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Just Kids (and backing away from emotion) — Alissa Wilkinson

An annotation from May 2012. The book has grown on me a bit since then, but I still think my first impulse – craft-wise, anyhow – was correct. Just Kids, by Patti Smith

I’m neither a Patti Smith nor Robert Mapplethorpe fan, but I finally caved and read this book because I’d heard so much about it, and then it won a National Book Award and I figured it had to be good.

Smith wrote the book mostly about her early years in New York City, and it reads like a memoir with two main characters: Smith and Mapplethorpe, who were “just kids”—twenty-one years old and broke, broke, broke and living in, of all places, my neighborhood in Brooklyn—when they met and began their romance, which grew into a lifelong love for one another that lasted until Mapplethorpe’s death. In that time, they both try out a variety of artistic disciplines, eat a lot of very cheap food, do some strange things for money, run into a host of famous folk (like the drag queens who hang out with Andy Warhol, or like Sam Shepard, who Smith later dated for a while), and eventually become famous.

They stop being romantically involved, but they still stick together, helping one another through illnesses, and eventually living in essentially the same apartment: Mapplethorpe in the front half, Smith in the back, separated by a wall but rarely seeming to notice, even when various patrons and lovers (sometimes the same person) come through. Even when Smith eventually gets married and moves away from New York, they remain the closest of friends; the book opens and closes with the day Mapplethorpe died.

This is, perhaps, where I begin to doubt the memoir a bit, or at least find myself exasperated with Smith’s voice in it. That Mapplethorpe was homosexual is no secret; that he was into some pretty strange masochistic stuff is clear to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with his work (my husband, who is a photographer and not easily scared off by any sort of art, refused to go to the Guggenheim for years after he saw a Mapplethorpe show there without knowing ahead of time what he was getting into).

Smith doesn’t deny these things, nor does she make apologies for them. She gently defends him, saying, in essence, Yes, Robert was into some weird stuff and it took him a long time to come to terms with what he wanted sexually, but you must know that he was the kindest, gentlest, and sweetest of souls.

Yet there are hints here and there that he must have been a tough person to live with. I believe Smith when she says that these things surfaced in Mapplethorpe only after he’d been with her a while. They’re young at the beginning of the narrative, just finding themselves and their way in the art world, and nobody knows his or herself terribly well at twenty-one.

But when she comes to the difficult things, she tends to blow past them quickly. For instance, she and Mapplethorpe break up for the first time on page 73, after she feels isolated by him (though the details here are kept sketchy) and ends up sleeping with another friend. On the top of 73, she flees their “little home,” and Mappelthorpe is “devastated, yet still could not offer any explanation for the silence that engulfed us.” But by the bottom of the page, months have passed, and he’s come to her and ask her to come to San Francisco with him. She refuses, but he sends her a letter, and by the top of page 75 she has “accepted [his] words as a communion wafer. He had cast the line that would seduce me, ultimately bind us together.”

In these two pages between these points, she does not speak of her own anguish during this time, though I expect it was considerable; she didn’t, apparently, want to leave him. She takes to “wearing dresses and waving my hair” (73); she moves in with a female friend, though she notes it is “painful for Robert” (73); she is only deeply moved when Mapplethorpe finally presses a letter into her hands (74): “Imagining the anguish that drew him to write this letter brought me to tears” (74). Yet this doesn’t ring true to me: she wants somehow to absolve Mapplethorpe of any responsibility but not place the blame on herself, either. These are complicated situations, of course, but I hear nothing in the narrative that either convinces me of Mapplethorpe’s state of mind or her own. It is a recital of occurrences, but the emotions are still out of reach.

I have difficulty writing about my own emotional responses, and for Smith some of this is fifty years in the past, and really, I don’t blame her. But it does seem to me that throughout the book, whenever she is feeling deeply, the emotions largely get shifted to Mapplethorpe—who died in 1989. The two clearly shared a strong bond in which this almost makes sense, but I find it unsettling. As a writer, I hope to get to the point where I can own my emotions in my work and not shift them away.

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