In “My Beloved World,” Sonia Sotomayor provides a template for the kind of revelation that every Supreme Court Justice should provide. The book, which is as decent and inspirational a self-portrait as I have ever read, presents as close to a complete picture of the current Justice as I think she could have written. In it, she reveals how she got to be the person she is now, and from it one can gain an appreciation of the way she approaches the tough decisions she must make in her role on the bench.
I will readily admit that I have always viewed memoirs askance. Why, first of all, would a person write one other than for self-serving reasons? And why, if that first concern is correct, should anyone assume that the author is reporting a true picture of him- or herself? I’m sure that many memoirists’ motivations are more honorable, like recording history from a personal perspective. (And, surely, some are far less noble: remuneration, to be blunt about it.) But those personal reports of historic events can’t help but be colored by the person telling the story, right? I mean, for example, what General is going to make himself sound incompetent in a battle that was lost (assuming he will even write about that particular battle at all)?
History is written by the winners, and memoirs are written by those who would be perceived as winners. That’s the premise with which I approach any memoir. Colin Powell’s is a good example. In “My American Journey,” Powell attempts to distinguish himself as having risen on merit to the highest ranking position in the military. Anyone who reads his memoir would have to so conclude. But I was far less impressed with his tale than I’m sure he would have wanted me to be. In fact, I found him to be politically naïve—his ideological views suggested he was a moderate Democrat, but he had registered as a Republican (the party of Lincoln and fiscal conservatism, he claimed)—and only mildly admirable as an Army officer and soldier.
Powell may rank as a great American, but his memoir—written before his disastrous years as Secretary of State under George W. Bush (recall his infamous UN speech claiming to show photos of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction)—will not secure him that accolade. If it isn’t self-serving, it is certainly uninspiring.
That criticism cannot be leveled at “My Beloved World,” in which Justice Sotomayor provides insights into her childhood and adolescence that help the reader gain an understanding of the person she is now. It is the kind of revelation that every Supreme Court Justice should provide, since collectively those nine jurists shape so much of our nation’s social order and set the course for so much of its future.
Consider how little is known about those who serve on the Supreme Court. Those who are nominated are usually obscure figures who have little by way of published biographies when they are nominated and who reveal so little about their background or beliefs even when they are being queried on their qualifications during their confirmation hearings. Any publicity that has attached to them will usually be limited to a law review article they may have written in their youth or a case they prosecuted in their days as a trial attorney.
Some have writing trails in the form of judicial opinions they have written, but they rarely, if ever, tell us anything about the person who wrote them (or even of his or her personal views) if they are carefully composed, as most judicial opinions are. But as to the real person who is about to become one of the nine powerful arbiters of what the Constitution means and how laws enacted by Congress and administered by the President will affect us, we know precious little. And, as a result of that ignorance, we know even less about why any particular justice is a “strict constructionist” or a “living Constitution” proponent, let alone why any of them tend to view issues more generally from a conservative or liberal political perspective.
Ms. Sotomayor’s memoir provides a clear picture of the woman she is, and it does so in spite of the unavoidable bias to present herself favorably, a bias even she would admit to, I believe. For what Ms. Sotomayor does in her book is trace her development from her earliest memories growing up as an older sister (to her brother) with an alcoholic father and a loving but demanding mother. Her memories of her youth are full of the love she got from her grandmother (Abuelita) and are enlivened by tales of her trips to Puerto Rico and her years living in and around the projects in the Bronx with her aunts and uncles and cousins.
She admits to being an unwitting beneficiary of diversity programs that had just begun to open doors to minority students at the right time for her, and she acknowledges the happenstance of any number of opportunities that came her way as she made steady strides towards her childhood dream. Her memoir is as inspirational and uplifting as the story of her life should be, for, as she says, she has been truly blessed, notwithstanding the diabetes she has had since birth and the difficult childhood she had with her father’s alcohol dependency and early death.
I read her memoir with the interest of an attorney with a third degree of separation from Ms. Sotomayor. (Full disclosure: my sister and she are friends, dating from their days together at Pavia & Harcourt, the firm where Ms. Sotomayor worked before she was appointed to the bench.) I heartily recommend it to anyone who is interested not so much in the law and its internal machinations, but rather as a very personal and intimate portrait of one of the nine.
Her Court colleagues would do well to emulate her and provide us with insights into how they became the persons they are. They shouldn’t continue to hide the story of their lives.