My Beloved World
By Sonia Sotomayor
Alfred A. Knopf, 2013
Review by Ronald Goldfarb
“The president … saw me and gives me a fist bump and says: ‘We just put the first Latina on the Supreme Court. Pretty cool, huh?’”
—David Axelrod, New York Times Magazine, January 20, 2013
Cool indeed. Sonia Sotomayor’s life story is inspiring. Born to an immigrant Puerto Rican family with an alcoholic father, raised in the Bronx housing projects, and afflicted with juvenile diabetes, Sotomayor nonetheless soared academically and professionally—summa cum laude at Princeton University and high achievement at Yale Law School. She served as a Manhattan assistant district attorney, worked in private practice for a New York City law firm, spent six years as a federal trial judge, and served 11 years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit before President Obama elevated her to the U.S. Supreme Court.
She writes that her book is a subjective memoir, not an autobiography, admitting that “memory by nature is selective and colored by emotion.” Readers are informed that they will not learn about Justice Sotomayor’s judicial philosophy, but that they will be reading her subjective reflections about her early life, including her “darker experiences growing up.” Her hope is for “People who live in difficult circumstances … to know that happy endings are possible.” She has said that her reason for writing My Beloved World was to use her prominence to tell the public about managing and overcoming tough problems by providing “a book about hope.”
She says nothing about her judicial life—“I have chosen to end this story twenty years ago, when I first became a judge.” Justices should not comment about the great jurisprudential issues of their times because cases on these issues are likely to come before them. Having recently gone through the Oprah–like charade that the Senate confirmation process has become, her story is already in the public record.
It is a classic all–American story that (to my mind, at least) also serves as a primer on affirmative action. Raised in the projects in the Bronx, “a tiny microcosm of Hispanic New York City,” she assiduously worked her way to distinction in the Catholic primary schools (where “discipline was virtually an eighth sacrament”), while working odd jobs in her free time. She won a full scholarship to Princeton. There she found herself insecure, unanchored, and amongst a strange new world of socially connected, well-bred, privileged colleagues, having no frame of reference to guide her. Her classmates “seemed to come from another planet.” Nevertheless, assiduous, concentrated studies led her to the top of her class and to a scholarship to Yale, where she also excelled by dint of laser–like focus and hard work. Along the way her teachers helped and guided her.
As she tells her story, one encounters the role of affirmative action that her life personifies. She relates a notable vignette. When the young student Sotomayor interviewed for a job at a recruiting dinner for a small group of law students, a partner at the firm Shaw, Pittman, Potts and Trowbridge asked her: “Do you believe law firms should practice affirmative action? Don’t you think it’s a disservice to minorities, hiring them without the necessary credentials, knowing you’ll have to fire them a few years later?” Stunned, the young Sotomayor replied, “I think … someone who got into an institution through affirmative action could prove they were qualified by what they accomplished there.” Her inquisitor was not satisfied with that rational response, however. He plowed on. “But that’s the problem with affirmative action. You have to wait to see if people are qualified or not. Do you think you would have been admitted to Yale Law School if you were not Puerto Rican?” Demonstrating who was clearly the wiser of the two, the diplomatic Sotomayor answered: “It probably didn’t hurt … that graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton had something to do with it too.”
That vignette illustrates why Justice Sotomayor is the extraordinary success she is. Given her academic record, she didn’t need affirmative action to get into Princeton or Yale, though being a poor young woman from an ethnic minority no doubt made her attractive at a time when those schools were striving to rectify their history of discrimination against minorities.
No doubt her successes were compounded by her background. President Obama had many excellent options among highly qualified candidates to appoint to the Supreme Court. Among them, Justice Sotomayor’s personal background was a fair element to add to her impressive credentials, as it had been an impediment historically. Her life is the very vindication of affirmative action.
This bestselling book, published simultaneously in English and Spanish, offers no peeks into the judicial chambers. Her writing is formal and a bit self-conscious. This differs from her personal appearances, where she projects warmth and candor.
Her message may strike some as corny and aphoristic, but it is genuine. “Life is full of failures,” she preaches, “… don’t stop battling them.” Asked if she would be anything but a lawyer, she quickly responded, “This fish found her pond and she ain’t changing it.” She knew she wanted to be a judge since she was 10 years old, and she never let anything get in the way. “I’m not intimidated by challenges,” she writes.
But there are never any guarantees. Luck, timing, and help all matter. “Nobody’s a born anything,” she tells students. Work at what you love with passion. “Look for people to help you” when you need help and don’t be afraid to ask. She concedes she received much help along her career path and that she is in debt to those who helped her. And, above all, work—“I work with compulsive intensity and single-mindedness … and having more or less accepted the primacy of career in my life, I saw no reason to stint on ambition.” (She divorced her high school sweetheart when their lives took different professional turns.)
At the very beginning of the book, one thing struck me as odd. She opens by quoting lines from the poem “To Puerto Rico (I Return)” by José Gautier Benítez. Writers customarily begin their books with a literary quote that states their motive or theme. Hers is remarkable, given her heralded all-American, rags–to–riches family story. Justice Sotomayor opens her book with the following verse:
Forgive the exile
this sweet frenzy:
I return to my beloved world,
in love with the land where I was born.
What does she mean with her puzzling reference to “exile?” She isn’t an exile yearning to return to her roots. Hers is the classic immigrant story of success by dint of hard work and solid rectitude. The note of a nostalgic dream of going back strikes a jarring note. Her success in America has become motivational for immigrants who are here to stay and prosper—as she most certainly is.
That quibble aside, Justice Sotomayor’s book deserves to be the literary and media phenomenon it has become.
Ronald Goldfarb is a Washington, D.C., attorney, author, and literary agent who reviews regularly for Washington Lawyer.