That is the story, but it’s only a story. Nevertheless, stories are all we have.
Who was Kathy Acker?
“I am a creature of extremes,” she once said, “I have no patience with middle ground.” We all contain and embody contradictions, but Acker more than most. She was everything she was supposed to be, and simultaneously the precise opposite.
From the pouts and scowls she gave to the camera, the leathers and leopard-prints, the elaborate, extravagant tattoos which covered her back and shoulders, the piercings in her tongue and eyebrows and navel and elsewhere, the cropped or tramlined hair and the bulging muscles she’d earned from almost twenty years of serious weight-training, you’d expect the ‘underground sex queen’ of legend, whose work was banned in Germany for its potential to corrupt the youth. What you got when you met her was a soft-voiced woman, five foot two, with big wide eyes; an endearing, slightly knock-kneed walk; a ready smile; exquisite manners, and the ability to converse with just about anybody on just about any topic.
The first key to understanding Acker both in life and on the page is that she could play the ‘street’ and ‘salon’ cards simultaneously because she was renegade posh. She was brought up rich: in another universe, she might have become one of those wealthy Manhattan women who spend their lives shopping and supervising their domestic staff, dishing the dirt over Martinis and cigarettes in expensive restaurants whilst chauffeurs wait outside with the limos. That, certainly, was her heritage.
However, she was profoundly alienated from it. Her father had vamoosed when her mother was three months pregnant. Her mother blamed her for his departure, and never, ever, let her forget that she wasn’t forgiven. The only affection she received at home came from her maternal grandmother. Her stepfather made sexual advances to her, and her mother — having spent her way through her share of the family fortune — committed suicide when Kathy was 30. The invocation of her demon mother became a persistent strand through all of her writing.
Academically spectacularly bright, she found refuge in books and sex. She read voraciously and eclectically, and she learned to listen to her body and respect the truths it told her — often masturbating as she read or wrote, using orgasm to crack open her psyche to expose it most fully to the text — and that was one of the reasons why the cancer so terrified her. For the first time in her life, her body — the body she adorned with the tats and piercings, and built up with the weights; her instrument of both enlightenment and pleasure — now withheld a terrible secret from her. Her body became a text she was unable to read.
Emerging from college with major medical bills (she suffered from a twisted colon), she financed her treatment by working on 42nd St as stripper, go-go dancer and porno actress — some of those films, she said, are still in circulation — conducting her first literary experiments scribbling in her notebook between shows. Her writing, like her existence, eschewed the mainstream whilst spanning ‘high’ and ‘low’: juxtaposing the arcana of mythology and surrealism with the most uncompromising dirty realism, collapsing narrative and demolishing character, sampling and deforming elements from any texts that took her fancy. Whatever they were originally ‘about’, they became about Kathy: the only ‘characters’ in her work are all her.
She became a fixture on the ’70s arty-punk scene, virtually living at CBGBs (the pioneer punk club on the Bowery which spawned Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Television, Blondie and The Ramones) and the St Marks Poetry Project. Her early work, self-published in pamphlet form, began to attract attention, culminating in her first ‘proper’ publication, the 1984 British edition of what is still her most famous work, Blood And Guts In High School. She lived in London during the second half of the ’80s before briefly returning to New York and then settling in San Francisco.
Having completed post-graduate studies, she became a working academic and travelling lecturer, as well as an art critic and performance artist. During the San Francisco years, she spent at least two weeks of every month on the road, performing and lecturing. These activities also provided the bulk of her income: she never earned very much from her novels. “I do all this stuff,” she said, “to subsidise an extremely expensive novel-writing habit.”