My Beloved World is a gem of a memoir. That’s not the least because of who wrote the 300-page volume released this past January. The author is 58-year-old Sonia Sotomayor, who’s served as a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court since 2009. Her recollections display a candor rare in books by high-ranking public officials.
There is, for instance, her admission of childhood relief that the premature death of her alcoholic father might end conflict and bring stability to her household, as well as her account of the ignorance with which she and her high school sweetheart entered a marriage that would scarcely last through her college years. And there are moving reflections on her subsequent life as a single person. At page 232, Sotomayor tells how various factors, including the Type 1 diabetes with which she’s coped since age 7, influenced her decision not to become a parent:
‘My nephews are all the proof I could have needed of how emotionally satisfying adoption might have been. Still, there remained the fear that I might not be around long enough to raise a child to adulthood. Ultimately, the satisfaction of motherhood would be sacrificed, though I wouldn’t say it was sacrificed to career.’
At the heart of Beloved World are Sotomayor’s stories of growing up in the South Bronx in the ’60s, in a socially conservative, extended family. Many of her relatives had journeyed north from their native Puerto Rico. Family life swirled around their matriarch, Abuelita, the grandmother with a gift for giving love and a penchant for the late-night seance.
This was a world where Spanish dominated – except in the classrooms, where English-speaking nuns kept order by corporal punishment. Sotomayor writes frankly of the routine reality of beatings and fights, in homes and schools alike. She expresses approval that a recent visit back to Blessed Sacrament showed that teachers had adopted “a more nurturing approach since abandonment of the rod,” and then remarks,”Every generation has its own way of showing it cares.” (p. 88)
Her narrative resonates beyond the subculture it describes. Having grown up not many years later among Italian relatives in northwest Chicago, I found much in Beloved World that rang familiar: how acculturation pulled at homeland languages and lifestyles; how workplaces and parishes regulated life more directly than more distant governments; how diabetes or drinking or drugs or disability could bring shame and devastation; how some children managed to succeed in the larger world (often to their families’ bewilderment), while others found failure in every world they inhabited.
Sotomayor returns again and again to this last question of resilience – of how some children move forward even as others stumble. The book’s title hints at her answer: the foremost factor in success is love. Recalling her relationship with Abuelita, Sotomayor writes at page 16:
‘I have come to believe that in order to thrive, a child must have at least one adult in her life who shows her unconditional love, respect, and confidence.’
There is more, Sotomayor makes clear. Given the gift of “selfless love” (p. 254), the child must build on it, must learn to ask help from others. “[D]on’t be shy about making a teacher of any willing party who knows what he or she is doing,” she urges (p. 72). Sotomayor thus provides in Beloved World a string of inspiring stories about how and whom she asked, as well as the often-positive result of her asking for help. (Aspiring lawyers will welcome the consequent practice tips.)
All must be done in service of community. “There are no bystanders in this life,” Sotomayor insists (p.256); to the contrary:
‘Our humanity makes us each a part of something greater than ourselves.’