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'Blessed' Sotomayor wins against-all-odds journey

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My Beloved World

By Sonia Sotomayor

Knopf, 315 pages, $33

In her inspiring and highly personal memoir, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor chronicles an against-all-odds journey to her 2009 appointment as the first Hispanic and third female member of the highest court in the United States.

In plain yet eloquent language, accessible to people of all ages and levels of education, the 58-year-old Princeton and Yale Law School graduate talks about her alcoholic father, who died when she was nine, and her diagnosis of Type I diabetes at age seven.

She learned to inject herself with insulin at that tender age because "the disease inspired in me a kind of precocious self-reliance that is not uncommon in children who feel the adults around them to be unreliable."

She details growing up amid poverty in the Bronx in New York with family who hailed from Puerto Rico. Her mother worked tirelessly as a nurse so that Sotomayor, and her brother, now a physician, could have a better life.

Sotomayor writes that her memoir is designed "to make my hopeful example accessible. People who live in difficult circumstances need to know that happy endings are possible."

From the very first page, she succeeds in demonstrating that fact. She also acknowledges that she's written more "intimately" about her personal life than is "customary" for a member of the Supreme Court. Doing so is a risky move, she admits, because her candour has made her vulnerable: "I will be judged as a human being by what readers find here."

Interestingly, Sotomayor ends her autobiography 20 years ago, when she first became a judge. She does so, she writes, because while her judicial career is still a work in progress and she is also still experiencing personal growth, "the person I remain was essentially formed (by the time she became a judge)."

Sotomayor writes of experiencing "survivor's guilt," because she continues to thrive after her favourite cousin, her "soul twin" Nelson, a drug addict, died when he was 30. Sotomayor opines that perhaps her personal qualities of "discipline, determination, perserverence" and "the force of will" help to explain her success.

Sotomayor's work ethic was acquired from her mother who taught her that "a chain of emotion can persuade when one forged of logic won't hold." More important, though, was her mother's lesson that "a surplus of effort could overcome a deficit of confidence."

Divorced many years ago after a brief marriage, Sotomayor describes herself as a confidante to her friends and family and godmother to many of their children. She writes that a "happy relationship" remains an "alluring alternative." She adores children but chose not to have any because of her fear that diabetes might mean she might "not be around long enough to raise a child to adulthood."

Even though medical advances have mitigated that concern, Sotomayor writes that "I've lived most of my life inescapably aware that it is precious and finite." With that in mind, she successfully completed a five-day residential treatment program to quit cigarette smoking more than two decades ago.

Careful readers searching for insights into Sotomayor's legal opinions will find many. For example, she writes that "diminished capability is always a flimsy argument at best. It has no legal standing."

Sotomayor experienced discrimination from a firm during an employment interview while at Yale Law School. The prohibited questioning focused on her ethnicity and on her thoughts concerning affirmative action programs. She filed a human rights complaint with Yale's career office and was vindicated when the firm was forced to apologize.

Sotomayor believes that she is "truly blessed" to live the life that she does and readers will share that emotion on every page of this compelling and powerful memoir.

Brenlee Carrington, a Winnipeg lawyer and mediator, is the Law Society of Manitoba's equity ombudswoman.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 23, 2013 J7

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