Kathy Acker remembered

This piece, written in 1997 in the immediate aftermath of the events it describes, was an extraordinarily difficult one to write. Even revisiting it to prepare it for its presentation here has been an experience not entirely bereft of emotional turmoil.

It should speak for itself, though I should probably point out that the italicised epigraphs are quotations from its subject’s own work, because there were some to whom this was not apparent at the time.

I am going to tell this story as I know it. Even now, it is strange to me. I have no idea why I am telling it. I have never been sentimental. Perhaps just to say it happened.

In March of last year, I met Kathy Acker at a dinner party in a Mexican restaurant in Soho. A little over 24 hours after that meeting, we discovered ourselves to be in love and resolved to spend the rest of our lives together. We spent most of the next five days almost continually in each others’ company. The plan was that she would return to San Francisco, terminate her affairs there and move to London within the next six weeks.

On a beautiful spring morning, I took her to the airport. Following her return home, we bombarded each other with exuberant, euphoric e-mails. After ten days of exchanging love letters about three times a day, we realised that we couldn’t stand to wait another five weeks to see each other again. She suggested that I flew out to help her pack, and she would show me ‘her’ San Francisco as she said her goodbyes to all her friends there. I booked a ticket.

The first time we’d made love, I had noticed a small, ominous lump in her left breast. She said not to worry. She’d had them three or four times before, and they’d always been benign. Getting them removed was painful and expensive and kinda yukky, but basically no big deal.

In April of last year, I came home to find several messages from Acker on my answering machine. She’d had the lump removed, and this time it wasn’t benign. Statistics said that a woman with no family history of cancer, whose previous lumps had been benign, was a very low risk. However, Kathy had come up on the wrong end of the statistics.

She had cancer.

She told me to leave her. She said I shouldn’t waste my time with a walking dead woman, and that I should find someone else. I told her that I wasn’t going to leave and that she wasn’t going to die. As I spoke, I believed that I was telling her the absolute truth. Both statements turned out to be lies.

She said that she would rather die than submit to chemotherapy, to lose her hair and her teeth and her energy and her muscles. Her doctors had told her that mastectomy was the only alternative to chemotherapy, but that if she had her left breast removed, she would survive. Rather than continue with one breast, she opted to lose both. If her breasts offended her, she would cut them off: anyway, she said, they were not her best feature.

Three weeks later, I flew to San Francisco. Far from being the idyll we had planned, the trip turned out to be a matter of life and death.

The night before surgery, she had her regular strenuous workout at Gold’s Gym, and an early dinner at an oyster bar. On the morning of the operation, we booked a cab to take her to the hospital. Since she had no medical insurance, Acker could not afford an overnight stay post-surgery — indeed, she was negotiating a discount on the anaesthetic almost up until they put her under — so when she emerged from surgery she had to go home by cab. The surgeon said that the operation had gone perfectly. Rather than cancel her scheduled evening lecture to her students at the San Francisco Art Institute, she had decided, with not uncharacteristic bravado, to invite her entire writing class to her apartment for a guest lecture by me. It took at least an hour to persuade her that she was in no state for that whatsoever.

Two days after the operation, she was back on her motorcycle, visiting friends. On the third day we went back to the hospital for the doctors’ verdict. I’d left two bottles of champagne chilling in her fridge; her psychic had already told her that she was going to be fine. Before setting off to the hospital, she had a panic attack. She phoned the doctor and asked him to tell me the results so that I could be the one to tell her. He refused.

Then he told her that she’d come up on the wrong side of the statistics again. There had been no bad tissue in her breasts, but that six out of the eight lymph nodes they’d tested were polluted. He told her that she had a 60 per cent chance of non-recurrence, which would improve to 70 per cent with chemotherapy. Again, she said no.

She paid the bill, and never went back. On a bench outside the hospital, she said that she was never again going to have anything to do with western medicine. She was going to learn how to heal herself. She was going to live forever, or die in the attempt.

I said that I would totally support whatever decision she chose to make. It was, after all, her life, her body, her choice.

Back at her flat, on the answering machine, was a cheery message from her psychic congratulating her on her recovery.

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