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Sonia Sotomayor opens up about childhood of 'neglect'

The Supreme Court justice tells TODAY's Savannah Guthrie about growing up in the Bronx, raised by a single mother after her alcoholic father died, and describes how Nancy Drew books and "Perry Mason" inspired her to become "the most important person in the room."

Before Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor became the first Hispanic member of the Supreme Court, her inspiring journey began in a Bronx housing project.

In her newly released memoir, “My Beloved World,’’ she details the often-difficult circumstances she overcame to become just the third woman as well as the first Latina to join the Supreme Court. In the second part of an interview with TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie, Sotomayor, 58, spoke about a childhood in which she was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes when she was 8 years old, and lost her father a year later at the tragic end of his long battle with alcohol.

“Even as a child I asked, ‘If you really love me, why can't you stop?’’’ Sotomayor said about her father. “I never asked him that question, because I knew the answer. He can't. He couldn't.”

Her father’s death left her mother, Celina, to raise two young children on her own. Sotomayor is now very close with her mother, but during the time following her father’s death, she writes that the two had a difficult relationship.

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“Neglect was the right word,’’ she said. “I barely saw my mother, and the mom I saw was often angry and unhappy. The mother I grew up with is not the mother I know now. It's not the mother she became after my father died, and that's been the greatest prize of my life. Because in watching my mother grow and develop herself, I grew and developed myself.”

While dealing with her family’s upheaval as a child, Sotomayor became a voracious reader. She also was drawn to her love of the law from two unlikely sources – Nancy Drew and Perry Mason.

In one episode of the classic legal drama “Perry Mason,’’ Sotomayor recalled, “after the guilty party had confessed, Perry turned to the judge. And at that moment, I realized that the most important person in that room was the judge,’’ Sotomayor said. “I wanted to be that person.”

Sotomayor went on to earn scholarships to Princeton University and Yale Law School, where she was one of the few Latinas on campus.

“Oh gosh, I was filled with fear,’’ she said. “When you come from a background like mine, where you're entering worlds that are so different than your own, you have to be afraid.’’

She admitted that the same feelings carried over to her early days on the Supreme Court when she began in August 2009. “You should've seen me the first year on the Supreme Court,’’ she said before laughing. “You don't announce (that you’re intimidated) at a conference. You do your job.’’

Sotomayor also made another admission to Guthrie: that she has “an occasional tug of regret’’ that she never had children. She divorced her high school sweetheart in 1983 and has not remarried.

“I knew that I wanted to be an independent woman with my own career and (be) successful in whatever I chose to do,’’ she said. “Could I have that and have had children? Many women do. Can you have it all every minute of the day? No.”

Sotomayor spends her scant free time staying in shape, salsa dancing and watching her favorite team, the Bronx’s own New York Yankees. Her mother found love late in life, and Sotomayor said she wonders “all the time’’ if the same could happen to her.

“To have a romance, you have to have time,’’ she said. “I'm a justice. I've written a book. The guy's gonna have to wait until I'm a little bit freer.”

Right now, Sotomayor is focused on the future with an open mind.

“I haven't finished growing yet,’’ she said. “I'm young at heart. I'm young in spirit, and I'm still adventurous.”


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