One of the last times I saw Kathy Acker she was wearing a gauzy white top through which you could see her mastectomy scars. She was tiny, wide-eyed and gossipy. We didn’t talk about the cancer. It was impossible to. Just as it was impossible to not see what was happening. She was healing herself and had rejected Western medicine. She was not to be a passive patient, an object; instead she would be subject, a seeker of alternative wisdom, and that wisdom would save her. “I live as I believe, that belief is equal to the body,” she wrote.
She died in 1997 in an clinic in Tijuana, Mexico. She had wanted to go to a Gerson Institute alternative treatment centre, but the disease was so advanced they would not take her.
At 53, the experimental writer was too young to die and her reaction to her illness had pushed away so many friends who had tried to help her. This was a lonely place, or maybe she had slipped fully into a world of magical thinking – I can’t say. Looking back, though, I think this was how she had always lived. Another way to put it is that Kathy lied. Or that she created her own myth via a series of strategic personas. All her work was an attempt to the dissolve the “I’ , the narrator, the ego. This constant slippage of identity. Who is talking? Who is the author? What is writing but copying down words? What happens when language is lost?
To pin down the real Kathy Acker then is a self-defeating task but Chris Kraus’s biography of her is a brilliant and necessary thing. There is a wonderful ambivalence between subject and object here, which wires up a tension throughout this incredibly well-researched book. Kraus and Acker moved in some of the same circles. The poet Eileen Myles once said that Kraus was “entirely obsessed… wanting to be Kathy”. Sylvère Lotringer – who was Kraus’s husband, and who features in her previous book, I Love Dick – had an affair with Acker for three years before he met Kraus. Inside one of his books, Kraus found an inscription from Acker: “To Sylvère, The Best Fuck in the Word (At Least to My Knowledge ), Love, Kathy.”
In interviews Kraus has described Acker’s life as sad and said that she was a terrible person, but something else happens here in the recounting of that life; Kraus pushes Acker’s writing to the foreground making us understand how difficult a territory the so-called avant-garde was, and is, for a woman.
Despite her highly cultivated victim persona and constant retelling of her time working in a sex show, Acker was born into a wealthy Jewish family. Her father had abandoned her mother during pregnancy; the disappeared father is a recurrent theme in Acker’s work. She went to Brandeis Unversity, known at the time as Jew U. Her academic precocity shone but she was remembered for having loud sex in the dorms. On the edge of the literary scene, she started to write using collages of other texts – cut-ups. The technique was part of an attempt to destabilise language itself.
Acker loved the Black Mountain poets, Burroughs, Duras, Genet. Later there would be Deleuze and post-structuralism. This she mixed with pornography, comics, drawing and low culture. Rejecting traditional narrative as ownership, Acker sought to smash it into fragments. This was violent, disruptive writing, full of sex. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t. Some, as she said herself, was unreadable.
Much of her later work was dismissed and she became known for being Kathy Acker rather than anything else. Being Kathy Acker meant having tattoos, piercings, a motorbike and muscles long before they became a common language. It meant smashing taboos, reading out rape fantasies, dressing in Westwood and Valentino. Sleeping with women, sleeping with men. This was a hardcore performance of cool, and yet sometimes she was so lost. She choose a series of relationships that tormented her, but this was the altered state from which she wanted to write. She also treated many people appallingly.
Kraus gets to all this through the details of Acker’s nomadic life, as if she was on the run between New York, San Francisco and London looking for a home, a community. The flesh is weak: she had abortions, pelvic inflammatory disease, all sorts of STDs. Kraus brings out the contradictions that Acker exploited: a young woman of inherited wealth who has to strip to eat, an outlaw who wants literary success. She wrote to Susan Sontag: “Dear Susan Sontag, Would you please read my books and make me famous.”
There is a sense early in her life that she was curating her own myth. The construction of her vulnerability was part of it and everyone fell for it. She could be immensely charming in a way I am not sure Kraus allows. That was what enabled her to move through so many scenes (though she had sex with women she was unable to hang on to female friends). Her innate selfishness got in the way as she slept with everyone’s boyfriend or husband. This may be destroying bourgeois mores but it was mostly just damn inconsiderate. When she conducted an affair with Peter Wollen, she did it in the flat of his (then) partner’s friends, where she was staying, making it very difficult for them. She never washed up either.
The men Kraus describes here seem mostly awful. They appear to do as they like and Acker acquiesces. The long affair she had with a remote German in the Nineties, a sub S&M business, does not, as she saw it, seem to be pushing boundaries. The sex that she wrote about so much becomes flat and tedious, not so much breaking through consciousness as numbing it. She would write, she said, while using a vibrator. The dissolution she sought was to be found this way. It’s a romance of sorts, I guess.
What gets lost here is Kathy’s actual voice, which was fantastic. Her readings were events. When she moved to London in the mid Eighties, she became a star. All that critical theory had been written by men and yet here was this tiny woman in leather screwing around with everything. She was street. She was literary. She spoke of lust and darkness and was unafraid. She said she was Dickens, Don Quixote. She stole. Maybe there could only ever be one woman like her? A female counter-cultural hero. Kraus, indeed, suggests she wanted to be the only one so she sabotaged the works of others.
This attempt at shattering the literary hegemony of identity, originality and imagination was what she went for. She had discipline. Her achievement was to capture some form of female intensity in these formalist experiments. This is the blood-and-guts stuff. It remains now almost impossible to separate her work from her body, from her being, from her performance of it. If the theory was the death of the author, the reality was the embodiment of her own text.
I always thought that Kathy liked rules. Her penchant for bondage and dominance/submission made sense to me. She liked to know the codes. It was in real relationships that she floundered. “How close can one be to another person without becoming them?” she would ask.
Kraus restores Acker to her rightful place by taking her writing seriously. She offers respect, placing her in a lineage and seeing how she influenced other women, from the writer Sheila Heti to the riot grrrl musician Kathleen Hanna or more generally the first-person discursiveness of the digital world.
Acker preceded all that, and I can’t help wondering what she would have done with it. In the end her body was indeed the text, a text over the meaning of which she lost control. That was heartbreaking.
Kraus talks of identifying with Acker, and how so many female contemporaries might have been her. I don’t know if anyone else could. She was a creature of myth and power. She was herself alone. The real thing.
After Kathy Acker: A Biography
Allen Lane, 352pp, £20
This article appears in the 21 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia