WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a memoir to be published on Tuesday, Sonia Sotomayor writes of the chronic disease, troubled family relationships and failed marriage that accompanied her rise from a housing project in the Bronx to a seat on America’s highest court.
The first Hispanic and the third woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, the 58-year-old justice, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009, describes the insecurities she has felt as a minority who benefited from racial remedies.
She signed on to write the sweeping, 315-page book, “My Beloved World,” early in her tenure. She received a $1.175 million book advance in 2010 from publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, according to financial disclosure records.
Sitting down for a rare interview in her Supreme Court chambers, Sotomayor said that after being thrust into the public limelight with her nomination to the court, she felt the need for introspection to hold onto her identity.
The court’s nine justices, appointed for life, typically decline to sit for interviews or offer any personal observations related to cases. Book tours offer rare opportunities to draw them out on issues, even if only a little.
“I began to realize that if I didn’t stop and take a breath and figure out who this Sonia was, I could be in danger of losing the best in me,” she said. She didn’t want the memoir to be a retelling of her public persona, but rather to reveal who she is as a person, she said.
The interview was part of an orchestrated media blitz to promote the book, which included appearances on Sunday night’s popular CBS News program “60 Minutes” and in People Magazine.
In the coming-of-age story, Sotomayor paints a picture of her young self as a boisterous child, once rescued by a fireman neighbor when she got her head stuck in a bucket, trying to hear what her voice sounded like.
She exudes the same energy when speaking on the phone or talking through the door to her assistant, often calling people “sweetie.” Her chambers are spacious, bright and elegant, decorated with modern art on the walls.
Her environs have not always been so pristine. She describes the difficulty of growing up with a father who was an alcoholic and a mother who was frequently absent. Diagnosed with diabetes at a young age, she wet the bed, fainted in church and learned to inject daily doses of insulin to regulate her blood sugar.
Her father died when Sotomayor was nine, leaving a room full of drained liquor bottles hidden under his mattress, in jacket pockets and closets. While his death sent Sotomayor’s mother into a state of grief, it was also a relief. Until then, her mother had worked long hours as a nurse to stay out of the house and avoid conflict.
At her Supreme Court nomination, Sotomayor ascribed her success to her mother. In the book, Sotomayor portrays a more complicated relationship, describing the pain caused by her mother’s absence and lack of affection. Sotomayor told Reuters that the part in the book about her relationship with her mother, who is still alive, was the most difficult to write.
The justice is open about her insecurities. At Princeton, which admitted her in 1972 under an affirmative action program, Sotomayor questioned her right to be there at times. Other students could be hostile to minorities, and the college newspaper routinely published letters bemoaning the presence of students on campus through racial remedies known as affirmative action.
It gave her the sense that vultures were “circling, ready to dive when we stumbled,” she writes.
The book comes out as the Supreme Court is weighing a landmark case about the role of race in college admissions. Sotomayor was careful in the Reuters interview not to discuss current cases, but said there was value to affirmative action programs.
“It’s impossible to not recognize that the vestiges of discrimination take a long time to erase,” she said. “It just doesn’t happen overnight.”
But she also called affirmative action a “double-edged sword.” She said some people still attribute her position on the court to affirmative action, based on her identity as a Latina justice.
“That’s hurtful. To have your accomplishments naysaid is not something you welcome, and not something that makes you feel good,” she said.
Sotomayor’s book is not the first literary window into a justice’s personal life. Justice Clarence Thomas described his experience with poverty, racism and affirmative action in “My Grandfather’s Son,” and retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote about her early life growing up on an Arizona cattle ranch in “Lazy B.” Sotomayor’s self-portrait is the most revealing, down to the references to the old-lady underwear a friend persuaded her to abandon.
She describes the blow of being denied a job offer at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison after working there as a summer associate while she was at Yale Law School. That disappointment hung over her like a cloud until she became a judge, she writes. The firm declined to comment.
She also opens up about her marriage to her high school sweetheart, Kevin Noonan, which ended with an amicable divorce. On their wedding night, she insisted that he flush down the toilet Quaaludes that were given as a gift by his friends, showing her respect for the law. She says the marriage failed, in part, because of her self-reliance, but that she is still open to finding a happy relationship.
Editing by Howard Goller and Lisa Shumaker