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Raw Materials

How Kathy Acker Stayed Radical

Not many people bought her books, but nearly everyone who did wrote their own.

Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Getty Images
Kathy Acker in 1989

In the fall of 1996, I was a 22-year-old graduate student, freshly arrived at New York University. In my introductory seminar, we toured the NYU’s Fales collection. I remember the archivist excitedly showing us a copy of a 1980s literary journal called Between C and D—named for the East Village avenues where cheap rents lasted the longest. Printed on the fanfold computer paper, it bore the tagline: “Sex. Drugs. Danger. Violence. Computers.” It was stored in plastic, making it look suited to an archive, even though it was barely a decade old. Among the contributors were legends of the scene that had exploded downtown in the 1970s and ’80s: the writers Lynne Tillman, Gary Indiana, and Tama Janowitz; the artist David Wojnarowicz. It also published a piece about a chef scoring heroin by a young Anthony Bourdain. But perhaps the most distinct and lasting literary voice in that zip lock belonged to Kathy Acker, the author of unclassifiable books with titles like Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula, My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Pussy, King of the Pirates. 

Eat Your Mind: The Radical Life and Work of Kathy Acker
by Jason McBride
Simon & Schuster, 416 pp., $29.99

As Jason McBride notes in his sympathetic and carefully rendered new biography of Acker, Eat Your Mind, it’s easy to see Acker and her work as a relic of a lost world. The remnants of the downtown scene that lingered when I visited that archive are long gone. The fashion for the postmodern theory that gave her work cachet in academia has faded, often remembered, if at all, as an embarrassing product of a decadent period when tenured would-be radicals, faced with a political reaction, substituted arcane theory for material analysis or action.

But Acker had a deep and lasting impact on those who encountered her and her work, as McBride demonstrates. He quotes Neil Gaiman, who updates Brian Eno’s famous line about the Velvet Underground to note that not many people bought Acker’s books, but nearly everyone who did wrote their own books, and wrote them differently than they would have without her.

Through the force of her originality and irreverence, Acker’s work outlived the trends that helped elevate it. While my graduate school classmates were debating what it meant to “blend” high and low culture or to “deconstruct” the traditional literary canon (most of which, unlike Acker, we hadn’t actually read), Acker bolted headfirst into making it her plaything, taking the life stories of bohemian icons like Verlaine and Pasolini as raw materials, rewriting Dickens and Faulkner and Cervantes through parody, pastiche, and what she insisted on calling plagiarism. It was one thing for mostly male postmodernists with impeccable literary pedigrees to muck about in pop culture; being a punk, tattooed downtown writer, and calling your novels Don Quixote or Great Expectations was something else.

But more broadly, Acker’s work, and her life, encompassed much of what remains culturally vital about the decades her work spanned. She was part of the first generation to come of age during and after the sexual revolution, and the many scenes she was part of were pathbreaking in their treatment of sex, as well as in their blending of art, music, literature, and fashion. And in these days of tech-driven dystopia, it’s especially poignant to remember her role in the early, utopian experiments with cyberculture that fascinated Acker during the last years before her death in 1997 at just 50.

She wrote about sex work, abortion, pornography, queer sex, kinky sex, trauma, and abuse both explicitly and poetically, in ways that transcended the debates, feminist or otherwise, that swirled around these topics. Like her bohemian heroes, taken more from the European avant-garde than from the American counterculture, she tried to live and write as if the revolution had already happened. At the start of 1974’s I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac, she offers the fragment of an imagined response to an unnamed interlocuter who might deem writing about sexuality trivial: 

“This is very non political, therefore reactionary,” he said.

“But what would the world have to be like for these events to exist?” I replied.

Allergic to any stable narratives about how women, artists, or outsiders might “find their identity,” her work reads like a blueprint for an imagined and still unrealized future. What would the world have to be like for Kathy Acker to exist?    

Contrary to common perception, not all bohemians are refugees from the upper middle class, but Acker was. Born Karen Alexander, she grew up on the outskirts of Sutton Place, a wealthy enclave in midtown. Her family was well-off, though less so than their neighbors and her schoolmates. Outwardly placid, her early life was filled with drama she would mythologize throughout her work. At some point, she learned that the person she thought was her father was not, and that her biological father had abandoned her mother during her pregnancy. A precocious reader from an early age, the revelation “lent her life a literary shape”; in her writing and life she would “cast her beginnings as equal parts Hansel and Gretel, Moll Flanders, and Electra.

Her mother, Claire, who would haunt Acker’s work in various guises, was beautiful but anxious. Acker wrote of her mother the way so many feminists of her generation would view their mothers: as victims of their own gilded cages, granted luxury but no meaningful work or selves, resentful of their children for having placed them in this predicament but lacking a language to articulate their plight. “Her most important role,” McBride writes, “was to serve as a negative example.”

Iconoclastic as Acker was, her early escape took familiar forms: books, college, sex, and marriage. Classmates recall her carrying around Modern Library editions of the classics she was devouring. McBride digs up her high school publications, which include a riff on Romeo and Juliet. Writing yourself into the canon, after all, is the province of dutiful students as well as avant-garde artists. She described her early sexual experiences as windows to experience new worlds. While still in high school, she met a college student who would drop out and move to Cooper Square, introducing her to the world of experimental filmmakers. After a brief stint at Brandeis she married Bob Acker, an intense academically minded student, and moved with him to San Diego. In her mythological version, the move West was to follow Herbert Marcuse, the sociologist with a cult following among radical students, but in truth, she never took a class with him. Marriage was, as for many women at the time, a way out, to replace one family with another. (Her parents sweetened the deal by disapproving of Acker; a second marriage to the musician Peter Gordon resulted in a long friendship but no change in her aversion to domestic life.)

Acker returned to New York at the start of the ’70s, a decade that reverberates in myth and memory for its cheap rents and artistic headiness. What’s most striking in McBride’s account, though, is just how small this world was. Unlike in much of today’s siloed culture, visual artists, poets, and musicians blended easily. Acker knew everyone, but then again, everyone in this world knew everyone. As suited her fascination with writing as transformation and a form of consciousness, she began as a poet, making an impression at the Bowery Poetry Club, at the time a home for the largely female heirs of the New York school like Bernadette Meyer, Anne Waldman, and Alice Notley. She self-published her early works and sent them to a carefully chosen list of friends, enabling them to make a splash despite their tiny circulation.

McBride’s book is full of celebrity sightings and gossip from this world and others as Acker’s artistic and intellectual restlessness took her back and forth between New York, San Francisco, and London. But throughout, Acker was more of a workhorse than a decadent. No matter how vibrant her life on the scene, she set an alarm and wrote for eight hours a day, mostly avoiding the ubiquitous drugs of the time. Even Acker’s infamous habit of writing while masturbating comes across more as a feat of concentration and industriousness than anything else. As her lover Johnny Golding put it, “Kathy’s fundamental sexual identity was writer. Her sexuality was writing. She was having a sexual relationship with that.  Punk, postmodern, and irreverent as she was, she was never nihilistic; she believed in art and freedom as cultural winds pushed hard in the other direction.

No golden age lasts long; few appear golden in retrospect. McBride traces Acker’s ambivalence toward the nostalgia that now soaks our understanding of the scene in the ’70s. In “New York City 1979,” a piece that would circulate and be widely republished, she offers a memorable portrait of that world, restless and grotesque:

It’s 4 AM. It’s still too hot. Wet heat’s squeezing this city. The air’s mist. The liquid that’s seeping out of human flesh pores is gonna harden into a smooth shiny shell so we’re going to become reptiles. No one wants to move anymore. No one wants to be in a body. Physical possessions can go to hell even in this night.

As the decade ended, she left for San Francisco and then London. When she returned, money and celebrity had found the downtown scene; rents had gone up. AIDS devastated the artistic world. As money washed through the downtown scene, her own fortunes shifted. She’d moved from publishing her own work to Grove, the legendary bohemian press that had brought so many of her idols to American readers, but her sales remained sparse. Her intense intellectual and sexual relationship with the academic iconoclast Sylvère Lotringer, who helped popularize European theory, gave her a language for her experiments with language, genre, and consciousness. Unlike many writers, Acker seemed to take delight in academic attention to her work. 

In the late ’70s, Acker and her mother briefly reconciled before her mother died by suicide. Years later, Acker would write, “To experience my mother’s death (which wasn’t quite the experience of an other’s death, but rather of my blood’s death), was to experience that which couldn’t be experienced. A loss of consciousness.” Shortly afterward, her grandmother died, leaving her with a sizable inheritance. But the money took a while to come out of legal limbo, and when it did, Acker had a tortured relationship with it. Even people who loved her seemed unsettled that she would splurge on fashion while crying poverty.

All of this took place during one of the most cultural and politically conservative environments in recent U.S. history, the decade when the word freedom was wrenched away from artists and sexual radicals to become the cultural calling card of tax-cutters and assorted reactionaries. It was the decade in which an earlier round of so-called “culture wars” caught friends of Acker’s like the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and the performance artist Karen Finley in its crosshairs, aiming to direct populist ire against decadent and queer others, turning “family values” into the rallying cry of reaction. In this climate, Acker’s idea of freedom—sexual freedom, the freedom to have the time to write, and to write what one wished regardless of claims to respectability—remained vital. Normally too focused on writing for direct political advocacy, she made an exception to defend her friend Salman Rushdie.

She also fought against censorship of her own work, presciently viewing the turn among so many feminists of that decade toward opposing pornography and sex work not only as political dead ends but as attempts to shore up a “women good/men bad” moralism that was as much of a trap as the midcentury domestic ideal. In her last decade, she found admirers in the young queer scene developing around the mission neighborhood of San Francisco, teaching at the Art Institute, and creating new works shaped by cyberpunk and riot grrrl. (McBride delightfully recounts that in the late ’80s, Acker advised a young Kathleen Hanna to ditch spoken word and start a band; Acker herself had a run performing with the punk band The Mekons.)

As befits McBride’s opening description of Acker as “that rare and now almost inconceivable thing: a celebrity experimental writer,” her work has been as delightfully slippery in the years since her death as before. Alongside McBride’s biography and posthumous anthologies and academic volumes are the works as unclassifiable as Acker’s by those who knew her, such as Chris Kraus’s influential After Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark’s Philosophy for Spiders, a “rigorous and playful” work that expands Acker’s gender theorizing to explore trans themes. And then there’s Olivia Laing’s 2018 debut novel, Crudo, with a narrator who blends her own biography with Acker’s, making use of her life, art, and mythology in something like the way Acker made use of her heroes. These works offer glimpsed versions of the liberation Acker sought in her own writing: an endless document filled with links and digressions ripe for exploration, a countercultural archive that encompasses lives as well as pages.