Where Pure Hearts Are Kin
“Where does it all lead? What will become of us? These were our young questions, and young answers were revealed. It leads to each other. We become ourselves.”
Patti Smith’s memoir ‘Just Kids’ (2010, Ecco) is an exquisite account of her early life and relationship with the renowned photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. This dazzling work of non-fiction chronicles their parallel growth as dedicated artists, while illustrating the transcendent power of their love — a compendium of their strivings. Smith’s writing is poetic and sincere, exposing the full spectrum of their youthful flaws and strengths, their disappointments and triumphs. The story takes us through the best and worst of their times, together and apart. The purity of their intimate kinship shines through as an encouraging beacon for artists and lovers everywhere.
“Who can know the heart of youth but youth itself?”
Smith aptly maps hers and Robert’s intersections with an impressive web of recognizable artists, poets, and musicians that descended upon NYC from 1968 to the mid-70’s — but this is more than just ambitious networking, for every connection seems somehow necessary and fated, and encourages their own striving. Smith acknowledges each associate with a measure of personal admiration and respect, and this quality of attribution seems to be a key ingredient to her own success. I’ve never read anything quite like this book and was profoundly affected by the intimacy and honesty with which Smith wrote — we, the readers, are lucky witnesses to the evolution of both Patti & Robert’s social lives and artistic integrity.
“The artist seeks contact with his intuitive sense of the gods, but in order to create his work, he cannot stay in this seductive and incorporeal realm. He must return to the material world in order to do his work. It’s the artist’s responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation.”
Patti & Robert undergo, and grow, through many difficulties, as true starving artists are prone to do. They draw on the wealth of their environment and refuse to let their depressions discourage them very long. What was particularly striking about their trials was the grace with which they overcame these hardships. While the reader can safely perceive that things flow easily enough (for we are already sure of their future success), it must be noted that things were as uncertain and frightening for Patti & Robert — the assured voice of ‘having prevailed’ is an embellishment of hindsight. What can be gleamed from Smith’s endearing testament, is how grace is gained by surrendering to the unknowable — trust in love, love of fate. As Patti & Robert were fulfilled in their destiny by responding positively to the hard knocks they received, we too must suffer our own tribulations with equal trust and love: believe that each hazard is the opportunity you need to achieve greatness. Amor Fati.
“We used to laugh at our small selves, saying that I was a bad girl trying to be good and that he was a good boy trying to be bad. Through the years these roles would reverse, then reverse again, until we came to accept our dual natures. We contained opposing principles, light and dark.”
Patti is never certain of her success, and though she rubs shoulders with several envious acquaintances — William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix, to name a few — she remains humble and is fueled by her admiration for their work, whereas others might feel entitled by such associations. She does not rush towards fame. Rather, she is soft-spoken and observant, a self-described wallflower, who takes conscious steps in her work and acknowledges every influence. When, at last, it looks as if Patti has become the success we recognize her for, it is revelatory to see that she did not just one day ‘become successful’ but that she earned this ‘recognition of her success’ by a tedious process of ‘being successful’ over many years — this is the reward of authenticity, passion, and persistence.
I was not very familiar with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe before beginning this book, but in the course of reading his story and researching his art, I came to actively love and admire him. Robert is every bit as authentic and passionate as Patti, and they very often seem like one person. I came to identify with Robbert on many levels — aesthetic interests, personal symbols, exploration & expression of self, and sensitivity of character, all of which Patti illustrates lovingly. Early in the story, the reader is given the conclusion: their parting of ways, their commitments to other notable people, and Mapplethorpe’s tragic demise from AIDS — the heights of life are always curbed by the inevitabilities of loss — setting the stage for the reader to be inspired by the enduring effects of their love, from their first meeting to their last and all the distance in-between.
“What will happen to us?” I asked. “There will always be us,” he answered.”
Patti says that she has always sought to write a poem that could resurrect the dead, and I am one who believes that this is precisely what she has done with ‘Just Kids’: resurrected the essence of her dearly-departed friend, Robert Mapplethorpe, as much as anyone can be. For this is more than a mere memorial, Smith has given us his character from her heart and he has entered into ours. While Patti has lost her greatest friend, perhaps she would be comforted to know that her readers have found him anew.
“So my last image was as the first. A sleeping youth cloaked in light, who opened his eyes with a smile of recognition for someone who had never been a stranger.”
My dear friend, Jazzy Star, recently gifted ‘Just Kids’ to me for my birthday, after having read it and telling me how much she was affected by it. Jazzy saw Patti and Robert as kin; the beauty and substance of their relationship helped her see the beauty and meaning latent in her own. Jazzy was reminded of me “a thousand times” and I, in turn, was shaken by the similarities in our relationship. While our story is evidently different from that of Patti & Roberts, it is of the same essence: love and mutual admiration that has linked us beyond the end of romantic partnership, unconditional support in every aspect of the other’s life (even if we cannot understand it), an appreciation of the symbols that represent each other, and an awareness of how we continue to influence each other despite any separation. I believe this book can be enjoyed by anyone with an appreciation for music, poetry, or an interest in the artists themselves and the respective American era of culture — but I want to emphasize that ‘Just Kids’ will be particularly meaningful for anyone who has experienced an equivalently eternal friendship. You will relate, rejoice, and cry.
A Message for Patti Smith:
Dear Patti, through your memoir and poetry, you have shaken, roused, and spurred me to continue (patiently, humbly, confidently) walking my own uncertain path, reminded me to acknowledge and respect the friendships, symbols, and influences placed in front of me — to invigorate myself from the well of what is most enduring — and emboldened me to pursue my own poetry in defiance of adversity and loss. Thank you for sharing the details of your love and pointing out my own.