Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk shares her personal story in a candid new memoir, written for a Korean audience.
by SUEVON LEE
For someone just entering the teaching limelight, it’s the last thing you’d want to happen: tripping and falling to the ground in a lecture hall packed with students.
But for Jeannie Suk, the potentially embarrassing moment was a transformative moment.
During her first year teaching at Harvard Law School, the young professor recounts in a recent memoir how she tripped and fell face forwards while descending the steps to begin class, her heavy casebook, cardboard seating chart and hot drink flying out of her hands.
Mortified, the novice professor calmly stood up and walked to the lectern where, she describes, she went on to teach “the best class I had ever taught up to that point.”
“I realized afterward that it had actually been a relief to fall flat on my face. It became blatantly obvious and undeniable in one fell swoop that there was no perfection here,” Suk writes. “I believe it was a huge boon to my comfort as a teacher going forward. Everyone felt more comfortable. Everyone was human.”
Misstep is not a word one might associate with Suk. She has an all-star resume, studded with schools like Yale and Harvard Law, attended Oxford University on a Marshall scholarship, did a U.S. Supreme Court clerkship, joined the Harvard Law faculty before turning 34, and in 2010, became the first-ever Asian American female (and first-ever Korean) to receive tenure at Harvard Law School.
Add to that glamour and the media’s high interest—the Boston Globe named her one of the “25 Most Stylish Bostonians of 2010.” She formerly was married to fellow Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman, with whom she has a son, 7, and daughter, 6, and has testified before Congress in favor of U.S. copyright protections for fashion designers. There’s a Hollywood connection, too. Actor Alec Baldwin interviewed the family law expert for his book, A Promise to Ourselves: A Journey Through Fatherhood and Divorce. She, in turn, has invited him to speak at her Harvard class about his experiences with the legal system during his highly publicized custody battle with his ex-wife, actress Kim Basinger.
So enamored with Suk have Koreans abroad in particular been, she was approached by a South Korean publishing house in 2011 to write a memoir while she was just in her 30s, an idea she met with some skepticism.
“At first I thought that was silly because I thought, ‘I’m 30-something years old, what could I possibly express in an autobiography, and why would anyone be interested?” she told KoreAm Journal in a phone interview from Cambridge, Mass., where she lives. “I had all of these fears before I started working on it, but when I wrote the first sentence, I really loved the process of doing it.”
A Light Inside: An Odyssey of Art, Life and Law, published earlier this year in both English and Korean, is a candid and intimate memoir rich in detail and reflective in tone, where the author writes about the recognition of her deep-seated ambition and drive for performance at a young age, and the sting of disappointment of having to abandon a serious pursuit of ballet in her high school years.
Suk, the oldest of three girls, moved with her family from South Korea at the age of 6. Setting off for America during Korea’s restless transition to a democratic society, her family arrived in New York, where Suk’s father began his medical residency in internal medicine at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital.
Suk describes those early years in Queens as intensely alienating, where she felt removed by the language barrier and an innate sense of introversion.
“I have a lot of vivid memories of those feelings because I think the experience of immigration is so powerful,” Suk said. “It’s not something you can easily forget, coming to a different country and speaking a different language at the age of 6. I think, because it was so formative and it was a lens through which I saw so many things in my life, the feelings that I had around that very central experience really stayed fresh in my mind.”
Books offered Suk, a voracious reader, an escape, particularly authors like Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters and Henry James. So, too, did her talent and aptitude for the creative arts, particularly dance. Shortly before high school, she auditioned and was accepted into the rigorous School of American Ballet, her love for the craft so deep, it produced in her “a sensation of the highest high imaginable.”
“My life since then took on the character of a quest for the holy grail—the wish to be able to feel that high once again,” she writes.
But Suk was forced to cut short her intensive study of ballet in the ninth grade, when grades began to matter at the magnet Hunter College High School, where she was enrolled. Her parents stressed academic excellence over the idea of fitting schoolwork around this singular pursuit.
The arts, however, remained a major part of Suk’s early years: She attended Juilliard School’s Pre-College program for piano studies, which gave her an opportunity to perform a solo recital at Lincoln Center and later Carnegie Recital Hall as a high school senior.
Suk would go on to study literature, with a focus on French poetry, at Yale College, then applied and was awarded a Marshall scholarship to study French literature at Oxford. Her dissertation on postcolonial literature by French Caribbean writers of African descent led to her first book contract at age 26.
At Harvard Law School, Suk became a research assistant for Lani Guinier, a mentor and the first African American woman to receive tenure at the school. In her book, Suk describes how, as a law student, she “felt strangely at home.”
“When I have wondered why, I have surmised that it is because the law school classroom was so like a theater of performance, with its rituals, rigor, decorum, traditions and gravitas,” she writes
Following law school, Suk clerked for an appeals judge on the D.C. Circuit and later for then-U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. She worked as a prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office before being invited to join the faculty of her alma mater, where she currently teaches family and criminal law and has written the book, At Home in the Law: How the Domestic Violence Revolution Is Transforming Privacy.
Suk’s tenure at Harvard Law just four years after joining the faculty led to some major notice across Korea. “My parents got a phone call from literally every single person they had known in Korea,” Suk said. “Their phone just rang continuously for weeks.
“At first, I had trouble understanding what the interest was in, but as I pieced it together, I realized that it is just the case that, culturally, Harvard has this meaning for Koreans,” Suk said. “More than being about me, [I realized] what it means more broadly in terms of Korean values and what [Koreans] consider to be important and things in which they have pride.”
If she’s critical of this idolatry, she shows no signs of it, and in fact has been receptive to the multitude of interview requests she’s received since.
“My story had been expressed in interviews [with Korean media], and I became aware there was a kind of narrative about parts of my life,” Suk said. “Being asked all these questions, I was forced to think about all of these things myself: What did it mean to be a professor? What did it mean to be Korean? What was my relationship with Korea?”
Those periods of reflection would serve well in constructing her memoir, which she began writing in January 2012 and finished that summer. A Korean translation was released in January 2013, the English edition a month later. The book is not yet available through U.S. channels of distribution (but may soon be).
When asked to look back on the myriad accomplishments in her life, Suk is candid about the role of nature versus nurture.
“Being talented can be a help, but it’s not enough. It’s just one element,” Suk said. “I was blessed through a combination of upbringing, my culture, to somehow tap into that ability to take great pleasure in focused concentration on various forms of endeavors.”
It’s a belief she echoes in her book, writing, “there are no shortcuts when attempting to be excellent at something—it takes the investment of much time every day, week, month, year spent doing that thing.
“Whether it is scholarship, science, art or parenting, the undeniable reality is that a staggering amount of time is required for men or women to do something at a very high level, so it had better be something you really like if this is your goal,” she writes.
It’s a lesson with which Suk is intimately familiar, having managed a demanding teaching career, motherhood and even the difficult experience of divorce, which Suk addresses publicly for the first time in her book.
To this day, Suk said her greatest accomplishment is bearing witness to the development and growth of her students in the classroom. From those early days of having stumbled on the steps of a Harvard Law auditorium, it’s clear Suk has found her release in this vocation: “Serving as a guide for young minds as they experience afresh the joy and fascination of thinking will never grow tired,” Suk writes in her memoir.
In her own experiences as a pupil, Suk said the teacher-student relationship was vital not only to her success, but the enjoyment of learning. “The importance of teaching and learning, the relationship between teacher and student, for me became very central,” she said. “At every stage, there was an important teacher who just had a moment with me that was seared into my memory.”
Through teaching, Suk even found a way to incorporate her beloved art from childhood: She created and has co-taught a course called “Performing Arts and Law” with famed dancer Damian Woetzel, whom she met while he was studying for a master’s degree in public policy at Harvard.
With her book, Suk said she was conscious there was some expectation for her to write a didactic kind of text for a Korean audience.
“In Korea, there is a really pronounced curiosity about formulas to success, or secrets of success, techniques or a list of favorite things, or methods. There’s definitely a how-to emphasis in Korean approaches to people they find interesting, and I found that to be difficult at first because I don’t naturally think that way,” Suk said.
“I think the challenge in the book was to convey the difficulty of saying, ‘There’s only one right way,’” she added. “In my story, I’m trying to demonstrate there’s not one right way.”
This article was published in the May 2013 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the May issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).