In 2017, 20 years after the death of Kathy Acker, Chris Kraus published After Kathy Acker, an intimate portrayal of its subject en route to attaining “the iconic status of Great Writer as Countercultural Hero that Acker desperately craved. Until she achieved it,” Kraus writes, “no woman had.”
The following year, writer Olivia Laing joined the growing Acker revival with her own autofictional novel, Crudo, whose protagonist, Kathy, is a composite of both Acker and Laing. “Kathy had written several books—Great Expectations, Blood and Guts in High School, I expect you’ve heard of them.” Now journalist Jason McBride’s new, comprehensive biography, Eat Your Mind: The Radical Life and Work of Kathy Acker, is set to further expand the pool of people interested in both Acker’s experimental, formally daring novels—some of which take their titles from Western classics—and her turbulent, and relentlessly ambitious, punk life.
The poet R. H. W. Dillard once wrote that Acker’s books are “as difficult and disordered as the mad world from which they spring: a rock ’n’ roll version of The Critique of Pure Reason by the Marquis de Sade as performed by The Three Stooges.” Yet the world from which Acker herself sprang was mostly orderly, conventional, and elite. Or at least it was on the surface.
Born in 1947 into a rich, conservative German-Jewish family on Sutton Place, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Kathy Acker (née Karen Alexander) attended the private girls’ school Lenox. But when Acker was a teenager, she inadvertently learned that the man whom she believed was her father was in fact her stepfather, her biological father having left her mother when she was pregnant with Acker. Acker’s relationship with her mother, Claire, never fully recovered.
It is unclear whether Acker ever met her biological father—Harry Lehman Jr., scion of the family that owned the Buffalo-based Wildroot Hair Tonic Company—but feelings of abandonment would forever haunt her, with complicated father-daughter relationships, and even incestuous ones, featuring in her work. McBride tells us that when she was teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute in the 90s, Acker assigned her students to “write a sex scene involving them and a family member.” “Write from your father’s point of view,” went another assignment, “but in the voice of a schizophrenic.”
As Acker writes in the opening to Blood and Guts in High School under the subheading “Parents stink,” “Never having known a mother … Janey depended on her father for everything and regarded her father as boyfriend, brother, sister, money, amusement, and father.... Actually Mr Smith was trying to get rid of [his daughter] so he could spend all his time with Sally, a twenty-one-year-old starlet.” On the very next page are Acker’s sketches of Mr. Smith, headless and naked from the waist down.
Even before she left her cloistered confines to attend the new, and countercultural, Brandeis University, Acker was already fiercely intellectual and a renegade besides, the kind of girl who, at 16, would secretly race downtown in her school uniform to have sex with her older boyfriend, a college dropout who wore three-piece suits, had a long beard, and worked at a magazine for avant-garde cinema.
Like her housewife mother before her, Acker was a young bride, but there the similarities ended. Acker and her husband Robert Acker, whom she met at Brandeis, soon departed for San Diego, where Acker finished college and began to write. It was here that Acker was published alongside Lydia Davis and Rae Armantrout, in an experimental literary magazine called Crawl Out Your Window.
Years later, in an essay called “Blue Valentine,” Acker would write of her years in San Diego, “I hated it.... People around me believed that they and hopefully all other people could and would only feel only peace and love. Women wore granny dresses, became pregnant, and cooked healthy food. I felt isolated in this world, as if I was pitch black and everyone else, pastel.” Soon Acker would be cheating on her husband with a poet from New York named Leonard Neufeld. The two would eventually return to their city of origin together, leaving behind not only Acker’s husband but also Neufeld’s wife and young child.
While Neufeld had more flings than she did, Acker, who was known by some at Brandeis as “lusty Kathy,” would have affairs with both men and women, and this despite the fact that sex had become painful for her due to pelvic inflammatory disease, a chronic infection that is most frequently caused by S.T.D.’s. (In Blood and Guts in High School, 10-year-old Janey, who is, as it turns out, having a sexual relationship with her father, suffers from the same condition.)
Acker’s books are “as difficult and disordered as the mad world from which they spring: a rock ’n’ roll version of The Critique of Pure Reason by the Marquis de Sade as performed by The Three Stooges.”
In the early 1970s, while living with Neufeld in his $100-a-month upper Manhattan apartment, Acker began keeping notebooks, which she would then type up, prompting frequent noise complaints from her downstairs neighbor. “This writing is getting to be like junk,” Acker wrote. “I’m going crazy doing it want more.”
Acker had found her vocation, but her family cut her off financially. As a result, both she and Neufeld needed money so they could write. About five months into their relationship, Neufeld came to Acker with a proposal, based on an ad he had found in The Village Voice: they could act in pornographic films for the Times Square peep-show booths.
Acker was intrigued. “To her,” writes McBride, “porn could be performance, material, and experience, all of which would feed her writing.” So too, later, would Acker’s penchant for S&M. When it came to her career, Acker was obsessed with power and how to attain it; sexually she was a submissive whose lovers had her do a broad range of debasing activities, including, on one occasion, licking a dirty kitchen floor. Acker’s competing desire for both power and powerlessness was just one of the many contradictions she embodied.
While she not infrequently slept with her friends’ partners, thereby ending some friendships, Acker was also profoundly lonely and longed to be loved. Writing hours a day, she was also very social, her ever evolving circle including fellow writers such as Neil Gaiman and Gary Indiana, multi-media artist Laurie Anderson, performance artist Karen Finley (whom Acker mentored), and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who took several portraits of Acker in the 1980s. (She would later have a falling-out with Indiana due to his unflattering fictional portrayal of her in his novel Rent Boy.)
“People around me believed that they and hopefully all other people could and would only feel only peace and love. I felt isolated in this world, as if I was pitch black and everyone else pastel.”
Though Acker considered herself a feminist, others, such as the feminist poet Eileen Myles, begged to differ. “I wouldn’t call [Acker] a feminist writer,” Myles wrote in Literary Hub in 2019. “I don’t even think of her as liking women.” Of Acker’s bisexuality, McBride writes, “As much as [Acker] thought of herself as queer, sex with women was still only rarely appealing to her.” A friend of Acker’s, editor Amy Scholder, concurred: “I don’t think her heart was really in it. It was kind of more a way [for Acker] to participate in a culture she loved.” As Acker herself once put it, “I hate pussy. It reminds me of my mother.”
Acker and her mother did manage to reconcile in the late 1970s, and this despite the fact that, while impressed with her daughter’s growing fame, Acker’s mother would nonetheless needle, “Why can’t you write normal and be on the bestseller list?” But their tentative rapprochement would come to an abrupt and tragic end after Acker’s mother, who had been left virtually penniless in the wake of the death of Acker’s stepfather, checked herself into the Midtown Hilton hotel on Christmas Eve 1978 and killed herself.
Acker was devastated. But when Acker’s maternal grandmother, who controlled the family fortune, subsequently died, much of the inheritance went straight to Acker. After decades of scraping by, the struggle was over. Good-bye, roach-infested East Village rental. Good-bye, food stamps. Now Acker was not only joining the exclusive, media- and arts-focused Groucho Club in London, whose members included Salman Rushdie and Stephen Fry—she was also buying an apartment in the city’s posh Barnes neighborhood.
While Acker still kept her hair close-cropped, now she began dyeing it weekly. She also began wearing expensive, if edgy, clothing made by designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Jean Paul Gaultier. In the downtown literary community, some began to wonder whether the pierced, tattooed, and motorcycle-riding Acker had sold out.
By 1997, at just 50, Acker was dying of metastatic breast cancer at an alternative clinic in Tijuana. She had no one great love by her side, but she was surrounded by loving friends and also a coterie of, depending on one’s point of view, either healers or charlatans. Among the legions who came to say their farewells was Chris Kraus’s husband, Sylvère Lotringer, a prominent French literary theorist and former lover of Acker’s. (Hence, it would seem, the title of Kraus’s book After Kathy Acker.) While Kraus accompanied Lotringer to Tijuana, Lotringer visited Acker on her deathbed alone.
In 2021, Grove Atlantic published a 25th-anniversary edition of Acker’s novel Pussy King of the Pirates—a girl-centered tale inspired by both the French erotic novel The Story of O and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island—with an introduction by her friend Neil Gaiman. Acker, he wrote, was “someone who did not believe that there was any gradation between good writing and schlock and took her and inspiration and her material from anywhere.”
“Why’s a cubist painting, if it is, better art than a Vivienne Westwood dress?” she wrote in Don Quixote, another Acker “collage” like Great Expectations, and one in which her Quixote is a woman. Such works trafficked in a kind of deliberate plagiarism that was a hallmark of Acker’s work. According to McBride, Acker saw “fixed identity as a trap” and believed that it was problematic for the writing of novels. (That said, Acker once described herself to Artforum as a “woman of color” by dint of her being Jewish.)
What Acker “really wanted,” writes McBride, “was to create a new narrative, to find, as she put it, ‘a myth that people could live by.’ She wanted to replace the old myths, the old superstructures—the double-bind patriarchal ones, the oedipal ones, the Freudian and Marxist ones—with ones that were less oppressive. How was it possible, she wondered, to live in a nihilistic society without becoming nihilistic yourself?”
Johanna Berkman is a Writer at Large for Air Mail. You can read her profile of Jumi Bello, the writer whose plagiarism scandal rocked the publishing world, here