Hallowed Ground: Patti Smith on Visiting the Prison of Jean Genet’s Dreams

We were entering a military zone and hit a checkpoint. The driver’s identity card was inspected and after an interminable stretch of silence we were ordered to get out of the car. Two officers searched the front and back seats, finding a switchblade with a broken spring in the glove box. That can’t be so bad, I thought, but as they knocked on the trunk our driver became markedly agitated. Dead chickens? Maybe drugs. They circled around the car, and then asked him for the keys. He threw them in a shallow ravine and bolted but was swiftly wrestled to the ground. I glanced sidelong at Fred. He betrayed no emotion and I followed his lead.

They opened the trunk. Inside was a man who looked to be in his early 30s curled up like a slug in a rusting conch shell. He seemed terrified as they poked him with a rifle and ordered him to get out. We were all herded to the police headquarters, put in separate rooms, and interrogated in French. The commander arrived, and we were brought before him. He was barrel-chested with dark, sad eyes and a thick mustache that dominated his careworn face. Fred quickly took stock of things. I slipped into the role of compliant female, for in this obscure annex of the Foreign Legion it was definitely a man’s world. I watched silently as the human contraband, stripped and shackled, was led away. Fred was ordered into the commander’s office. He turned and looked at me. Stay calm was the message telegraphed from his pale blue eyes.

-From Vogue‘s excerpt of M Train, Patti Smith’s new memoir, in which she and her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, make a pilgrimage to the remains of the French penal colony in northwest French Guiana where Jean Genet longed to be imprisoned, which he wrote about in The Thief’s Journal. Smith collected stones there, to bring to Genet.

Read the excerpt