SMIRK (audio version)
Introduction: Crashing the narrative

Introduction: Crashing the narrative

Introducing SMIRK: Here's what's in store for you in this serialized memoir

If you were anywhere near the internet on Dec. 20, 2020 — when a splashy magazine profile describing my relationship with “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli was published — then you likely witnessed every journalist on Twitter collectively recoiling in horror. 

They weren’t recoiling just because I had openly admitted to caring for a very problematic guy while wearing fancy clothes in a fashion spread. Their reactions seemed triggered by the very idea that I had fallen in love with Martin at all, after writing about him as a reporter for a major news organization (which is where, by the way, I broke the story of his arrest on securities fraud charges). 

It didn’t matter to people that I didn’t date him while I was covering him, or even that I never slept with him. (For the record, he went to prison well before I seriously entertained that thought.) Nor did it matter that I had grappled painfully with the ethical quandaries for months before deciding to leave my job and pursue the romance, which was detailed in the piece. 

I had, to many people, forsaken my vows to the profession of journalism — for Martin Shkreli. Both were deemed not only unforgivable but unthinkable.

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“Is she delusional or psychologically unwell?” a feminist columnist (married to a man she met while working in journalism) mused in an opinion piece for CNN, as she speculated on my reasons for entering the relationship. Echoing many of the pearl-clutching voices in the media bubble, she went on to ask whether I was “pathologically attention-seeking? A victim of a bad man or an enabler of one?” 

Martin Shkreli: “Smarmy jerk” or “sexy bad boy?” Illustration by Shannon Loys.
Martin Shkreli: “Smarmy jerk” or “sexy bad boy?” Illustration by Shannon Loys.

As if to drive home the point that I was not to be listened to, and had no conceivable rational explanation for my decisions, she continued: “Virtually no one sees Shkreli as a sexy bad boy, or even as a tragically misunderstood antihero.” (I hadn’t at that point said he was either.)

“Mostly,” she said, “he’s perceived exactly as his behavior suggests he is: A smarmy jerk who is a human incarnation of a red flag, a man whose actions make him pathetic and undesirable.” 

That’s not the Martin I knew, or the one she’d never met, and I could go on for numerous pages about all the ways my prissy peers bludgeoned reality to fit their desired contours. 

But I’ll start here: The story is most certainly not, despite what she wrote, “unknowable.” And, now, I’m going to tell it myself.

I know my experiences don’t fit the expected plot. The storyline for women who love fraudsters always goes something like this: An ingenue falls prey to a conniving rogue who manipulates her, uses her, and leaves her in ruin. If she’s lucky, she makes it out alive with her sanity intact. 

When she tells her own story, she’s supposed to lay bare what the monster did to her and how she was traumatized. 

That’s the arc we’re all used to seeing, and there’s a reason it’s so popular: It’s comfortable. It affirms our deeply held beliefs about the nature of evil, our prejudices against people convicted of crimes, and our assumptions about “good” women. “Good” women are “supposed” to want marriage, children, stability, a straightforward career path, and a spotless reputation. They are not “supposed” to forgo those things and upend their lives, because they developed affection for a widely despised enfant terrible

But which is reality and which is the conceit? Are real women not autonomous beings who, like men, can feel ambition, dissatisfaction, lust, and a thirst for adventure? Is it not possible for us to choose — willingly, of sound mind and body — a path that is “forbidden” by our stodgy elders? Or to want to follow the tingle of excitement when a notorious stranger stares at us from across a crowded room, just to see where it leads? 

And might we reasonably long for not only that stranger’s attention, but also some of his boldness, his ability to take up space, and his ability to disrupt by merely asserting his presence

Well, I did. 

Over the next year, I’m going to lay out how all these things transpired for me here in my serialized memoir, SMIRK. You will be taken along on my journey from when I was a plucky Bloomberg legal reporter trying to ascend a career ladder, to my collision with an errant young striver whose many missteps and impulsive decisions caused him to fall directly in my path.

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You’ll see how our relationship developed from a distrustful dance to mutual respect, and then to friendship and more, and how what I saw and learned shook the foundation of so many things I had been taught to think as a journalist… and about myself as a journalist. You will also see how my getting to know myself better through my connection to a supposed smirking “bad boy” inspired me to escape an unhappy marriage and pursue my dreams on my own terms.

Along the way, I’m also going to show you the broader context of my adventure, which is one that I think other journalists are just now beginning to wrap their minds around. 

Martin wasn’t just an iconoclast; he was a figurehead.

Martin Shkreli may have been one of the most strikingly brash and unapologetic young business people in recent memory, but he was hardly the only person to fit that description. A whole swarm of defiant, eccentric, and occasionally rule-flouting millennial capitalists were in step with and followed behind him — from Adam Neumann of WeWork, to Vlad Tenev of Robinhood, and to the many newly-minted crypto millionaires and billionaires and amateur traders on Reddit group WallStreetBets.

The more that journalists piled derogatory adjectives and sobriquets onto Martin, the more fans from Reddit — and other people who felt in tune with this new, unruly chapter in capitalism — sent adoring letters to him in prison. Much like me, they were fascinated by him because so many representatives of the media and political establishments called him things like “the worst bad date you can imagine,” a “spoiled brat,” or “human mysterious mattress stain,” not in spite of those insulting descriptions. (I know all this because Martin forwarded me his mail from prison.)

And Martin’s style of what you might call “public relations” (or perhaps the complete opposite of that) is not only admired and copied, but on the ascent. Public figures caught in Twitter dogpiles now often do not cave in and apologize; they fight back. Some people in the public eye purposefully court negative reactions to raise their profiles and cultivate followings of contrarians who want to clap back at the haters. 

As much as it inspired widespread fury several years ago, Martin’s characteristic smugness toward media elites and authority figures is remarkably similar to that of crypto bros, Silicon Valley personalities, and the world’s richest man, Elon Musk. Musk, who is so vastly wealthy that he is now buying Twitter, has attracted both a huge fan base and massive backlash over his irreverent and borderline reckless tweeting habit.

Before he was kicked off Twitter over a weird harassment campaign against a woman journalist — I know…I know — Martin used his favorite social media platform in many of the same ways Musk uses it. He trolled relentlessly, started bizarre fake narratives, mocked government officials, and courted possible securities law violations.

In our messy cacophony of modern media, narratives are constantly being created, unraveled, and reshaped. Today’s hero could be tomorrow’s villain. And the next day, that villain could be reborn as a hero. Gatekeepers still try to impose order on who gets to be a hero, who has to be a villain, and who is a victim… as well as who can profit from these labels.

But the internet can gleefully overrule them at any time, and sometimes it has.

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Sure, Martin came to be viewed as a sociopath who built drug companies just to rip off needy patients, an internet troll who wantonly harassed women, and a scam artist who destroyed every life he touched. But when you stretch those two-dimensional perceptions to accommodate me, cracks emerge. The picture starts to change into something more complex.

After all, I kissed him in the prison visiting room. We talked for countless hours about hopes and ambitions, literature, philosophy, business, and scientific innovations. He took an interest in my life, my work, my family and my dog, Jack. We made each other laugh and lifted each other’s spirits. We gave each other helpful criticism and advice, though we both were guilty of ignoring it on multiple occasions.

And what horrors were visited on me, a “good” woman who cozied up to this perennial internet dumpster fire, for this intimacy? None. 

Yeah, he gave me a cold brush-off in the magazine via a statement from his lawyer because, I learned, he couldn’t handle me invading his spotlight. And the internet made me into a tragic main character for a day in his absence. 

Yet in its own way, this was also kind of a twisted victory. A few days after the magazine profile was published, when he had finally been able to absorb how much havoc I had stirred, Martin called me from prison, sounding delighted: “Is this Christie Smythe…the celebrity??” A day later, I emailed his lawyer and told him his client and I were on speaking terms again. “You out Martin’d Martin,” he replied.

None of the terrible consequences people warned me about or wished upon me appeared. When the dust settled, I continued to find intellectually stimulating journalism work. I took my savings and bought a charming co-op in Harlem. I was embraced by numerous friends, family members, and colleagues.

In short, I didn’t stumble into a scoundrel’s web and lose everything, as the cautionary tales would suggest. I was just a woman who knowingly broke unwritten rules. I tasted infamy and liked it. I climbed into a rabbit hole, explored its intricate chasms and re-emerged into the sunlight with a better understanding of what was on the surface.

I found my confidence. And I pitted the strength of my personality against the supposed “master manipulator” I loved, as well as against so many outside interests and constituencies who wished to control what I could say about him.

So if you’re yearning for something from the “ruined woman” Lifetime movie genre, it’s probably best if you look elsewhere. But if you want a story that is raw and real, confounding and irreverent, and that shatters norms about “good” women and “bad” men, keep turning the page.

I think you’re going to enjoy this. I did.

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SMIRK (audio version)
My experiences uncovering the story of, and falling in love with, Martin Shkreli.