The Sotomayor Interview
6:00 am
Sat January 12, 2013

A Justice Deliberates: Sotomayor On Love, Health And Family

Originally published on Mon January 14, 2013 2:27 pm

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor readily concedes that she was the beneficiary of affirmative action in higher education, and she doesn't really know why her view is so different from that of her colleague, Justice Clarence Thomas.

"As much as I know Clarence, admire him and have grown to appreciate him," she says, "I have never ever focused on the negative of things. I always look at the positive. And I know one thing: If affirmative action opened the doors for me at Princeton, once I got in, I did the work. I proved myself worthy. So, I don't look at how the door opened."

Sotomayor made the remarks in an interview with NPR just before the release of her new autobiography, My Beloved World.

At Princeton, where she went to undergraduate school, there were fewer than 30 Latinos, she says, "but all of us had done spectacularly well in our high schools." And while Sotomayor cannot explain why Thomas, the nation's second African-American justice, feels so differently from her, she says, "I do know one thing about me: I don't measure myself by others' expectations or let others define my worth."

She notes that so-called "legacy admits" at top schools — students whose parents are alumni — never question how they get into school, nor do those with sports scholarships. So, like these students, she says, she concentrated on "the benefits of education and the fact that I have taken advantage of it in a positive way." True, she observes, youngsters who attend prep schools do better on standardized tests and usually have a leg up when they get to college. "Is that a fair advantage? No, it's life."

She says affirmative action, as she has seen it, is simply an attempt by schools to look "more widely" for minority students and those from poor families who have the ability to "master the environment" of a highly competitive college or university. It's the kind of student you might find at Cardinal Spellman High School, her alma mater, in the Bronx.

'Don't Mistake Politeness For Lack Of Strength'

Once at Princeton, Sotomayor struggled mightily at first, in part because she didn't know how to write well in her second language, English. She embarked on a crash program in her first summer, eventually became a star student and graduated summa cum laude, winning Princeton's coveted Moses Taylor Pyne Honor Prize.

It was only when she was close to graduating from Yale Law School several years later that she encountered the kind of stereotyping that Justice Thomas has often written about. At a recruiting dinner, a partner in a large Washington, D.C., firm looked at her and asked, "Did you get into Yale only because you are Puerto Rican?"

She was stunned.

"It took me aback to think that someone was actually looking at me that way," she says, noting that the man apparently knew nothing about her academic successes.

"Now that's the price of affirmative action that Clarence Thomas talks about ... and it's one that can lead to the sense that the benefits might be outweighed by the negative impressions it leaves. But that was my first moment experiencing that kind of overt discrimination."

She did not take the stereotyping lying down. She confronted the man the next day, amazed when he seemed to think she had not cared since she did not "make a scene." She viewed the emotional reaction he expected as simply another stereotype — the emotional Latina.

Instead, she told the recruiter, "I'm much more polite than that, but don't mistake politeness for lack of strength."

Indeed, she filed a complaint over the matter, but rather than seek to bar the firm from further recruiting, she accepted a written apology.

Love And Family

Unlike most books by Supreme Court justices, My Beloved World is almost entirely personal and unexpectedly candid. Sotomayor describes her father's alcoholism and its effects on the family, as well as her mother's emotional chilliness and the long road to mutual understanding, warmth and forgiveness between the two.

She is equally candid about her five-year marriage and amicable divorce from her high-school sweetheart, Kevin Noonan. Neither of them, she says, was really prepared for marriage. So did she ever think of just living with him?

"Never," she tells NPR. "Oh my God, I am a Catholic Puerto Rican. Do you think my family would ever have tolerated us living together? As independent as I am, I was not going to be thrown out of my family."

She has been single ever since the divorce. Yes, she concedes. "I would like to be in a couple again." But, "it's a little hard right now, being a Supreme Court justice. First, I have to master this job a little bit more." And as much as she would like to be in a relationship, she thinks it important that girls and women not expect marriage to define their happiness.

Diabetes And Kicking A Habit

Sotomayor also talks openly about her diabetes, a few near-death experiences and how "I spent a good portion of my life hiding my disease." She has talked about it since becoming a justice, in part to make people understand how important it is not to hide the disease, so that when something goes wrong, friends know what to do.

When she was first diagnosed as a child, she recalls, having diabetes meant you weren't going to live to old age or even middle age. That is no longer true, she observes, adding that diabetes "is really a fundamental part of me. It's part of my body; it's part of everything I do all day long — exercising, eating, stopping internally for a moment to check where my blood sugars are."

She also describes her addiction to cigarettes and how she spent five days in a residential treatment facility to kick the habit. In the NPR interview, Sotomayor confesses that she once made her longtime secretary swear to help her fulfill her last wish: "The day I'm dying, your last job for me is to buy a carton of cigarettes and light one up after the other," she told her.

Indeed, the justice laughingly recalls that in the first year after she gave up smoking, she found herself driving behind an SUV whose driver was holding a cigarette out the window. "I followed him three blocks out of my way ... smoking the secondhand smoke," she says.

Becoming A Justice

Sotomayor's account of her professional career — in the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, then in private practice and then, for 17 years, as a federal district and appeals court judge — is more publicly known than the rest of her life. She declines to talk about what went on behind the scenes during the nomination and confirmation process prior to her swearing in as a Supreme Court justice, but she does talk about the day her nomination was announced in the East Room of the White House.

Walking down the corridor with the long-legged President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, she couldn't keep pace. "And I whispered, 'Please,'" she tells NPR. "And they turned around and looked at me, and I said, 'I can't walk that fast' ... and they smiled. And the moment they smiled ... I had an out-of-body experience. It was as if my emotions were so big that if I continued to let them exist in my body, I would stop functioning."

So she "banished" her emotions, as she puts it, to some place "over my head." That, she says, is the way she survived the first year and a half — the nomination, the confirmation process, the inductions, throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium. All, she says, "were moments I will treasure forever. But at those moments I couldn't let the emotion overcome me. Otherwise I wouldn't be able to survive."

Sotomayor is said to have earned a $1.2 million advance for her memoir, an amount that reportedly has allowed her to buy an apartment in Washington and pay back some debts.

She says she decided to "tell the truth" about her life, warts and all, to inspire other "ordinary people." Role models on TV are "fantasized," she says, "but I think it's important to move people beyond just dreaming into doing. They have to be able to see that you are just like them and you made it."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor's autobiography arrives this week. It's entitled "My Beloved World," and it reveals far more about Sotomayor than was disclosed during her confirmation hearings. It chronicles her life from the tenements of New York to the halls of Princeton and Yale, to the New York district attorney's office, and eventually to the Supreme Court.

To talk about all that and more, Sotomayor sat down with NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The first Hispanic justice knows she's a role model to many. Still, her searingly candid book exposes not just the joys, but the warts of her life, too. Her father's alcoholism, her conflicts with her mother and the disease that often dominated and disciplined her childhood, diabetes. So why did she write a book that exposes so many of her own personal vulnerabilities?

JUSTICE SONIA SOTOMAYOR: I think to move people beyond just dreaming into doing, they have to be able to see that you're just like them and you still made it. I realized I had to tell them the truth, and so this book is about that truth.

TOTENBERG: That truth is often painful. Her book opens with her parents fighting over who will give her a diabetes shot. At age seven, Sonia says she will do it herself and she learns to boil the water, sterilize the needles and to inject herself, a skill she performs today with such ease that few notice when she does it in the middle of a fancy dinner party. Her childhood, however, was fraught with conflict as her father's alcoholism grew more and more pronounced.

SOTOMAYOR: I describe, in the book, the moments of just carefully watching as he got drunker and drunker, and just waiting for the moment where he could hardly walk so we had to leave wherever we were.

TOTENBERG: This was the father she adored, though. A wonderful cook, a man with a 6th grade education, but so gifted with numbers that one of his jobs was as a bookkeeper. A man so creative that, as she would later learn, when he worked at a mannequin factory, he modeled one of the mannequin faces after her mother.

SOTOMAYOR: And she said it was such a strange sensation to visit the factory and to see hundreds of her faces coming out of the factory.

TOTENBERG: Her mother, in contrast, was chilly, remote, disciplined, working nights and weekends instead of days to escape the chaos of her husband's drinking.

SOTOMAYOR: She spent a lot of time out of the house and I actually did feel abandoned by her.

TOTENBERG: The source of Sotomayor's warmth and protection was her grandmother, her father's mother, Abuelita. Sonia would spend weekends at her grandmother's tiny apartment and always, in those early years, there was a party in the evening.

SOTOMAYOR: People would be playing dominoes. There would be dancing. They'd be singing. At some point in the evening, the music would stop and I would know that the poetry would start. I would go under the table at times, just to watch my father and my grandmother recite poetry. People were mesmerized. Those were, perhaps, some of the happiest memories of my childhood.

TOTENBERG: But the alcoholism finally took its toll and Sotomayor's father died. She was nine. She had already seen him slipping away and was not surprised at all. But after years of watching her parents fight, she was not prepared for her mother's grief.

SOTOMAYOR: I don't think I remember a warm moment between them. And so it seemed really strange to me that she couldn't stop crying after he died. And she became morose. We'd come home from school. She'd cook us dinner and then she'd lock herself in the bedroom and the pattern repeated itself, day after day, week after week, month after month.

TOTENBERG: And then, Sonia Sotomayor broke.

SOTOMAYOR: I banged on her bedroom door, and she came to the door and I said, are you going to die, too? Please stop this. What's going to happen to Junior and me? Stop. And I ran back into my bedroom, threw myself into my bed and cried.

TOTENBERG: The next day, her mother emerged from the darkness.

SOTOMAYOR: And I got back from school and the radio was playing in the house, and that was the first sounds that I heard in the apartment since my dad had died. And my mother came out, and I still remember it, in a black with white polka-dot dress, her hair made up. And I knew, at that moment, that she had come out of whatever she was in. My mother became a different woman, and I often talk of before daddy and after daddy, because my life was dramatically different thereafter.

She began to really start nurturing us as a mother.

TOTENBERG: It was the beginning of a long path to understanding and forgiveness between the two that would take many decade, culminating in interviews that Sotomayor did with her mother for this book. She thought, initially, for instance, that her mother was so grief-stricken because she felt guilt over her husband's death.

SOTOMAYOR: But I learned, in writing the book, that it was just genuine grief about losing a marriage to a man that she had truly loved and who, yes, she couldn't save, but it was really the end of a life that she had had.

TOTENBERG: Her mother, Celina, it turns out, was ill prepared for marriage or motherhood. Born in Puerto Rico, she grew up in a shack with no running water, nothing to eat, foraging for fruits and nuts and taking care of her ailing mother. At nine, she was an orphan taken in by a much older sister and sent to school.

SOTOMAYOR: She had no role models growing up. She really transformed herself from a child with, you know, a basic education, with no understanding, as she said, of how to dress, of how to act, of how to even have friends.

TOTENBERG: At 17, Celina lied about her age, enlisted in the WACs during World War II, went to basic training in Georgia and was assigned to New York City, where she met Juli, her future husband, at a party. After Juli's death, she would go on to support two children on her salary as a practical nurse and then go back to school to become a registered nurse. She would always teach her children the value of discipline and education.

But mother and daughter only came to a true understanding of each other over time.

SOTOMAYOR: It has taken us, my mother and I, a lifetime to deal with the effects of my father's alcoholism on both of us. It's often a mutual ignorance that causes, I think, people to be angry at each other and not forgive. And one of the greatest lessons of my life with my mother is both her capacity to forgive and the gift of her teaching me how to as well.

TOTENBERG: More from our interview tonight on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and tomorrow, on MORNING EDITION. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.