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.