And that is another key to understanding Acker: that her writing literally was her life, in every possible sense. She didn’t write to make a living: she wrote to live, she wrote for her very life. Her writing was the means by which she reordered her inner world into something she could inhabit, and gradually it became the means by which she attempted to reorder the world outside herself. If her life became a novel, or a series of novels, then she could determine its structure, and control the language which was the seat of power. And as she lived the novel and wrote her life, Acker the author could become the total arbiter of the fate of Kathy the character — or ‘Eurydice’, or ‘Electra’, or ‘Janey’, or any of her other selves.
What she discovered, in the end, was that even if we become the author of the book of our lives, there’s still an editor out there to whom we must submit our texts. Fundamentally, she was a magician. But no matter how frantically she scrabbled for it, the last rabbit just wasn’t in the hat.
So who was Kathy Acker? An immensely sophisticated grown-up woman who wore her inner child on the outside: that same child who had never known her father or been cuddled by her mother. She had the proverbial whim of iron: nobody could change Kathy’s mind about anything, except Kathy herself; and she changed her own mind a lot. Keeping up with her flip-flops of mood and decision could be exhausting, and frequently was. She would enlist the assistance of others to help carry out her latest plan; but by the time you’d dutifully fulfilled your allotted task, she’d’ve changed her mind. “No, sweetie, forget about that …”
She was utterly adorable, and utterly exasperating; totally irresistable and completely impossible. She was the most fabulous — literally fabulous, as in ‘a creature of fable’; a fabulous monster like a centaur or a unicorn — person in the world; and she was also a massive pain in the butt. But she was so charming, and, ultimately, so sweet, that even though her friends often retired hurt from the fray, they always — months or years later — came back. And she always welcomed them, and they were flattered and exhilarated by the warmth of her welcome. And at the next outrage they would simply shrug and say, “Well, that’s just Kathy being Kathy.”
One of her best friends once described her as ‘a brilliant pirate trapped on land’; another as ‘like a beautifully plumed tropical bird caught in a snowstorm.’ She was always looking for a home, be it in New York, London or San Francisco; or in the arms of both men and women. As her last (albeit estranged) lover, I started missing her about three days after that final row. Now I always will.
I miss the sparkling conversation; the rigorous intellect; the blazing courage all the more awe-inspiring to those who knew the depths of terror from which she had to climb each day. I miss the wisdom and insight which she brought to everybody’s problems but her own. I miss her laugh, her smell, her various voices. I miss the bed covered in stuffed toys, and Wuffy The Wolf, her favourite one, who was coming apart and needed repairs which I suspect he never received. I miss the astonishing capacity to receive and express physical affection which one finds in cats and small children but rarely in worldly-wise adult humans. I miss my lover.
But most of all I miss my warm, witty, brave, beautiful friend.
Kathy Acker, 1947–1997. I’ll never get her lipstick off my towels.
It’s important to be a little girl And to lie in your bed And all the men are round you And all the men are dead Pirates sail shark-wondrous seas And never did go home One day I will come home again One day I’ll have a home — from “Requiem” (1996)
Afterword: Ten days after Acker’s passing, my mother died at the age of 85. That particular fortnight was not one of the best and brightest times in my life.