Commentary Magazine


Whose Accomplishments?

My Beloved World
By Sonia Sotomayor
Alfred A. Knopf, 336 pages

The first question that presents itself about Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography is: Did she write it? This is an age of ghosts (perhaps of many kinds, but certainly of the writing variety), and we take it for granted that prominent people have minions to help with wordsmithing. In the case of Supreme Court justices, the relationship is formalized through clerks who help write opinions and perform other tasks. But books are different. For integrity’s sake, a book ought to consist of the actual words of the author—particularly in an autobiography.

Sotomayor suggests in the preface of My Beloved World that the words therein are her own: “My law clerks will no doubt be aghast to see how often I’ve broken my own very strict rules about formal writing, which include injunctions against the use of contractions and split infinitives. Every rule, however, is bound by context, and a personal memoir requires a different style than a legal opinion.” Yet in the acknowledgments section she notes that the book would not have been possible without the “collaboration” of Zara Houshmand. “Zara, a most talented writer herself, listened to my endless stories and those of my family and friends, and helped choose those that in retelling would paint the most authentic picture of my life experiences. Zara, you are an incredible person with a special ability to help others understand and express themselves better.”

So where does that leave us? Did the justice write the book herself with editing assistance, or did Zara Houshmand digest the stories and repackage them for her? There is nothing unethical about employing a collaborator, so long as her contribution is openly acknowledged. But to pass off the work of another as one’s own does cross a line. There is much to admire about Sonia Sotomayor. The daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, she graduated summa cum laude from Princeton and earned a law degree from Yale before becoming a federal judge at the early age of 38. In many ways, she may be the “wise Latina” that she spoke of so memorably, but the reader is entitled to know whether one of her talents is that of writer.

Did Justice Sotomayor write the following paragraph about the beauty of Puerto Rico?

In the rain forest at El Yunque, waterfalls trick the eye, holding movement suspended in lacy veils. Wet stone gleams, fog tumbles from peaks to valleys, mists filter the forest in pale layers receding into mystery. On the beach at Luquillo, when the sun appears under clouds massed offshore and catches the coconut palms at low angle, the leafy crowns explode like fireworks of silver light. At night there is liquid stardust swirling in the dark waters of the phosphorescent bay. Almost every evening there are sunsets of white gold where the sky meets the sea.

Such lyricism doubtless reflects the author’s feelings, but the reader is entitled to wonder whether such language comes from her pen.

Sotomayor, who was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Obama in August 2009, is frank about the difficulties of her early life. They went beyond modest means and immigrant status. Her father was a severe alcoholic who drank himself into the grave when Sonia was only nine. He didn’t beat his wife or abuse the kids, but his drinking rendered him incompetent as a provider, husband, and father. Fierce arguments between husband and wife were a regular feature of life in the Sotomayor home. Sonia’s mother, a nurse, did her best to manage with two young children, but her emotional range was limited. The burden of first constructive, and then actual single parenthood weighed on her. Sotomayor found much more warmth in the company of her grandmother and in the embrace of aunts, uncles, and cousins who filled the voids her parents, in different ways, created.

In many respects, Sonia Sotomayor’s story is so familiar as to be a cliché. Plucky child of immigrants1 works hard, is noticed by her teachers for lively intelligence, survives a tough neighborhood, triumphs over a chronic illness, and finds the strength within herself to rise to the pinnacle of American life. But this is not Horatio Alger. Sotomayor is very much a creature of her time and place. Celebrations of American openness and opportunity are unfashionable now. And so her memoir, while touching in places, is marred by the ingratitude that is characteristic of modern liberalism.

The most affecting part of her story is her struggle with Type I diabetes. Unlike Type II, a disease associated with age and unhealthy habits, Type I is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s defenses attack and destroy the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Diagnosed at the age of seven, Sotomayor needed (and needs still) daily insulin shots. Because her mother worked long hours and her father’s alcoholic neuropathy made his hands shake too violently to manage an injection, Sonia recognized that she would have to learn to administer the shots herself. In the era before disposable needles, this required boiling the equipment on the stove, letting it cool, filling the syringe with insulin to the exact correct line (too much could kill and too little would leave her with a dangerous high blood sugar), removing any bubbles from the syringe, and plunging the needle into her thigh. One detail of her daily regimen was especially poignant—the image of the small girl dragging a chair over to the stove so that she could climb up and attend to the business of sterilizing her syringes.

A child who could manage all of that on a daily basis (along with washing the dishes and dusting the apartment so that her father’s dereliction would be less obvious) was clearly possessed of an extraordinary will. It may have been the same quality, along with a keen mind, that caused her to excel in school.

Sotomayor devotes considerable attention to her own success in My Beloved World, pondering what accidents of fate, personal qualities, and social supports permitted her to rise in the world. Though her narrative is studiously anodyne about politics, her political preferences intrude when she contemplates her own success because they touch on the nature of opportunity in America and the justice of affirmative action.

Early on, Sotomayor disclaims the term “self-made” for herself, protesting that “I have always felt that the support I’ve drawn from those closest to me has made the decisive difference between success and failure.” This is a straw man identical to the one President Obama flayed during the 2012 campaign—the “you didn’t build that” theme. Who believes that a self-made man never received support from his nearest and dearest? The term “self-made” should certainly apply to someone like Sotomayor, who grew up in very modest circumstances, could not glide to comfort in the slipstream of her parents’ wealth or connections, but triumphed through her own combination of brains, ambition, and hard work.

Affirmative action hasn’t destroyed the Horatio Alger dream, but it has significantly undermined it, as Sotomayor’s memoir illustrates. Sotomayor cannot take simple pleasure in her success because affirmative action forces her to be defensive. Her discomfort with having been granted admission to Princeton in part because she was Hispanic surfaces repeatedly. She is at pains to convince the reader that she deserved her slot in that freshman class. When the school nurse at her high school noted that she had received a “likely” card from Princeton while the two girls who ranked first and second in the class had gotten only “possible” cards, Sotomayor was rattled:

Sometimes, in such situations, an apt answer only occurs to you hours later: “Because of what I’ve accomplished on the forensics team and in student government. Because I work part-time during the school year and full-time during the summers. I may be ranked below them, but I’m still in the top ten, and I do much more than the others do.”

That’s a highly idealized vision of the way affirmative action operates. It’s the “thumb on the scale” notion that enjoys virtually unanimous support—and that may well be true of Sotomayor’s case. But as the justice surely knows, it’s a far cry from the reality in which universities accept large numbers of minority applicants with radically inferior qualifications in order to fulfill “diversity” goals.

Sotomayor recounts other stories of being challenged about her worthiness. A particularly maladroit lawyer (at least in her telling) from Shaw Pittman asked some borderline rude questions at a recruiting dinner when Sotomayor was a student at Yale Law: “Do you believe law firms should practice affirmative action? Don’t you think it’s a disservice to minorities, hiring them without the necessary credentials, knowing that you’ll have to fire them a few years later?” This is Sotomayor’s memoir, so she naturally gets the better of the argument, replying: “I think that even someone who got into an institution through affirmative action could prove they were qualified by what they accomplished there.” Touché, but that wasn’t enough for the budding litigator. She filed a formal complaint against Shaw Pittman. The matter became a cause célèbre and was taken up by a student/faculty tribunal. In return for an apology, the firm was permitted to continue recruiting at Yale but kept a low profile, Sotomayor reports, for some time thereafter.

The story is the occasion for a prolonged aria on “look-wider, search-more affirmative action.” Sotomayor repeats her own many accomplishments and notes, with justice, that they don’t “give out” distinctions like Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude, and others she received “as so many pats on the back to encourage mediocre students.”

True enough, but Sotomayor doesn’t even address the serious arguments about the harmful effects affirmative-action policies have had on their intended beneficiaries. She was able to thrive at Princeton and Yale, but large numbers of affirmative-action students drop out or fare poorly, while the institutions congratulate themselves on their commitment to diversity. In their carefully researched book Mismatch, Stuart Taylor and Richard Sander provide many examples of the unintended consequences of affirmative action, including (1) the disproportionate number of black students who abandon efforts to pursue doctorates because they are enrolled at colleges where they cannot compete with better qualified peers; (2) the fact that black law students are four times more likely to flunk the bar exam than other students; (3) that mismatch causes black students to abandon fields like science and engineering at twice the rate of whites; and (4) that minority students at mismatched schools are less likely than those at other schools to form interracial friendships.

Nor does she consider the considerable evidence that affirmative-action policies benefit upper-middle-class members of certain minority groups at the expense of poor whites and Asians.

Though Sotomayor’s career is marked by association with liberal causes and organizations, she is comfortable departing from orthodoxy. Regarding her time as an assistant district attorney in New York, she writes: “Policemen don’t normally make arrests on sheer caprice; most defendants turn out to be guilty….Knowing that the poor and minorities are disproportionately the victims of crimes, I’m loath to view the adversarial process of the law as class warfare by another name.”

In a passage that might ruffle feminist feathers, she reflects on her divorce and childlessness and acknowledges the trade-offs of life: “As for the possibility of ‘having it all,’ career and family, with no sacrifice to either, that is a myth we would do well to abandon, together with the pernicious notion that a woman who chooses one or the other is somehow deficient.”

The phrase “my beloved world” is from a paean to Puerto Rico by the poet José Gautier Benítez titled “To Puerto Rico (I Return).” It is reproduced in full in the original Spanish and in translation, and excerpted on the dedication page:

Forgive the exile

this sweet frenzy:

I return to my beloved world,

in love with the land where I was born.

The land where Sotomayor was born was the United States. Is that her “beloved world”? She never says so. Though love for Puerto Rico reflects no discredit on Sotomayor—quite the opposite—it is striking that the book contains no hymn to America. She expresses gratitude to her family, her friends, her mentors, and to President Obama, but sadly, never to the country that has been so good to her. Sonia Sotomayor is a very accomplished woman whose achievements should be and have been celebrated. It’s a shame that she found no words to honor her country in return.


Footnotes

1 Though Puerto Rico is an American possession, it is culturally and linguistically distinct enough for one to use the word immigrant to describe those who move to the States.

About the Author

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist and author, most recently, of Do-Gooders: How Liberals Hurt Those They Claim to Help (and the Rest of Us).




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