sonia sotomayor’s sees only one side
“What made the difference between two children who began almost as twins?” asks Sonia Sotomayor near the conclusion of . She is contrasting the diverging paths of her own life and a childhood friend, Nelson. Nelson was smarter, she says, with a father who loved him more than Sotomayor’s father, an alcoholic who died young, ever could.
Yet, Nelson failed unambiguously in adulthood. He developed a heroin addiction and cleaned himself up only to contract H.I.V. via needle contamination in the 1980s. Now he has been gone for many years. Sotomayor reflects that there is “one thing I had that [Nelson] lacked.” It’s a quality that Sotomayor wishes she could give out like a drug. “Call it what you like: discipline, determination, perseverance, the force of will,” she writes. “I knew it had made all the difference in my life.”
Sotomayor’s memoir, a bestseller when it was released in 2013, is many things at once: It functions as a reflection of her community and cultural heritage, an ode to public service, and an extended tribute to all the mentors, friends, and family that helped her along the way to the Supreme Court. However, like most life stories, My Beloved World is unsettled. In an unstable balance, luck and outside forces pull on that “special quality” Sotomayor says she possesses. How much of Sotomayor’s life is her own?
This is not to discount the achievements of Sotomayor. Just flipping through the pages of My Beloved World, one sees Sotomayor take aim at an ambitious target (“every report card would have at least one more A than last time”) and nail her mark. She set her sights on Princeton and Yale Law School–and graduated at the top of her class. She made early mistakes working as a prosecutor then changes the structure of her summations and “never lost a case again” (210). Having attended all of primary and secondary school at a Catholic school, Sotomayor credits much of her discipline and perfectionism to the nuns. It shows. In 2009, she was asked to throw out the first pitch at a Yankees game. “I practiced twenty minutes every afternoon for weeks,” she writes. She may not have much velocity in that right arm, but the result was eminently respectable: “I did send it right down the middle.”
Following in the long tradition of political memoirs, Sotomayor’s writing possesses both bland writing and banal optimism. “Experience has taught me you cannot value dreams according to their odds of coming true,” she writes in the preface. “Their real value is in stirring within us the will to aspire.” Sotomayor explains My Beloved World as a way to make her story accessible, giving marginalized individuals the knowledge that “happy endings are possible.”
I can’t dispute this claim. But is a happy ending probable? Nelson’s story suggests not. Not very many people posses the intelligence or moral character of Sotomayor. The worst sin she seems to admit in three hundred pages is “on more than one occasion I may have broken the speed limit.” To her immense credit, Sotomayor has devoted her career to making American society more fair and just for all its citizens. There isn’t much more, however, than the outlines of her progressivism in My Beloved World. She plays up her independence of vision and stops decades short of offering her opinions on contemporary Supreme Court issues. The one mention of the Republican Party in the book offsets a rebuke of the GOP’s stance on social issues with a friendly nod to their fiscal frugality.
So My Beloved World must be read as a fully personal, not political, book that reveals the broader problems with the inspirational genre of memoir. It’s a genre that falls victim to the old maxim, attributed to Winston Churchill, that “history is written by the victors.” Well of course it turns out, personal history is also written by the victors. So much of what Sotomayor writes could be written by almost anyone. The details and family history might change, but the essence would remain the same. So, I read her book increasingly aware of the impossibility of accounting for her good fortune. This is something that Sotomayor herself acknowledges. As a teenager, she asks, rhetorically, “What if my father hadn’t died, if I hadn’t spent my sad summer reading, if my mother’s English had been no better than my aunts’? Would I have made it to Princeton?”
The coincidences grow and grow. Sotomayor stumbles by a conference room and finds herself listening to the district attorney of New York, resulting in a job interview and unorthodox path that pays notable dividends later on. Stricken with diabetes since childhood, Sotomayor almost dies during a wedding in Italy. She passes out at a hotel room in Venice and fails to show up on time for the wedding. Fortunately, a friend notices, treks over to her hotel and finds her in time to call an ambulance. “Each time I found myself in a blood sugar crisis,” she observes, “I couldn’t help but notice some unlikely intervention saved my life.”
These diabetic incidents and near-death experiences suggest that the line between life and death, between her fate and that of Nelson, is thinner than Sotomayor may like to admit. I reiterate that this is not a criticism of Sotomayor’s life but a criticism of the story of her life that she tells. It’s a story that moves from ignorance to enlightenment, pausing only to measure how far she has come. “There is no experience that can’t avail something useful,” she writes. The other people in the book, almost uniformly praised, from her mother to her former husband, Kevin, come across as stock characters. This draws a stark distinction between Sotomayor the person and Sotomayor the storyteller. The former is, without a doubt, unselfish. But the latter struggles to imagine a story that isn’t hers.
What gives Sotomayor the right to a 300-page story of her life? It’s her celebrity, her fame, her luck at becoming a Supreme Court Justice. Thus, the fundamental difference between Sotomayor and Nelson is not that between success and failure; it’s that Sotomayor was able, even asked to tell the story of her life, while Nelson could not. Books like this one are biased not just towards success, but towards who can even tell us about the world, about success and failure. Although My Beloved World is not a very good book, it illuminates the privilege of storytelling. No wonder Sotomayor concludes the book with a her swearing-in in 2009 and a final sentence that brims with overwhelming graciousness: “In this life, I have been truly blessed.”