her father's alcoholism, her parents' fights and her diabetes. This last was because at the time of her diagnosis, diabetes was viewed as a "deadly curse." As a child, Sotomayor figured she wouldn't live as long as most people so she "couldn't afford to waste time." That urgency, she writes, "has always stayed with me, even as the threat has receded."

For this reviewer, the great narrative of the book involves Sotomayor's relationship with her mother, the parent she resented as a child, blaming her in some ways for her father's alcoholism. Her mother's way of dealing with the drinking was to avoid being home — working nights and weekends.

Looking at things through Sotomayor's eyes as a child, it was her mother who bore the blame for much of the family discord. It was her mother who moved the family away from other relatives and to the projects; it was her mother who made Sonia and her brother go to Catholic schools; and "though my mother and I shared the same bed ... she might as well have been a log, lying there with her back to me."

In contrast, "the best times of the week for me," she writes, were when she went shopping for food with her father on payday. He taught her how to choose fruit and meat, and the two were pals.

Even as a 9-year-old, though, Sonia Sotomayor was a realist. She understood that her father was slipping away from her because of his drinking. When he died, she was not really surprised, nor was she surprised by her sadness. What did surprise and puzzle her was her mother's incredible grief — not realizing until much later that her mother was mourning not just the death of her husband, but the death of her marriage to a man she once had loved so deeply and dearly.

It would be a long time before Sotomayor would come to understand her mother and know how desperately hard her life had been as an orphan in Puerto Rico. And while the future justice credits her mother with teaching her the values of education, hard work and discipline, it would be a long time before she would understand why it was so hard for her mother to express affection. "It wasn't until I began to write this book, nearly fifty years after the events of that sad year, that I came to a truer understanding of my mother's grief," she writes. "It was only when I had the strength and purpose to talk about the cold expanse between us that she confessed her emotional limitations in a way that called me to forgiveness." A mother who had no parents was ill-equipped to express warmth. "How should I know these things, Sonia? Whoever showed me how to be warm when I was young?"

I will not spoil the reader's pleasure in watching the relationship between mother and daughter unfold, including a confrontation between 9-year-old Sonia and her mother, who locked herself in a dark room for months after her husband's death. But this is a story of human triumph, not just for the future justice, but for her mother, for her doctor brother and, though it may be a cliche, for the American dream.

It is a story too of Latin life in America, rich with descriptions of food and parties at her grandmother's house, complete with dancing, recitations of poetry and even forbidden seances, calling forth the spirits.

Sotomayor's tale of moving from the poverty of the projects to life at Princeton and Yale is entertaining and informative, reminding us that especially in the pre-Internet era, but probably now too, children whose parents live meager paycheck-to-paycheck lives can be amazingly isolated. Sotomayor didn't know what "the Ivies" were when a friend told her she should apply to them. The nuns at Cardinal Spellman High School suggested she apply to Fordham. But she initially lusted for Harvard after seeing Love Story, and she disdained Fordham, admitting ruefully in the book that she might have been more willing to apply there if she had known that many of the campus scenes in the movie were actually filmed at Fordham. In the end though, Harvard terrified her when she visited the school for an interview. It was so alien that she literally fled.

Later, her naivete leads to some hilarious scenes at Princeton, as when she throws away an invitation to join Phi Beta Kappa, believing it to be a "scam." Only the intervention of an eagle-eyed friend, who saw the letter in the trash, saved the day.

Sotomayor goes to considerable lengths to say she is not "self-made." She candidly describes her struggles and failures, starting with how she learned to study in middle school: She asked the girl who got the most gold stars. But it soon becomes clear that while she needed help from lots of people to succeed, her own devotion to work and discipline have been the mainstays of her life.

At Princeton, she quickly realized she was deficient in English and in writing skills, prompting her to design for herself a crash course in writing and reading the classics. It was not the first time she would fall on her face but pick herself up and work like a demon to improve. In her first legal job, as a summer associate in a big New York firm, she failed miserably. After law school she describes her beginning panics as a "duckling" handling misdemeanors in the Manhattan district attorney's office, and how she transformed herself into a top felony prosecutor. After four years, though, she decided to leave, fearing she was losing her humanity. "I could see the signs that I too was hardening, and I didn't like what I saw. Even my sympathy for the victims, once such an inexhaustible driver of my efforts, was being depleted by the daily spectacle of misdeeds and misery."

She is similarly candid in describing her marriage and divorce.

Sotomayor writes with a sense of humor. Describing her post-divorce life, she observes wryly, "Probably nothing constrained my dating life as much as living at home with my mother. To hear her screaming from the bedroom, 'Sonia, it's midnight. You have to work tomorrow!' did not exactly make me feel like Mary Tyler Moore. "

For the reader, one of the most fascinating aspects of the Sotomayor personality turns out to be the way she confronts her fears and failures. She doesn't do well in a course, so she enrolls in a harder one on the same subject. She is afraid of swimming, so she takes swimming lessons and becomes a regular in the pool. She is a clumsy klutz, so she decides to soothe the heartache of a failed romance by taking Salsa lessons and learns to dance. Even her looks and clothes — something she always claimed to have no interest in because she couldn't compete with her stylish mother — she eventually learns to deal with. She takes shopping lessons from a friend and gets her own style.

In the forward to her book, Sotomayor writes: "I have ventured to write more intimately about my personal life than is customary for a member of the Supreme Court, and with that candor comes a measure of vulnerability. I will be judged as a human being by what readers find here. There are hazards to openness, but they seem minor compared with the possibility that some readers may find comfort, perhaps even inspiration, from a close examination of how an ordinary person, with strengths and weaknesses like anyone else, has managed an extraordinary journey."

It is an apt observation, except that after reading the book, few will think she is ordinary.

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Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.