Between the title and the text of a book lies the epigraph. It can be a stanza from a poem or an excerpt from a novel or work of non-fiction, but it can also be a quotation, a motto, or a lyric. As a marker between the title page and the work itself, the epigraph suggests a theme or sentiment or intention that the author wants us to pay attention to. It is like an usher who eases us into the show.
The epigraph in My Beloved World does indeed ease us into the story Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor tells in her new memoir. Here is the epigraph in full, a stanza from the ode, A Puerto Rico (Regreso), To Puerto Rico (I Return) in both Spanish and English by the acclaimed late 19th century Romantic poet José Gautier Benítez:
Perdonadle al desterrado
ese dulce frenesí:
vuelvo a mi mundo adorado,
y yo estoy enamorado
de la tierra en que nací.
Forgive the exile
this sweet frenzy:
I return to my beloved world,
in love with the land where I was born.
It is no coincidence that Justice Sotomayor would choose to excerpt this stanza from the full poem, particularly as the line, “I return to my beloved world,” alludes not only to her family’s Puerto Rican ancestry and the Puerto Rican community in the South Bronx into which she was born, but ultimately to the wider world into which she was introduced when she arrived at Princeton University in 1972. More specifically, however, the stanza anticipates a description of a Saturday evening spent at her grandmother’s apartment. When the young Sonia arrived at the apartment with Mami, her mother, to the smells of garlic and onion, she would run into the arms of Abuelita, find her cousin Nelson, her soul mate and co-conspirator, and gather with her paternal aunts, uncles, and cousins for a Puerto Rican party—dominoes, music, dancing, and poetry.
Poetry recitation was one of the highlights of these evenings at Abuelita’s, and Justice Sotomayor describes them as if they happened only yesterday, not in the 1950s when she was growing up in the South Bronx. As Abuelita begins to recite A Puerto Rico (Regreso) by Benítez, she “closes her eyes, and takes a deep breath. When she opens them and begins to recite, her voice is different. Deeper, and vibrant in a way that makes you hold your breath to listen.” Abuelita’s “arms stretch wide and her skirt swirls as she turns, reaching for the whole horizon. You can almost see green mountains, the sea and the sky unfolding, the whole world being born as she lifts her hand.” The child Sonia is captivated, caught up in the longing of her diaspora family for Puerto Rico.
As a child, her family was the center of her existence: Just “a tight few blocks in the South Bronx bounded the lives of my extended family: my grandmother, matriarch of the tribe, and her second husband, Gallego, her daughters and sons. My playmates were my cousins. We spoke Spanish at home, and many in my family spoke virtually no English.” Surrounded by family, she experienced “a tiny microcosm of Hispanic New York City.” Her mother, Celina, and her father, Juan, both emigrated from Puerto Rico, arriving in the United States in the mid-1940s, her mother with the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), and her “father with his family in search of work.” They met in New York City and married during World War II after Celina completed her stint in the Corps.
The comfort and security Justice Sotomayor’s extended family—in particular her grandmother—afforded her as a child almost made up for the tortured relationship her mother and father had with each other. She and her younger brother Junior (Juan) experienced the frequent storms of her parents’ fighting, a concoction of screaming, isolation, and neglect that wore her down. Abuelita provided her a safe haven from this toxic ritual, and Justice Sotomayor reflects on the deeper meaning of her grandmother’s presence in her childhood: “Since those years, I have come to believe that in order to thrive, a child must have at least one adult in her life who shows her unconditional love, respect, and confidence. For me it was Abuelita.”
The fighting between her parents ceased only when Sonia’s father drank himself to death at the age of forty-two and Sonia was nine years old. Even at that tender age, she knew that alcohol would kill him. Although she missed him and knew that he loved her, she hoped things might be easier without him: Her mother wouldn’t have to work evenings to get away from the fighting, and Sonia wouldn’t have to endure “a stone wall of bitter silence between them.” Mami could spend weekends at the apartment with her and Junior—the three of them, at last, a real family. Unfortunately, this was not to be for many months after her father died.
Although Sonia felt relief that the fighting had ended, she was puzzled by her mother’s behavior. Mami worked the early shift and thus could be at home to greet her children when they arrived from school, but Sonia’s hopes were dashed when her mother retreated behind closed doors, mourning in darkness, exiting her room only to cook dinner and serve it “like a zombie,” then returning to her darkened room, not to be seen again for the rest of the evening. Unable to coax her mother out of her isolation, Sonia spent those many months in the library reading chapter books—a new pleasure— and whole issues of Reader’s Digest. She devoured a book about Greek gods and heroes that her doctor had loaned to her, a title Justice Sotomayor doesn’t name but from which she learned “Sonia” means wisdom.
Given that the nine-year-old girl had never seen her parents happy together, she was smart enough to surmise that Mami’s sadness was irrational. Still, the young Sonia considered it unforgivable. In one of the most dramatic scenes in My Beloved World, Justice Sotomayor describes how she confronted her mother: “It is a day like any other, and the door is still closed. My rational self hasn’t yet noticed it, but I can’t take another minute of this. Before I know what’s happening, I’m pounding with both fists on that stupid, blank, faceless door, and when she opens it, I’m screaming in her face, ‘Enough! You’ve got to stop this! You’re miserable and you’re making us miserable.’” She continues to scream because she can’t help herself. “ ‘What’s wrong with you? Papi died. Are you going to die too? Then what happens to me and Junior? Stop already, Mami, stop it!’” Sonia retreats to her bedroom and sobs “for a very long time. I haven’t done that in ages. Crying like a stupid baby.”
Living in the Bronxdale Housing projects where addicts regularly shot up in the stairwells and muggings occurred, with an alcoholic father becoming more and more isolated as his drinking worsened over the years, and a distant, chilly mother who showed little affection toward her children, Sonia and Junior did not live a charmed life. Quite the contrary. Given her success in life, one could be forgiven for assuming Justice Sotomayor had experienced a happy childhood. Inevitably, she was asked this question whenever she spoke to public audiences: “How much did I owe to having had a happy childhood?” This question stumped her and she wrote My Beloved World to answer it.
Although Justice Sotomayor had never revealed publicly her “darker experiences growing up,” and “would not have considered myself unqualifiedly happy as a child,” she realized she “did have sources of deep happiness, and these bred in me an optimism that proved stronger than any adversity.” Her experiences as a child, she felt, would speak to a much larger audience; further, the challenges she “faced—among them material poverty, chronic illness, and being raised by a single mother—are not uncommon, but neither have they kept me from uncommon achievements.” She admits she has written an intimate memoir, perhaps more intimate than some might have wanted a Supreme Court Justice to write, but she weighs the benefits of vulnerability against the cost: She hopes “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 rings true that Justice Sotomayor could have been an “ordinary” person, just as easily ending up like her cousin Nelson. The comparison between herself and Nelson is important, not only to understand the character traits that propelled her toward professional success—including optimism, grit, curiosity, perseverance, hard work—but also to understand her ascending to the Supreme Court. She is, indeed, an exceptional woman whose insights and experience attest to her extraordinary abilities, but she wonders, however, why she succeeded and Nelson did not—considering that he was the brainier of the two.
Justice Sotomayor admired her cousin Nelson about whom she writes with respect and sorrow. He was her “childhood accomplice,” a best friend, her “genius sidekick”: “He could figure out how anything worked, and together we pondered the mysteries of the natural world, like gravity.” Handsome, witty, a prodigy “equally talented at science and music,” he became addicted to heroin while he attended the Bronx High School of Science, and he subsequently flunked out of six colleges, although “his test scores were off the charts.” His father, Sonia’s Uncle Benny, wouldn’t accept the reality that his son was not going to be a doctor: Nelson was one of the first casualties of AIDS linked to needle use, and he died before his thirtieth birthday. In 1983, Justice Sotomayor visited him in the hospital. Confounded that her “smarter half” was dying from an addiction he couldn’t break while she had become a successful assistant district attorney in New York City, she told him she “despaired of ever matching up to him.” Nelson replied: “I’ve always been in awe of you. There was nothing you couldn’t learn if you set your mind to it. You would just study until you figured it out. I can’t do that; I never could. That’s why I couldn’t finish college, why I couldn’t stick with a job. I didn’t have the will. That determination that you have is special. It’s a different kind of intelligence.”
The question Justice Sotomayor asked herself as Nelson lay dying in the hospital—Why him and not me?—pervades My Beloved World and lies at its core. She reflects on his death, not to justify her own success but rather to understand the existential meaning of one’s life: “…how it could happen that two children so closely matched could meet such different fates….” Logic assists her in order to deflect the pain of his death. Nelson was smarter, had a father she wished she had, shared with her “Abuelita’s special blessing.” But logic doesn’t answer the perennial question: “Why did I endure, even thrive, where he failed, consumed by the same dangers that had surrounded me?” She knows she had something Nelson lacked and is wholly aware of the effects this “something” had as she made her way toward her goal—becoming a judge: “Call it what you like: discipline, determination, perseverance, the force of will,” she writes. “Even apart from his saying so, I knew that it had made all the difference in my life. If only I could bottle it, I’d share it with every kid in America. But where does it come from?”
“Where does it come from?” Although it is tricky to try to determine the source of will, Justice Sotomayor got a taste of grit at the young age of seven when she was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. Regarded as a curse by her family, Sonia saw it as something else: A lesson in discipline and self-reliance. Not able to count on her mother or her father to give her insulin shots, she realized that if she “needed to have these shots every day for the rest of my life, the only way I’d survive was to do it myself.” For her, the diagnosis of Type I diabetes ruptured her world even more than it had already been ruptured: “To my family, the disease was a deadly curse. To me, it was more a threat to the already fragile world of my childhood, a state of constant tension punctuated by explosive discord, all of it caused by my father’s alcoholism and my mother’s response to it, whether family fight or emotional flight. But the disease also inspired in me a kind of precocious self-reliance that is not uncommon in children who feel the adults around them to be unreliable.” The diagnosis of Type I diabetes may have been a misfortune, but for Justice Sotomayor it was a gift in disguise. As the only person whom she trusted to give herself insulin shots, she learned how to fend for herself. Her courage and willingness to perform this act would save her life.
When she was diagnosed with diabetes, it was a life-threatening disease, certainly more so than it is today, and the young future justice lived every second of her life with purpose and unmitigated will. Of her diabetes she writes, “The reality of diabetes always lurked in the back of my mind, and early on I accepted the probability that I would die young. There was no point in fretting about it; I have never worried about what I can’t control. But nor could I waste what time I had; some inner metronome has continued to set a beat I am unable to refuse.” She kept her disease under wraps, her secrecy “a deeply ingrained habit,” until she realized she could die if a friend or acquaintance did not find her when she was in the middle of an infrequent but life-threatening blood sugar crisis and knew specifically what to do. The disease gave her the gift of self-reliance, but she admits it may partly have been responsible for her divorce in 1983 from her high school sweetheart, Kevin Noonan, whom she married in 1976. Self-reliance could also estrange her from those whom she loved. It was a double-edged sword if not used wisely.
After the young Sonia confronted her mother, her life changed. Justice Sotomayor reflects: “When I look back on my childhood, most of my memories are mapped on either side of certain fault lines that split my world. Opposites coexisted without ever being reconciled: the grim claustrophobia of being home with my parents versus the expansive joy at Abuelita’s; a mundane New York existence and a parallel universe on a tropical island. But the starkest contrast is between the day before and the after of my father’s death.” The day after the young Sonia screamed at her mother, she and Junior arrived home to find the window shades up and her mother in a black dress with polka dots, perfumed and made-up. Justice Sotomayor writes, “I felt my smile spreading, my whole body filling up with relief.”
Things started changing at school for her as well after her father died. That fall Sonia started fifth grade with a new outlook: “…school had become for the first time something to look forward to. Until then, I had been struggling to figure out what was going on, especially since my return from being in the hospital [for treatment of her diabetes].” Whether or not it is with hindsight or she intuitively understood then, Justice Sotomayor attributes the change to her voracious reading during that long summer of her mother’s isolation; her mother’s beginning to speak English; and her mother’s other various interventions, such as buying a twenty-four volume set of the Encyclopedia Britannica that Sonia and Junior devoured—a purchase Mami could hardly afford. But there was another reason behind the change, one that would significantly impact her life: The young Sonia discovered that some adults were as reliable as Abuelita, and she could trust them to help her find her way.
One of the first adults Sonia trusted, apart from Dr. Fisher who treated her for diabetes, was Mrs. Reilly, her fifth-grade teacher. Mrs. Reilly “unleashed” the young Sonia’s “competitive spirit”: She wanted those gold stars Mrs. Reilly awarded for excellence (she was “a sucker for those gold stars!”); hungered for more and more As on every report card; and yearned to sit in the row next to the window with the other top students. Determined to exchange her status from that of a “C” student for that of an “A” student and thus earn her a seat next to the window, Sonia first had to find out how the other A-students accomplished that feat. The only way to do that, she figured, was to ask for help. Never having learned how to study, Sonia asked one of the smartest girls in the class how she did it. Donna Renella, Justice Sotomayor writes, “…generously divulged her technique: how, while she was reading, she underlined important facts and took notes to condense information into smaller bits that were easier to remember; how, the night before a test, she would reread the relevant chapter.” The lesson she learned? “Don’t be shy about making a teacher of any willing party who knows what he or she is doing. In retrospect, I can see how important that pattern would become for me: how readily I’ve sought out mentors, asking guidance from professors or colleagues, and in every friendship soaking up eagerly whatever that friend could teach me.”
Indeed. Even in fifth grade, Justice Sotomayor perceived the difference between excellence and mediocrity. Obviously, she rejected the latter. She describes her competitive nature and fear of failure as bubbling “up from very deep within my personality”; thus, it is likely that her temperament motivated her to ask for help and to find sources of information who would supplement what she had missed growing up poor and disadvantaged. Ask for help if you need it—what she learned from Donna Renella in Mrs. Reilly’s class—would become her modus operandi. Whether as a junior at Cardinal Spellman High School in Miss Katz’s history class where she learned how to think critically; or as a member of the girls’ team of the Forensics Club how to construct “a chain of logic”; or as a student at Princeton how to write correct grammatical sentences in English—minus the “Spanish constructions and usage—”she turned to those who could help her: Miss Katz, Ken Moy, the student coach of the Forensics Club, and Professors Weiss and Winn at Princeton. True to form, Justice Sotomayor spent several summers at Princeton practicing correct English grammar and increasing her vocabulary until she had mastered written English.
It wasn’t as if Justice Sotomayor couldn’t do the academic work or succeed at Princeton University after she was admitted in 1972 under its affirmative action program on a full scholarship. It was a matter of fitting in: She couldn’t have dreamed up the wealth and cultural advantages of the student body. Yet, after a few semesters of Bs and As, by the time she was a junior she was making straight As. When Professor Winn called her into his office to tell her she would graduate summa cum laude, she didn’t know what it meant and had to look up the Latin phrase. She writes: “…the irony of my needing to do so was not lost on me. It was perhaps then I made a measure of peace with my unease: the uncertainty I’d always felt at Princeton was something I’d never shake entirely. For all the As and honors that could be bestowed, there would still lurk such moments of estrangement to remind me that my being there was not typical but an exception.” Justice Sotomayor also graduated with the most prestigious graduating honor, the Moses Taylor Pyne Award, as well as Phi Beta Kappa.
In the early 1970s, affirmative action was seen as a positive step “to create the conditions whereby students from disadvantaged backgrounds could be brought to the starting line of a race many were unaware was even being run.” Justice Sotomayor knew affirmative action was a “special door” through which she had been admitted to Princeton and four years later to Yale Law School (in 1976), but she also knew she would have to work hard to catch up with her more advantaged peers. Oftentimes, she couldn’t shake the feeling of “arbitrariness” of having been admitted to these elite universities, particularly when others, as deserving, had been denied the opportunity. As an affirmative action student, she shared with her cohort a perception that they had taken the spot of more deserving students—affluent white males, for example. There was stigma attached to affirmative action, for sure, but she confronted the challenge with “compulsive intensity and single-mindedness” until she felt confident she would not fail. Still, Princeton was a shock. She reflects on the disparity she felt between herself and her more affluent peers: “I came to accept during my freshman year 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. That acceptance, though, didn’t make me feel less self-conscious and unschooled in the company of classmates who’d had the benefit of much more worldly experience. Until I arrived at Princeton, I had no idea how circumscribed my life had been….” Princeton was Justice Sotomayor’s first genuine introduction to wealth, class, and culture, but it was also a magnificent opportunity rich with hope, promise, and future success.
At Princeton, she found a niche with other minority students in the Third World Center (now the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding), the headquarters of the minority student groups on campus. At the Third World Center, they felt a commonality among themselves, sharing “the same feeling of being a stranger in a strange land….” It was, as Justice Sotomayor describes, a “psychic refuge in an environment where an undercurrent of hostility often belied the idyllic surface.” They—affirmative action students—were different not only from the “generations of Princetonians” who had come before but also from those they had left behind in their high schools and communities: She and her peers were among the first generation in their families to attend college. In fact, affirmative action was so new that the first cohort of “Latino students had yet to graduate when I arrived….” After a year at Princeton, when she felt she could navigate her course work with some confidence, she joined Acción Puertorriqueña (y Amigos was added later), a group that focused on minority freshman recruiting and admissions. Its mission was clear: educate poor minority students about Princeton and shepherd them through the admission process. It was, she explains, incumbent upon those who had “made” it to Princeton to help those left behind: “Minority kids, however, had no one but their few immediate predecessors: the first to scale the ivy-covered wall against the odds, just one step ahead ourselves, we would hold the ladder steady for the next kid with more talent than opportunity.” They—blacks, Latinos, Asians—would return to their high schools, talk to counselors, and recruit “promising students they knew personally.”
In 1974, the students in Acción Puertorriqueña y Amigos led an effort to hire qualified Hispanic faculty and administrators to correct “historical imbalances.” When the administration did not respond to their requests, they filed a formal complaint with the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), and the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education sent a representative to Princeton to talk with the administration and the leaders of Acción Puertorriqueña y Amigos. Soon afterwards, Princeton hired an Hispanic assistant dean of student affairs, “whose role was to advocate for students like us.” You could say that Justice Sotomayor got her first taste of politics when she joined Acción Puertorriqueña y Amigos and drafted theformal complaint to HEW about hiring practices at Princeton, which the Daily Princetonian noted was “her first legal document supporting affirmative action.” Her experience negotiating with the president and administration over its affirmative action practices in hiring had to have given her insight about the levers of power and the practical effect of working within the system.
When Justice Sotomayor was a child, she wanted to become a detective—like Nancy Drew. She saw how Nancy Drew used logic to solve crimes: picking up on clues, solving puzzles, listening, and observing. Unfortunately, she also read a flier in her doctor’s office advising diabetics against police work. That dictum squelched her aspiration to become Nancy Drew in real life. Disappointed but not deterred, she decided when she was ten years old that she would become a lawyer, like Perry Mason, or better yet, a judge. As the personification of justice, the judge in the television series fascinated her. He made the final decision, the one “who called the shots.” She harbored this secret dream as a student at Princeton and Yale Law School and as an assistant district attorney in New York City under Robert Morgenthau. After four years at the D.A.’s office, she had seen the worst side of humanity. Cynicism was not a trait she wished to adopt: It didn’t square with her “essential optimism, my abiding faith in human nature and its enduring potential for redemption.” Prosecuting robberies, assaults, murders, child pornography on a daily basis and stifled by the cyclical nature of the work—the repeat offender who cycled through the system from misdemeanor to felony—she questioned whether she “should be working to improve” the system “rather than simply enforcing it on the front lines.” She revived her “old dream of becoming a judge” and aimed for the federal bench, “where matters of broad consequence, cases affecting far more lives than those of a victim and a defendant, were decided…. The idea that a single person could make such a difference in the cause of justice was nothing less than electrifying….”
The federal bench was not within reach yet. After all, she had graduated from Yale Law School only five years earlier, and the D.A.’s office was a job in the public service sector. She had no experience in a prominent law firm or an important position in government. She needed experience in both, as well as “a record of excellence—in academia or elsewhere—that rises to the attention of a senator’s selection committee or the president’s staff.” At Pavia and Harcourt—a small but elite private law firm in New York City that specialized in finance and banking; licensing of trademarks and distribution of products; and international trade and business operations—she found what she needed. She became partner in 1988, and four years later, in 1992, she had realized her dream: President George H.W. Bush nominated her for the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. She spent six years on the District Court bench, and in 1998 President Bill Clinton nominated her for a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. In 2009, President Barack Obama nominated her for the Supreme Court. She was confirmed by the Senate on August 6, 2009, and sworn in two days later as the111th Supreme Court Justice.
You would be remiss if you didn’t ask how Justice Sotomayor transcended the adversity of her childhood: dangerous neighborhoods, chronic poverty, Type I diabetes, an alcoholic father, an unhappy mother. Yet My Beloved World is a memoir suffused with gratitude, generosity, and love. First, there is her gratitude toward and love for her Puerto Rican grandmother, Abuelita, whose protection for the young Sonia was boundless. Justice Sotomayor puts it this way: “My understanding of my survival was bound up in every way with the fact of my grandmother’s protection. It amounted to more than a refuge from the chaos at home: my sense of being under safekeeping, physically and metaphysically. It had given me the will to manage my illness, to overcome my insufficiencies at school, and ultimately to imagine the most improbable of possibilities for my life.” She understood she could not squander whatever gifts she had been given; they were a blessing, Abuelita taught her, and they were to be shared with others. It was “a synergy,” Justice Sotomayor writes, “of love and gratitude, protection and purpose….”
Second, with the blessing of Abuelita and the role model of her mother—“visiting nurse and confidante to the whole neighborhood”—Justice Sotomayor’s destiny was to serve. Both Abuelita and Mami believed “there are no bystanders in life,” and Sonia’s determination to serve began at a very young age in her Puerto Rican community—her own microcosm of the “beloved world” poetically idealized in José Gautier Benítez poem, A Puerto Rico (Regreso). As she grew beyond the boundaries of her “beloved world”—at Princeton and Yale, in the D.A.’s Office in New York City, at Tavia and Harcourt, and on the federal bench and at the Supreme Court—she began to see “…that no group is an island. Even the most cohesive (or the most marginalized) consists of overlapping circles of belonging, just as every individual identity is constituted of many elements. To do good ultimately meant seeing any particular interest in a larger civic context, a broader sense of community. The specific needs of people like those I grew up with would always tug at my heart, but increasingly the call to serve was beckoning me beyond the confines of where I’d come from.”
Third, if she needed help, she asked for it. If she failed, she worked harder so that she would succeed the next time. When she saw an open door, she walked through it. Accepting a full scholarship as an affirmative action student to Princeton University was, perhaps, one of the most important decisions she would make in her life: At Princeton she experienced the world beyond the microcosm of her South Bronx community for the first time. And there were the mentors who fulfilled the promise of guiding, affirming, and supporting her. One such mentor, José Cabranes, was a founder of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (PRLDEF), and when the justice met him, Yale’s general counsel and a professor at Rutgers University. For her, Cabranes embodied “…the complete package of knowledge, experience, and judgment that is another human being….” He gave her the confidence to succeed in a world that was new and radically different from the world into which she was born. As both a lawyer and a professor, “José …not only transcended the academic role but also managed to uphold his identity as a Puerto Rican, serving vigorously in both worlds.”
Robert Morgenthau, the District Attorney for New York County, would also play an important role in preparing Justice Sotomayor’s for her future life as a judge. When she first met him in her third year at Yale Law School, she had no idea that he and José Carbanes were friends and had worked together on the PRLDEF. Morgenthau would call Cabranes to ask about her.
She tells how she serendipitously met Morgenthau with particular relish: She was on her way to find a restroom as she was “taking a break from the library and a treatise on tax law….” As she passed by a conference room, she saw a table of crackers and cheese and cheap wine in the back. On the door she read a sign, “‘Public Service Career Paths,” and inside she saw several public-interest lawyers “pitching alternatives to private practice to a thin scattering of third-years.” The final speaker, Robert Morgenthau, was being introduced, so she decided to stick around to hear him “until he finished so I could make for the cheddar cubes.” In his talk he made these points: All his assistants tried cases; they have full responsibility for developing and presenting the cases they take to trial; and they’ll spend more time in a courtroom than most lawyers do in a lifetime. On their way to the cheese and crackers, she and Morgenthau struck up a conversation and he invited her to meet with him the next day. By the time they met, Morgenthau had already talked with José Cabranes and invited her to visit his office in New York for an interview. There, she accepted his offer to serve as an assistant D.A. She would spend five years under Robert Morgenthau’s tutelage.
At the New York D.A. Office, she met other mentors, such as John Fried, Warren Murray, and Katie Law; friends in the opposite camp such as Dawn Cardi, a public defender; and Judge Harold Rothwax, “…the first embodiment of an ideal I would be able to observe up close.” Later, at Tavia and Harcourt, Dave Botwinik guided her through the application process for a seat on the federal bench. On every page in My Beloved World, Justice Sotomayor expresses her gratitude for those who helped her along the way and for those who intervened and gave her a chance.
My Beloved World stops in 1992 when she was appointed to the District Court. Some critics think Justice Sotomayor should have written about her seventeen-year tenure as a federal judge and the three years she has been a Justice of the Supreme Court. Perhaps more legalese, more discussion of her legal philosophy, more examination of her views on the most pressing issues of our time, such as race, affirmative action, gun control, and immigration would have pleased them. However, she didn’t write a memoir about legal ideas or philosophy, but rather an inspirational narrative in a straightforward style. In the Preface she explains her reasoning: “…it seems wise to pause and reflect on the path that has brought me to this juncture and to count the blessings that have made me who I am, taking care not to lose sight of them, or of my best self, as I move forward.”
On the last page of My Beloved World, Justice Sonia Sotomayor describes how she felt when she took the oath of office for the Supreme Court: “…I am blessed. In this life I am truly blessed.” Who can take umbrage with that?
Sonia Sotomayor, My Beloved World, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 315 pp.
Sometimes a book will appear in my life for a reason. Perhaps this is the case more often than not, and the reason I picked up My Beloved World when I did and read it when I did. For me, Justice Sotomayor’s story is an inspiration for me, and hopefully for other women. Her memoir is a testament to how determination, tenacity and never letting go of the dream that we hold close, and probably a secret, can come true. In our society, girls and women are often told they can’t do something; they shouldn’t try to accomplish something; and they can’t have a family and a career at the same time. This memoir shines a light on what’s possible, and hidden inside her story is a map showing a way to accomplish one’s dream—even the most unlikely and impossible dream.
Sandy has excerpted important passages to illustrate what I’m trying to say. For example: She (Justice Sotomayor) admits she has written an intimate memoir, perhaps more intimate than some might have wanted a Supreme Court Justice to write, but she weighs the benefits of vulnerability against the cost: She hopes “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.”
And part of a conversation between Justice Sotomayor and her dying cousin: Nelson replied: “I’ve always been in awe of you. There was nothing you couldn’t learn if you set your mind to it. You would just study until you figured it out. I can’t do that; I never could. That’s why I couldn’t finish college, why I couldn’t stick with a job. I didn’t have the will. That determination that you have is special. It’s a different kind of intelligence.”
And another bit of wisdom from this review: The lesson she learned? “Don’t be shy about making a teacher of any willing party who knows what he or she is doing. In retrospect, I can see how important that pattern would become for me: how readily I’ve sought out mentors, asking guidance from professors or colleagues, and in every friendship soaking up eagerly whatever that friend could teach me.”
If a little girl from the South Bronx can rise to a seat on the Supreme Court, I guess a little girl from Chula Vista can accomplish her dream, too. Being inspired by another person’s story; seeing how another person has lived and what they have accomplished; knowing I’m not alone in my journey on earth at this time; gathering hope, determination, and the awareness of possibility is why I read.
Thank you for posting such an important and meaningful review!
There were two books that I read at UCLA when I was a junior that affected me so deeply that it altered my perception of my relationship to the world and to myself. These two books, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner and Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard, caused an inner turbulence of a sort that I had not experienced before, one that I came to understand as an existential awareness of one’s impermanence and shifted my perception of what it means to be human. I mention this in response to how deeply Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s book My Beloved World affected you. Books are indeed powerful agents of change, as they can make us more aware of each other’s humanity. My Beloved World enriched your own life and supported your own claim to what you, as a woman, can achieve.
What you say in your reply is so true and that’s why I love to read-another person’s perception can alter my perception as well. I read The Sound and the Fury when I was a teenager. I think I was too young to understand it, but I felt the rumblings beneath the words. I haven’t read Fear and Trembling. Sandy, I trust your thoughts and opinions about books (since some of the ones you have suggested and reviewed are now some of my favorite books) and so I want to re-read The Sound and the Fury and read Fear and Trembling. When I read that Stephen King reads about 70 books a year, I decided to read as many books as I can. I love to read. I love to write about reading. Thank you for this venue, which inspires us to read and guides us toward the books worth reading. Contemplation and reflection are so necessary now. Your kind and insightful reply is a consolation for me.
A couple of weeks ago, I had to do an errand that placed me close to a Barnes and Noble. How can I not go inside if the bookstore is literally across the street from the errand-place? As I walked around the bookstore thinking of what book I wanted to purchase, I remembered when the review of My Beloved World was posted on bc2c. I needed to read a book about a powerful woman, someone who would inspire me as I tried to overcome my sadness that our first woman president wasn’t going to be our first woman president. Something inside me knew that I needed to read Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir. So I bought the book, finished the one I was reading and picked up My Beloved World the other day to begin reading. It’s wonderful. I love this book. It’s the perfect medicine to heal the wounds inside my heart. I just wanted to say thank you to Sandy and bookscover2cover for being here for me, for us, this community of book-lovers. Even though this review was published a while ago, the seed was planted in my reading list. I’m reading the book at the time I need to read it the most. I’ll post another comment after I finish reading; I’m half way through. Just wanted to shout out a big Thank you!