Sonia Sotomayor is one of the first women (the third) and the first Hispanic to become a Supreme Court justice. Her memoir, My Beloved World, is not quite an autobiography because she stops the story just as she secures her first judgeship. This makes sense as there are reasons both political and legal for not discussing her career. So, since she stops before she has become historically important, why would you want to read her story?
The book’s prologue contains an answer. Sotomayor discusses an argument between her parents that she overheard at age eight. She had just been diagnosed with juvenile diabetes—a very serious type of the disease that at the time was often a cause of early death. Neither parent wanted to give her the required daily shot of insulin. She tells them she will do it herself. This self-injection indicates her grit as a child, an important part of her personality that binds her to success throughout her life.
Sotomayor’s father died of alcoholism when she was nine. She discusses how women were always blamed for the faults in a man—and thus her abuelita, her father’s mother, blamed her mother for her father’s shortcomings. But Sotomayor realized that people are responsible for themselves and didn’t fall into the trap.
So Sonia Sotomayor began very early to be responsible for her life. She knows that she had many breaks—good luck—that helped her to get where she is today, but her determination can’t be overestimated. She grew up in a housing project in the Bronx. While her brilliant cousin succumbed to drugs, she persisted. Her mother worked hard to keep Sonia and her brother in Catholic school. Her education there, and the nuns who ran the schools with iron fists, was both blessing and curse.
Sotomayor loved reading—she discusses how reading The Lord of the Flies rocked her world because she pondered it and connected it to the real world of the Bronx. She came up with the answer to the question she had been asking herself—“How does this [meaning evil, people willing to harm others] happen?” She realized it was because people can’t see others’ points of view.
Another aspect of her pre-college schooling, besides reading, to which Sotomayor attributes her success, is being involved in forensics (debate). By having to argue both sides of an issue, she learned to always see both sides; this was training in fairness. And she liked it. She could envision herself arguing in a courtroom, and she later became a public prosecutor in the DA’s office in New York. There she also learned that if you want people to understand you, you need to appeal to their emotional side as well as to their logic and rationality.
Another important educational tool arrived in Sotomayor’s home when the family got its first TV. This broadened her world to show her what was outside the Bronx, to give her other models. The adults in her world, the nuns and priests, worried about the influence television would have on the students. I mention this because I think there’s a contemporary analogy with the Internet. I admit to being one of those worrying adults, but I also see the world opening to students who have the savvy to use the Internet by assessing the information it contains.
Being as driven as Sotomayor was, and working in law enforcement (where divorce rates are very high), ruined her marriage. She discusses this with honesty. In addition, as a prosecutor, she worried that there was a futility to her work as she would see repeat offenders. When she started prosecuting the big felony cases, including a particular murder case, she felt that the devil was alive and in the courtroom with her. For the first time in her life, she met people who were beyond redemption. Eventually, she felt that she couldn’t continue to witness that much sorrow and depravity without drowning in it.
Sotomayor was always very focused on success—and she had always wanted to be a judge. She realized that she would need to practice on civil cases as well as criminal cases if she expected to get to the bench. She made a great career choice in deciding to work for a small firm where she found excellent mentors.
Sotomayor relates stories that anyone can find a connection to. Particularly poignant is her discussion of having a sense of shame when others would belittle her accomplishments. The way she gets past that and owns her accomplishments without accepting the belittlement is an important lesson for the reader.
Ultimately, Sotomayor believes that what separates her from others who are equally intelligent, but whose lives go adrift, is her will. She wishes that there were a way to instill it in every kid—and I’m sure all teachers agree.
This is a very inspiring book, by turns poignant, funny, and triumphant. It’s a great choice for reading about an inspiring American.