Magazine | April 22, 2013, Issue

Where She’s Coming From

My Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor (Knopf, 336 pp., $27.95)

Many young girls devour Nancy Drew mysteries, but those books fed a special hunger in our newly minted U.S. Supreme Court justice when she was growing up in the Puerto Rican section of the South Bronx. Nancy Drew cracked her cases with logic and reasoning until everything fit together and made sense. By contrast, Sonia Sotomayor’s grandmother and aunts studied the evidence and concluded that someone had put a hex on a troubled neighbor by leaving chicken guts on his doorstep.

Sonia shrank from their time-honored practice of juris without prudence. She was one of those extremely intelligent children (usually girls) who, however much they might love their families, do not want to be like them. Her mother was a native Puerto Rican who joined the WACs in World War II and remained in New York, where she met and married Sonia’s father, a mainland Puerto Rican. At first, the very extended family lived in the old three-story tenements, one generation to each floor, with singles and children divided according to sex. Later they moved into the new public-housing “projects.” Sonia loved her grandmother best (despite her hex theories); coped with her moody mother, who played either good cop or bad cop as the spirit moved her; and developed an affectionate tolerance for her kid brother. She could have loved her father, a kindly drunk, but he died suddenly when she was nine. The immediate family was left with the mother’s salary as a practical nurse, and monthly government checks for the two dependent children.

Sonia was shortly diagnosed with diabetes, sending her mother into perpetual panic that a stubbed toe could lead to gangrene of the leg and amputation. The suddenness of spikes and drops in blood sugar reminded Sonia of her family’s emotional fluctuations, and she especially hated the heavy mental fuzziness that came over her usually agile brain. Told she would not live much past 40, she developed the urgency of the overachiever and asserted her independence by learning how to use a syringe and give herself her own insulin shots. (She was a devotee of TV’s Perry Mason, and her favorite character was the judge because, she says, “he called the shots.”)

To counteract the growing degeneration of the South Bronx, her mother found the money to keep Sonia in Catholic elementary school and, later, Cardinal Spellman High School, where she excelled in her classes, especially formal logic. “I perceived beauty in it, the idea of an order that held under any circumstances. . . . I was amazed that something so mathematically pure and abstract could transform into human persuasion as words with the power to change people’s minds.” She joined the debating team.

A measure of her commitment to a life of the intellect is her reaction to the movie Love Story. She must have been the only girl in the country to fall in love with Harvard instead of with Ryan O’Neal (though it was actually filmed at Fordham, not far from where she had lived all her life). It was time for college, and time for getting touchy over affirmative action. She never mentions it without noting that it was “still in the early stage at this time,” or that “the first Latino students had not yet graduated when I started Princeton.” She had tried Radcliffe first. Harvard’s “sister school” from the coed era, it oozed blue-book society, screamed debutante, and threatened her enough to make her flee — literally but only temporarily — back home to the Bronx.

Princeton seemed the best bet, because its longstanding role as “the northernmost college for Southern gentlemen, which had bred resistance to desegregation, eventually gave way to some healthy soul-searching. Consequently, efforts to recruit black students were earnest and energetic.” She got in, on a full work-study scholarship. Next came law school at Yale, with similar benefits, and, finally, job-hunting.

Her first head-butt with affirmative action came when she was interviewed by a partner in a small private D.C. firm, who asked her whether she believed in it. She replied in her calm, measured way, defining it as “searching wider, looking deeper,” but he persisted, asking her whether it was “a disservice to minorities, hiring them without the necessary credentials, knowing you’ll have to fire them a few years later.” This bothered her. Was he saying that it was okay to ignore affirmative action after the fact — that, once having practiced it, an employer was free to return to discrimination? The next day, she approached him privately and said she had found his question offensive. He reacted with stunned surprise. “You didn’t seem terribly upset,” he replied. “You didn’t make a scene. You were perfectly civil.”

#page#That did it: He had stereotyped her! He was operating under what she calls the “Hysterical Puerto Rican Syndrome.” He had looked at her and seen Spanish, Spanish, everywhere: Juana the Mad screaming bloody murder, Carmen with a knife in her stocking.Encouraged by her bevy of mentors and the ad hoc support groups she seems to collect wherever she goes, she decided to lodge a formal complaint against the law firm through Yale’s career office, challenging the firm’s right to recruit on campus. It led to meetings with the dean and formal hearings by a student/faculty tribunal. She had struck a nerve. Word of her complaint traveled to minority-student groups across the country, until Yale, “clearly uncomfortable with the attention the complaint was drawing, was eager to reach a settlement.” The student/faculty tribunal “negotiated” a full apology from the firm and allowed them to continue recruiting at Yale, albeit with a carefully lowered profile.

Mind you, Sotomayor does not claim or even hint that the Hysterical Puerto Rican stereotype inspired her subsequent official complaint. It’s a standalone, throwaway line that she uses only this once in the entire book. From the way it reads, it sounds like an attempt to come across as a streetwise Latina with a cynical sense of humor, but I get the distinct feeling that it actually represents her subconscious motivation in her decision to hex Yale. Positioning herself above the battle, she argued that “to doubt the worth of minority students’ achievements when they succeed is really only to present another face of the prejudice that would deny them a chance even to try.” In other words, she made affirmative action safe “in perpetuity,” a blessed status she had learned a great deal about in the class on wills that she aced.

Put off by the idea of working for a private firm, she took New York district attorney Robert Morgenthau’s offer of a job as assistant prosecutor. He offered it to her himself, having gotten her name from José Cabranes, her mentor from their days in the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. To know her is to mentor her, and to mentor her is to be networked to death. Networking might be pushy, she grants, but “virtue in obscurity is rewarded only in Heaven”: “To succeed in this world,” she advises, “you have to be known to people.” She made herself known to so many people that she has developed the writing fault known as “signposting”: Whenever you read the words “unassailable integrity” or “worked tirelessly,” you know that a Rolodex card made flesh is about to come on scene.

Most books have their good parts and other parts that are not so good, but My Beloved World mixes the very good and the very bad in stunning and sometimes sudden proportions. Sotomayor is good on the gritty life of an assistant D.A. in New York City, where she hunted down drug-case witnesses in filthy shooting galleries. She is good in her account of her membership in an elite Manhattan firm that dealt in foreign luxury items, trademark disputes, and warranty claims. At issue was Italy’s Fendi handbag, worth $1,000 at legal retail, that was being knocked off by imitators, including a pushcart vendor who parked on the sidewalk in front of the Fendi store. Ever mindful of the Mob, Sotomayor’s firm equipped her with a bulletproof vest. She ended up under a pile of hundreds of Fendi bags that she rescued in a desperate confrontation in a remote warehouse.

On a completely different note, she is good on subjects I never expected to find interesting, such as the treatise she wrote that appeared in The Yale Law Journal on seabed rights and admiralty law as sources to assess Puerto Rico’s underwater wealth, a vital consideration in the question of its becoming our 51st state.

Then, just when we think she doesn’t write like a lawyer, we come to this: “But let me not overstate the influence of those innovations, which seem in hindsight more dramatic than they did at the time and which sometimes were more methodological than theoretical.”

She can go from stark, frightening realism — as in her description of the sudden sugar low she had at a wedding reception when she grabbed the cake off another guest’s plate and crammed it into her mouth — to the insipid romanticism of those people who go around saying “I’ve always wanted to write.” Here she is on the heat wave of 1972: “[The heat] silvered Princeton’s leafy vistas, endowing everything with a more unearthly aura.” And on a rain forest: “Waterfalls trick the eye, holding movement suspended in lacy veils.” And on a beach: “At night there is liquid stardust swirling in the dark waters of the phosphorescent bay.”

There’s a lot more of this but you get the general idea. She also claims that tears “welled” in her eyes. To paraphrase Alexander Woollcott, tears haven’t welled since East Lynne. This is rosy-fingers-of-dawn stuff, proving once again the anonymous editor’s advice: There are two things that can’t be described. One of them is a sunset.

No one expects a celebrity to write all of her own book without help, and Sotomayor acknowledges the usual helpers: two editors, a copyeditor, and a ghost, whose job she calls “collaboration.” That sounds about right, but they did not cover their tracks as well as they should have and they left their calling cards. In any case, the purported author undoubtedly wrote my favorite line because too many people nowadays would be loath to do so: “I had been a smoker since high school, burning through three and a half packs a day.” I’ll bet what’s left of my life that it was really four; we always shave off a little. She says she has kicked the habit now, but she can’t kick her memory of her grandmother, who asked for a cigarette on her hospital bed, smoked it, and then died.

– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.

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