To grasp the remarkable nature of Sonia Sotomayor's new autobiography, consider this: The justice pokes fun at her own unfashionable underwear.
The scene occurs in a dressing room, as Sotomayor, then a young law firm partner, goes shopping with a stylish client determined to infuse a bit of fashion sense into the frumpy lawyer. This includes getting her out of mother-purchased panties into what Sotomayor describes as "age-appropriate undergarments."
This episode may sound too frivolous to discuss -- in lawyerly terms, immaterial. Perhaps even unbecoming a Supreme Court justice. It is anything but.
There are two reasons to read an autobiography by a public figure: to understand more about the author, and to understand more about human nature and the building blocks of success.
Sotomayor's "My Beloved World" succeeds, brilliantly, on both fronts. It is unguarded and self-reflective in a way that few such memoirs achieve or allow, and that is astonishing from such a figure in midcareer, no less a sitting justice.
But this is candor with a purpose. "I have ventured to write more intimately about my personal life than is customary for a member of the Supreme Court, and with that candor comes a measure of vulnerability," Sotomayor writes in her preface.
"There are hazards to openness," she continues, "but they seem minor compared with the possibility that readers may find comfort, perhaps even inspiration, from a close examination of how an ordinary person, with strengths and weaknesses like anyone else, has managed an extraordinary journey."
Of course, Sotomayor undersells herself. That this is no "ordinary person" becomes clear from the opening scene of the book, in which 7-year-old Sonia, newly diagnosed with diabetes, realizes she will have to learn to inject herself. At her kitchen in the South Bronx projects, she drags a chair over to the stove to boil water to sterilize the syringe.
Sotomayor's father was an alcoholic whose hands trembled too badly to hold the needle. Her mother was distant, withholding. The parents fought constantly until her father died when Sonia was 9, at which point her mother withdrew even further from Sonia and her younger brother.
The underlying message -- the reason to give this book to every young person you know -- is the central role of resilience and its close cousin, determination. Sotomayor's capacity to transcend the obstacles and limitations of her childhood serves as a rebuke to excuse-makers everywhere.
"There are uses to adversity, and they don't reveal themselves until tested," she writes. "Whether it's serious illness, financial hardship, or the simple constraint of parents who speak limited English, difficulty can tap unexpected strengths. It doesn't always, of course: I've seen life beat people down until they can't get up. But I have never had to face anything that could overwhelm the native optimism and stubborn perseverance I was blessed with."
Sotomayor's example is particularly relevant to two groups: women and minorities. Her forthrightness about the insecurities that plague many women -- the justice told The Washington Post's Robert Barnes that she suffers even now from "imposter syndrome -- a touch of it" -- demystifies the phenomenon.
Sotomayor is relentlessly frank about her appearance, "pudgy nose" and all. "It had been established that Sonia Sotomayor was not much to look at," she writes. The way to conquer insecurity is to first acknowledge it. Sotomayor is comfortable enough in her own skin to do this, publicly.
The same is true, perhaps even more powerfully so, when it comes to Sotomayor's Puerto Rican background. Here the justice's counterpoint to her colleague, Clarence Thomas, could not be more striking.
Thomas' memoir seethes with resentment of the help that came his way. "Racial preference had robbed my achievement of its true value," he writes of graduating from Yale Law School.
Sotomayor is self-aware enough to accept the importance of affirmative action yet self-confident enough to recognize what she contributed to her own success. A girl who had scarcely visited Manhattan before leaving for college, who was clueless when her roommate mentioned "Alice in Wonderland," ended up graduating summa cum laude from Princeton and publishing a note in the Yale Law Journal.
"I had no need to apologize that the look-wider, search-more affirmative action that Princeton and Yale practiced had opened doors for me," she writes. "That was its purpose: to create the conditions whereby students from disadvantaged backgrounds could be brought to the starting line of a race many were unaware was even being run."
This is, to invoke a phrase that once created some trouble for Sotomayor, one wise Latina.