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Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas, the new biography of the Supreme Court justice, paints a picture of a man at war with himself. In this telling, Thomas is a devout Christian and former seminarian who regularly told crass sexual jokes and consumed pornography; a beneficiary of affirmative action who has long opposed it vehemently; a critic of racialized politics who accused the Senate of subjecting him to a “high-tech lynching” during his confirmation hearings; and a gregarious and politically savvy man who holds one of the most solitary positions in the federal government. Washington Post reporters Kevin Merida and Michael A. Fletcher have assembled a fascinating story of the man’s “divided soul.” Supreme Discomfort expands on this theme of conflict throughout. Thomas is famously from the tiny, poor town of Pin Point, Georgia, and yet his formative years were spent in Savannah in the care of his entrepreneur grandfather, who sent him to Catholic school and later to seminary. After transferring to Holy Cross, Thomas was deeply involved in the black student union, helping to enforce the organization’s ban on interracial dating. Yet his second wife, Ginni, is white. Friends remember Thomas aiming to be the “best black lawyer” in the United States, and yet in his first legal jobs he repeatedly refused work that would pigeonhole him as a black lawyer, only to accept that very work as President Ronald Reagan’s chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The book describes a man walking a racial tightrope, someone who has “kept his feet planted in two worlds,” white and black, and thus appears to be “[t]wo people, one for whites and one for blacks.” Thomas himself is reported as saying, “I don’t fit in with whites, I don’t fit in with blacks.” As Supreme Discomfort makes clear, however, to call Thomas a traitor to his race is to ignore much about him, including his consistent support for America’s historically black colleges and universities and his valuable mentoring of many young African-Americans. The book’s treatment of Thomas’ work at the Court is anecdotal, focusing on cases that illustrate the theme of the divided soul. Readers looking for close legal analysis will find none of it here, for the authors did not set out to write that book. Instead, Merida and Fletcher emphasize the tension between Thomas’ background and troubled family on the one hand and his stern jurisprudence on the other. The chapter “The Silent Justice” highlights the paradox in Thomas’ resentment of the label “Scalia’s clone”: His very silence from the bench gives ammunition to those who believe he has nothing to say. One might dismiss aspects of the authors’ “Jekyll and Hyde” story as merely the normal transition of youth to maturity. Still, much of the tension the authors describe goes beyond young Thomas versus old Thomas; it is Thomas versus Thomas at each stage of his life. Merida and Fletcher have built a careful case for the divided soul from hundreds of interviews with family, friends, fellow students, co-workers, and even Justice Antonin Scalia (the other justices declined to participate without Thomas’ express approval), as well as scrutiny of the Blackmun and Marshall papers, Thomas’ speeches and opinions, and contemporary news accounts. Thomas himself — notoriously press-shy since his contentious confirmation hearings — refused to be interviewed. Ironically, this refusal may represent the height of Thomas at war with himself. Though widely reviled in the abstract, he is almost invariably beloved by anyone who has met him in person. He is described in the book as a “charmer” who “turns skeptics into converts,” a process summarized by Supreme Court litigator Tom Goldstein: “[I am] not a fan of his ideology or jurisprudence. But I am a fan of him personally.” I myself came to the Supreme Court as a law clerk in 2001, fully prepared to dislike Thomas as much as I disliked his opinions. Instead, I found myself captivated by his irresistible laugh and obvious concern for the well-being of everyone at the Court. Who knows what book would have resulted if Thomas had exposed Merida and Fletcher to that charm over a series of interviews? By refusing to participate, Thomas may well have been his own worst enemy.
Heather Elliott is an assistant professor of law at the Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law. During the 2001 term, she served as a law clerk to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Consistent with the Law Clerk Code of Conduct, this review does not disclose any confidential information learned during Elliott’s clerkship.

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