Just Kids, A Formal Account of a Remarkable Life

I never imagined I’d begin a blog post with the words “this week I had a hysterectomy” but such is the case. I’ve decided that I might as well let it be known that I have more in common with my two female cats than I did one week ago. All is well. I’m told by my husband who was told by my surgeon, while I was still blissfully sedated, that the procedure went off without a hitch. I had a couple of days of mild discomfort and am already pain-free. My challenge will be taking it easy for the next 6 weeks, giving my body time to recover. I’m hoping this means that I’ll have more time to read and write but motivation is a finicky virtue, so all bets are off.

Anyway, this week, between copious naps, I finished reading Just Kids, by Patti Smith. This memoir describing Smith’s relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe won the National Book Award in 2010 along with a host of other honors. I gave the book 3 stars on Goodreads. Below is my review.

Just Kids, by Patti Smith

Just Kids book cover

Patti Smith has undoubtedly led an interesting life, and her memoir gives us a peek into a fascinating subculture of the ’60s and ’70s, namely the struggling artist community hanging around New York’s Chelsea Hotel. The list of artistic masterminds with whom she rubbed elbows is impressive. Her years of survival with barely enough money to buy food is remarkable. Her close relationship with Mapplethorpe is poignant and endearing. The book has all the elements of a great memoir, but Smith gives us little insight into how she felt or what she was thinking in all kinds of extraordinary circumstances. Nor does the reader learn what experiences from her past might have driven her to persevere.

[The following may contain information you’d prefer not knowing before reading the book.]

For example, Smith writes of her devotion to Mapplethorpe and her belief in his genius. As impoverished young artists with no external resources to support them, they barely survived in cramped, stark living quarters for years. When Mapplethorpe decides to live in a separate room and begins seeing men and hustling to earn money, Smith doesn’t say much about how she feels. She’s worried about his safety while hustling, but Mapplethorpe had been the love of her life. Is she jealous? Hurt? Accepting? Angry? Afraid he’ll bring home an STD? Some combination of the above? We don’t really know.

Smith tells of her own love affairs and many of the men seem to have left her, rather than her being the one to end the liaison. Might she have been extremely passive? Did she ever feel used? Or, was everyone having sex with everyone else such that lovers came and went in the blink of an eye? Was she apathetic? Too involved with her art to care? She tells us what happened but not how it affected her.

Throughout the book, Smith chronicles a series of events and people. She is complementary to almost everyone she names. Her prose can sometimes be sophisticated and insightful but too frequently I felt cut off from the lives behind the name-dropping laundry list. Maybe Smith is the kind of person who never judges others, a perfect Buddhist who accepts the world as it is and holds few opinions other than an appreciation for the best qualities of her fellow human beings. This seems unlikely but that’s how the book reads.

When she and Mapplethorpe staged a joint exhibition of their work, she “decided to do a series of drawings based on his erotic photographs”. The photos she chose were among Mapplethorpe’s most controversial. I wondered why she chose them. Was she trying to be provocative? Did she want to normalize such works? What role did Mapplethorpe play in selecting these specific photos? She gives no further information.

These are just a few examples from the many situations in the book that left me feeling empty-handed.

A fellow francophile, Smith mentions her devotion to poets like Baudelaire and Rimbaud at several points throughout the book. These artists bared their souls on the page. They somehow found the words to clearly convey feelings and atmospheres that for most of us are inexpressible. They revealed their suffering, weaknesses, and vulnerability. There is little of that here. I’m glad that Patti Smith wrote Just Kids and I certainly have a better understanding of why Mapplethorpe was so important to her. But after reading, I don’t have much insight into Patti Smith beyond her enduring persona as a hard-as-nails rock-n-roller.

Smith and Maplethorpe
Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, 1974, ˝© Gerard Malanga

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, translator, and mother of 3. Avid follower of French media, culture, history, and language. Lover of books, travel, history, art, cooking, fitness, and nature. Cultivating connections with francophiles and francophones.


  1. Glad to hear you are doing well, Carol. Thanks for the review.

  2. Glad to know all went well.

  3. Glad to hear the operation went well. I hope you will indeed take it easy for the mandated time; having had a few surgeries myself, I can confirm that it’s well worth it for a problem-free recovery. The more copious the naps, the better, though of course I hope you’ll also have time and energy for writing.

    While I admit to knowing little about Smith or Mapplethorpe, and I haven’t read Just Kids, I’ve always had the impression that Mapplethorpe was a rather sleazy character. Some of his photographs amounted to gross and degrading pornography, despite their artistic merit, and when the same man also had such an interest in naked children, it’s inevitably disquieting. Perhaps Smith didn’t go too deeply into her feelings about him because she knew on some level that those feelings didn’t bear close examination, even by herself. Sexual attraction can lead a person to overlook a lot of red flags bristling over the object of his or her desire, but that can also mean not wanting to look too closely or analytically.

    You note that Smith doesn’t talk much about her feelings when Mapplethorpe started “hustling” to make money. Obviously I can’t see inside Smith’s head, and every individual is different, but I do have some idea how the typical woman would probably feel if her man began engaging in homosexual prostitution. Then, too, the sixties and seventies were a period in which many women enmeshed in the counterculture felt obligated to put up with a lot of casual sex, promiscuity, and sometimes outright abuse and perversion because it was “liberated”, and objecting to it would have been “uptight”. Smith may have been uncomfortable with Mapplethorpe’s behavior but also uncomfortable with exploring the reasons.

    The choice of “controversial” photographs to make drawings from is revealing, but as you say, since Smith avoids discussing her reasons, it’s hard to say exactly what it’s revealing of.

    Smith’s music does not suggest “the kind of person who never judges others”. People who protest against the injustices of the world are inherently judging those injustices and the people who commit them. If she was blind to the dark side of certain persons due to personal attraction or ideological affiliation, that’s a flaw she shares with billions of others.

    • Great insights Infidel. You wrote “Perhaps Smith didn’t go too deeply into her feelings about him because she knew on some level that those feelings didn’t bear close examination, even by herself.” It’s an interesting theory. I came away feeling that Smith was an introvert, as many artists are, and she was young. She didn’t have the hutz-pah to stand up for herself but she recognized Mapplethorpe’s innate talent and truly believed he’d be great some day. She admits that by latching on to him, she felt her own artistry would benefit but his genius came first.

      Obviously, many people loved the book. I just don’t like to speculate and wish she put more of herself into her writing. I didn’t know about Mapplethorpe’s photos of children. That is a bit unsettling but I think his photographs are extraordinary. He was into sadomasochism and chose to expose that side of himself. Unlike Smith, he took huge risks and I think his art will stand the test of time better than hers will, even if some of the stuff is pretty rough to look at.

      I agree about Smith’s music containing plenty of opinions. The events of the book took place decades before she wrote it. After that length of time, I suppose most of us are willing to let go of any grudges we once held. But, that doesn’t mean that we forget how we felt years earlier. Again, I’m guessing, but I think Smith either didn’t have the guts to expose her negative opinions of people or just wasn’t talented enough to find the words that accurately conveyed her memories of the past.

      Thanks for the well wishes.

  4. Sorry you had to go through the surgery, but you seem to be on the path to a complete recovery. As the weeks pass, the tendency to do more–sooner than is optimal–should evoke a cautionary note. I hope you’ll take full advantage of this enforced period of sluggishness and self-indulgence.

    I was unlikely to read Patti Smith’s book, so I appreciated your review. You did a good job of pointing out the important areas of avoidance. Like Infidel, I always thought of Mapplethorpe as a dissolute character, and in general, Smith seems to have had a problem with relationships.
    The hard-as-nails rocker may well have been oppressed by the purported “liberation” that did not give women their due at all.

    If you’re looking for interesting novels, I recommend “James,” Percival Everett’s story of Huckleberry Finn as told by Jim. Though it’s painful in parts, as any tale of slavery would be, Everett is a remarkable writer whose insights and use of language are superb. I watched an interview in which he explained that he viewed the novel as a conversation with Twain about the book Twain couldn’t write. He also credits Twain as being one of four inspirations for his sense of humor. In order: his father, Twain, Groucho Marx, and Bullwinkle. Fascinating man.

    Take good care, Carol.

    • I like your feminist viewpoint Annie. You wrote, “The hard-as-nails rocker may well have been oppressed by the purported “liberation” that did not give women their due at all.” I think you may be on to something. Will ponder.

      It’s so funny that you bring up James. My sister was here for 5 days helping out and the first day, she went to the bookstore and bought that book. I’d seen an interview with Everett (maybe on the Newshour) and was intrigued. I’ll probably borrow it from her when she’s done. It reminded me of a book I read a few years ago by an Algerian author, Kamal Daoud, titled Meursault, contre-enquête. It’s a rewriting of Camus’ l’Étranger from the perspective of the Arab who is murdered.

      As long as we’re recommending things, my sister and I just watched “A Choice of Weapons”, a documentary about the African American photographer Gordon Parks. It is absolutely stunning. If you haven’t seen it, I know you’ll greatly appreciate this film.

      Thanks for the words of caution. When you’re feeling pretty normal, it’s easy to forget that not all is hunky-dory.

  5. Man, how skinny they look! Did they eat? Still, I feel like reading the book now.

  6. Hi Carol. It is a “heavy” operation, but normally helps in many issues. I’m sure you will be perfectly all right soon. Just don’t lift heavy stuff. (>10lbs is heavy). Other than that recovery is generally swift.
    I’ve seen Smith’s book on the shelves often. Never bought the book. One forgets that that -later- successful generation had to struggle. Leonard Cohen was one. But they came through. For our greatest benefit.
    Tous mes voeux de récupération…

    • I already feel back to normal but still have to take it easy for another 5 weeks. On the list of forbidden activities is vacuuming but I can walk as much as I want. So, I’m board with the plan.

      Speaking of Cohen, have you seen the 2021 documentary about him? It centers on his song, Hallelujah, but I learned a lot about his life and outlook from the film.

      • Vacuuming of all things? Que c’est étrange… But Doctor’s orders… And walking is -almost- always fine.
        I haven’t. It’s been mentioned to me a few times. Need to make a note…

    • I forgot to add, that I was thinking of you this afternoon after walking to a local museum and visiting an exhibit on Cambodia. It included colonial and post colonial postcards in French. I thought of your parents and figured they probably sent similar, if not identical, missives to leurs proches. Amitiés!

      • Cambodia now? I’m sure they did. I have a few vintage letters on Cambodia. Including one addressed to my father c/o Royal Air Cambodge. One used airmail lightweight paper. Amitiés.

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