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BlogJuly-August, 2011
Some thoughts on Patti Smith's Just Kids

It’s hard to criticize a book you’ve read twice, especially when the author and her subject – the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe – are two of your favorite artists. But for all that’s praiseworthy about Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, which won the 2010 National Book Award, there were too many occasions when I wished I had access to Smith’s source material rather than the book itself. Revealing as her story is, Just Kids is far from a “tell all.”

Smith describes her first pregnancy: “I was raised at a time when sex and marriage were absolutely synonymous. There was no available birth control and at nineteen I was still naïve about sex” (17). Of the child’s father, she explains: “The boy, who was only seventeen, was so inexperienced that he could hardly be held accountable. I would have to take care of things on my own. I had relieved the boy of responsibility. He was like a moth struggling within a cocoon and I couldn’t bring myself to disturb his unwieldy emergence into the world. I knew there was nothing he could do” (18).

Smith doesn’t tell us whether this was the first time she had sex or whether the boy in question was a boyfriend. Then there’s the matter of the boy’s opinion: What was his reaction when he learned Smith was pregnant and that she’d “relieve” him of his responsibilities? Smith also omits the scene in which she explains the pregnancy – and her plan for giving up the child – to her parents.

Later, Smith selectively omits from Mapplethorpe’s letters. “Even as he spoke to me of his experiences with other men, he assured me he loved me,” is how she paraphrases a letter he wrote her while he was in San Francisco (77). Mapplethorpe’s coming out is a vital part of the book, as is Smith’s reaction to it. So I wanted to read Mapplethorpe’s letter verbatim, as opposed to Smith’s summary of it. The skeptic in me felt as if she were trying to protect or shape his biography and/or legacy, rather than reveal it; as if she were playing Carraway to his Gatsby, Matthew to his Jesus.

I had the same doubts whenever Smith cited her own diary as a source. “We had a beautiful day that blossomed into an unusually passionate night,” she writes of Mapplethorpe. “I happily wrote of this night in my diary, adding a small heart like a teenage girl” (134). What a tease! Why tell us that you diarized this era without providing an excerpt from the diary itself?

I’m not suggesting that I wanted – or expected – Smith to reveal all things salacious or to flagrantly disregard the privacy of everyone in her life story. But there are times when one suspects that her version of events sidesteps the reality of her innermost truth. Of the poet, Jim Carroll, she writes, “Jim and I had some very sweet times. I’m sure there were downs as well, but my memories are served with nostalgia and humor….I know he didn’t love me but I adored him anyway. Eventually he just drifted away, leaving me a long lock of his red-gold hair” (167).

As I read Just Kids, I found myself longing for more details about Smith’s “downs” – both with Carroll and with others. I longed for more details in general. “Of the man who was to become my husband,” she writes of Fred “Sonic” Smith, “I wish only to say that he was a king among men and men knew him” (263). This manner of writing – another tease, short on specifics – makes me wish Smith had said nothing at all about Fred.

Having typed all this, I don’t want readers to think Just Kids is mediocre. The shortcomings of Smith’s reporting peeved the journalist and editor in me. But I would not have read it twice if I didn’t enjoy it. Her memoir ought to be required reading for Mapplethorpe scholars and American Studies majors examining 1969-1978.

On a personal note, Smith's story touched the part of me that -- on too many occasions -- has spent my bottom dollar on a book or record, believing the joy and inspiration these products provided was well worth the financial risk of their purchase. There was a time when Smith and Mapplethorpe were not successful -- they were "just kids" who spent money they didn't have on books, records, art supplies, and each other. To read their story is to see how dreams -- and friendships -- can begin with chance encounters and impulse buys. You'll grasp the magic that put the muse in their music.  

Ilan Mochari is the author of the novel Zinsky the Obscure (Fomite Press, 2011). His short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Keyhole, Stymie, Ruthie's Club and Oysters & Chocolate.
In 2009, he received a Literature Artist Fellowship grant from the Somerville Arts Council. He is a former staff writer for Inc, and he has also written for Fortune Small Business and CFO. He has a B.A. in English from Yale University.

    © 2008 Ilan Mochari  
Ilan Mochari