Thomas describes his childhood and adolescence in vivid detail in the book. He's discussed much of the story before, either when he was nominated to the Court or in speeches, and his conservative supporters used it to create an image of Thomas as a "good" black who rose above it all. But that image conservatives created was in some ways as cartoonish as the story offered by his opponents. It was devoid of the pain and anger — at a racist system then and now, and at whites and blacks who believed they were superior to him. It also lacked any understanding of how Thomas struggled with his rage and how it threatened to consume him, and how sharply he felt that he stood on the edge of a cliff, always fearing he would fall.
The central puzzle about Thomas is how he, as a black man who grew up in the segregated South and achieved success academically when thrown into white environments, came to part ways ideologically with most other African Americans.
Thomas describes his ideological evolution as a journey back to the principles he believes his grandfather — a fiercely independent man he called "Daddy" — instilled in him. And it is a journey clearly influenced by all the detours and roadblocks he encountered along the way.
To this day, he wrote, his mother swears he was "too stubborn to cry" when he was born 59 years ago in Pinpoint, Ga., a coastal community in southern Georgia. His father abandoned the family three years later, but Thomas has fond memories of his earliest years, which he calls "idyllic." He lived with his mother and siblings in the "ramshackle house" of an aunt and uncle, until the house burned down when he was 7.
It was then his mother moved Thomas and his younger brother to tenement in Savannah that lacked indoor plumbing or beds for the children. Thomas slept in a chair.
"Overnight I moved from the comparative safety and cleanliness of rural poverty to the foulest of urban squalor," Thomas wrote, recalling a time of "hunger without the prospect of eating, cold without the prospect of warmth."
The family would eventually move to a nicer apartment, but Thomas's mother struggled to support them. One Saturday, Thomas wrote, his mother told Thomas and his younger brother Myers that they were going to live with their grandparents, Myers Anderson and his wife Tina. She sent the boys out the front door with all their belongings in a pair of grocery bags.
"I have never made a longer journey," Thomas wrote. His saw his grandfather as a formidable presence, and when the boys arrived at his home, Anderson greeted them by saying, "the damn vacation is over." Anderson was, as Thomas wrote, an ill-educated black man who, by hard work, perseverance, self-discipline and foresight, managed to achieve modest success.
"He put his faith in his own unaided effort — the one factor in his life that he could control — and he taught Myers and me to do the same," Thomas wrote.
Anderson had his own fuel oil business, but Thomas says it's an exaggeration to say he owned a "business."
"We had an oil truck, and we delivered fuel oil." Thomas says. Thomas, his brother and his grandmother were the only employees.
Their home was luxurious compared to what Thomas had known. It had two bedrooms, and Thomas had his own bed. He describes his amazement at the indoor toilet, which he said he flushed as often as he could when he first moved in.