An extraordinary life, an extraordinary person, and a wonderful read. My Beloved World is by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court created a record of sorts.
The book starts dramatically and poignantly with the writer, barely eight years, listening to her parents arguing about how to give her the insulin shot. She is a juvenile diabetic. The parents fought, her father was an alcoholic and she writes, “My mother’s pain would never heal, the ice between them would never thaw because they would never find a way to acknowledge it. Without acknowledgement and communication, forgiveness was beyond reach.”
As she writes, her tone and voice seem to change, she slowly growing from the eight-year-old with whom we walk the journey and see her beloved world. It is a fascinating device, which does not seem to be the result of effort, but almost as if Sonia the child starts sharing her life with us and grows through the pages.
When she was diagnosed as a diabetic, the family receives it as “a catastrophe of tragic dimensions.” But she wouldn’t waste time. “I’d better get to work right now. That urgency always stayed with me.”
Because of the circumstances of her childhood, she had missed the joys of reading the world’s classics which her friend and room-mate had read, while she had been reading Reader’s Digest. “I’d have to remain a student for life.” These scenes are shared without self-pity, with candour and sometimes with a wry humour. Witness how the scene where the disinterested saleswoman looking at the two Puerto Rican women, the mother and daughter, suddenly transforms when the mother says her daughter is going to Princeton. “I saw the saleswoman’s head turn round as in a cartoon double-take.”
She talks of the incongruity of being at Princeton. “There were vultures circling, ready to dive when we stumbled.” She lives the difficulties of “minority students” for us. At the same time she warns against overkill of protests that may become an end in itself and lose potency if used routinely. “Quiet pragmatism of course lacks the romance of vocal militancy. But I felt more a mediator than a crusader.” She wins the Moses Taylor Pyne Honor Prize and disarmingly tells us that she realised it was “the highest award that a graduating senior can receive”, and that she would have to give a speech. “With the exception of our small cluster of ‘Third World’ friends and family, the faces were uniformly white. It was a fitting reminder of what I was doing there.” The speech is simple and hits home the message that Princeton (and indeed the world) would “be further enriched by being broadened to accommodate and harmonize with the beat of those of us who march to different drummers.” And to those who march differently, the message is “As you discover what strength you can draw from your community in this world from which it stands apart, look outward as well as inward. Build bridges instead of walls.” Do not let your identities isolate you; rather integrate with your identities intact. This theme runs through the whole book, there is no apology, no excuses for the difference and its impact, there is rather a pride and a determination.
Then came the marriage and her law practice. “If the long hours were straining our marriage, I was too preoccupied to notice.” You cannot miss a word or a line. Note this. She writes about her friendship with a defense lawyer, “We’d talk shop: the ins and outs of our cases, the temperaments and tempers of the judges we dealt with, the routine sexism that was an occupational hazard,” and about the practice of law … “there is a place for idealism in the practice of the law. It is what makes many of us enter the profession in the first place, it is certainly what drives some of us lawyers to become judges.” The marriage breaks. He says “even doing the best I can, I’m not going to catch up with you.” She is touched by his generosity, she writes. This is something that marks her out, this spirit of super-fairness. “You didn’t need me” he says and she writes he wasn’t wrong.
Can women “have it all” is always a burning debate. “…it is a myth we would do well to abandon, together with the pernicious notion that a woman who chooses the one or the other is somehow deficient.”
She gives her best to every case and her closing speech in a child pornography case: “When you sell a stick of marijuana, the buyer and the seller can make free choices. The children could not.”
There is a constant attempt for self- improvement. Her mother and she share an uneasy relationship, “But there is no better indicator of progress, or cause for pride, than the thaw in relations with my mother.”
About her first day as District Judge Sotomayor, she writes that her knees were knocking but once she posed the first question to the litigants, the knees stopped knocking. And in her words “I think this fish has found her pond.” Indeed it had. My Beloved World stops here. It is not a strategic decision alone but an aesthetic decision too. The narrative would have changed track thereafter.
Is this a review? Not quite. It is an introduction to a remarkable person: a juvenile diabetic with troubled parents, an affirmative action student belonging to an ethnic minority, a woman who rose to the very top excelling all the way through Princeton and Yale. It is also an introduction to a person with remarkable simplicity, fairness, and blazing integrity. Virtues sorely lacking today.
(Prabha Sridevan is a retired judge of the Madras High Court)