My Beloved World
- Sonia Sotomayor
- 336 pp.
- Reviewed by Judith Areen
- March 13, 2013
An intimate and affecting memoir that focuses on the justice’s formative years.
She is just seven and awakened by her parents yelling at each other. That much is routine, but the substance of their argument is new; she has just been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, and neither parent feels able to give her daily shots of insulin. She decides she must do it herself. She knows the first step is to sterilize the needle and syringe. Barely tall enough to see the top of the stove, she drags over a chair to stand on. After realizing what the girl is doing, remarkably, her mother demonstrates how to light the burner and tell when the water is boiling.
With this gripping memory, Justice Sonia Sotomayor begins her new book, My Beloved World. This is not a book about judging; Sotomayor ends her story when she first becomes a judge. Instead, it is a remarkably intimate memoir of her experiences and emotions. Her goal is to share those experiences, good and bad, in order that some readers may find comfort or even inspiration because “people who live in difficult circumstances need to know that happy endings are possible.”
We already knew about some of the barriers she faced: poverty, chronic illness, ethnic discrimination — but we did not know, or at least I had never considered, the combined effect of those challenges.We begin to understand what she confronted only slowly, as her memoir unfolds and her own awareness develops. We do not hear much about her chronic illness again, for example, until near the end of the book when Sotomayor tells of several occasions when she nearly died from low-blood sugar; she spent most of her life thinking she would be lucky to live past 40. Throughout her tone is calm, matter-of-fact, and never self-pitying as she recounts challenges that would have destroyed many — and did vanquish her cousin Nelson, who floats over much of the book, her “twin” in possibilities, but dead much too young from drug abuse and AIDS.
We learn early of her family’s poverty, which was exacerbated when her father died when she was nine. Only much later does the degree of poverty become clear: Sotomayor mentions in passing that her mother never earned more than $5,000 in a year. Knowing that her parents were from Puerto Rico is one thing, but learning that her father and grandmother spoke almost no English, and that her family life was conducted entirely in Spanish while he was alive, makes clear the chasm she had to vault to make it into Princeton. When she graduated summa cum laude, she had to look up the phrase in the dictionary. She even recounts the failure of her marriage after college to her high-school sweetheart, when their careers pull them apart.
The book is about much more than overcoming obstacles. Sotomayor provides insight at each stage as to what got her through. This remarkable woman, who in many respects had to raise herself, mentions by name and thanks many who made her journey possible, from her grandmother who loved her unconditionally, to teachers and friends through the years who smoothed her path. One of her most important skills was learning how to make friends more than friends. “I’ve always turned the families of friends into family of my own,”she confides, a skill she attributes to her Puerto Rican roots. She also names books that were good companions on the journey, beginning with her mother’s Reader’s Digests, to the early gift of a book on Greek gods and heroes. Later she is drawn to Nancy Drew.
The justice is also candid about the benefits and challenges of affirmative action in her life. She recalls vividly when the school nurse demands to know why she was admitted to Princeton but the two top-ranking girls in her high school were not. She later realizes that she has an answer: she competed on the debate team and belonged to student government, despite working part time during the school year, and full time in the summers. But she concedes that the question hung over her for the next several years.
Sotomayor recalls her visit to Radcliffe, where for the first time she sees a couch “that wasn’t covered in plastic.” The admissions officer also had two lapdogs that were “jumping up at me, all bare teeth and bony claws.” Finding herself scared and uncharacteristically tongue-tied, she flees to the train home. Fortunately, both Yale and Princeton did a better job of making her feel welcome during her visits — and a full scholarship from Princeton “capped it.”
But it was her inner journey, not the trip from the projects in the Bronx to the Ivy League, which mattered most. One can only imagine the internal strength and wisdom that enabled her to realize at last that “many of the gaps in my knowledge and understanding were simply limits of class and cultural background, not lack of aptitude or application as I’d feared.” Indeed.
Because of her unblinking candor and willingness to discuss her failures as well as her successes, this coming-of-age story would be a wonderful gift to any young person struggling in college, or trying to balance personal life with professional ambition. But the memoir should also be read by any citizen who would welcome the privilege of hearing first-hand the personal life story of a remarkable woman who is also a sitting justice on the Supreme Court.
Judith Areen is the Paul Regis Dean Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center. From 1989-2004 she served as Executive Vice President for Law Affairs and Dean of the Law Center.