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Kathy Acker, Drawn to the Margins, Pushed Literature’s Boundaries

EAT YOUR MIND: The Radical Life and Work of Kathy Acker, by Jason McBride


Kathy Acker — proto-punk, tough-stemmed flower, ransacker of texts, literary heir to William S. Burroughs and Gertrude Stein, sex worker, loather of establishments, striver for maximum impudence — was born into a soft life on Manhattan’s East Side in 1947.

Her father’s last name was Lehman, but she didn’t know that until she was grown. Her mother raised her with a stepfather whose surname was Alexander. The name on her birth certificate was Karen, but everyone called her Kathy.

The Alexanders kept poodles and dined together every night. There were private schools, a beach house on Long Island, summer camps in Maine. In high school Kathy was president of the U.N. club. She was presented as a debutante. Though she would struggle financially as an adult, she always wrote with a Montblanc fountain pen. Later she came into a trust fund.

Like a lot of bright, sensitive children, Acker felt herself an alien and an orphan and, despite evidence to the contrary, among the especially oppressed and uniquely damned. She set about reinventing herself, first at Brandeis University, after failing to get into Radcliffe, then in San Diego and New York City and London and San Francisco as she slowly built a vital and subversive body of work that erased the distinctions between fiction, poetry and nonfiction.

Some of this reinvention was physical. She sheared off her hair, to the dismay of her boyfriend, prior to the punk era; she was heavily tattooed long before you could get that done down at the mall; she was an early habitué of gyms. She wore leather and was heavily pierced. She was thin, an urchin to be reckoned with. She was like one of the “Blade Runner” replicants come to life, one observer said.

More of her reinvention was intellectual. Acker read everything. “One needs laws, the laws of writing, so one can hate them,” she wrote in 1979. She was drawn to outsiders like Jean Genet and those, like Alain Robbe-Grillet, who recoiled from conventional storytelling.

She liked the tinkerers, the thieves and the magpies, and she fell in with those jolly pirates. Two of her best-known books are titled “Don Quixote” and “Great Expectations.” She stripped Cervantes and Dickens down, as if with a blowtorch, and (kind of) built them back up. Her Don Quixote gets an abortion.

If there are two takeaways from “Eat Your Mind: The Radical Life and Work of Kathy Acker,” a smart and sympathetic but hardheaded new biography by the Toronto journalist Jason McBride, they are these.

One: Literary careers are not handed out — they’re earned, they’re seized. Acker’s work ethic was titanic. Work was her religion. She wrote eight hours a day, regardless of what had happened the night before and, given that Acker was impulsive, ferally attractive and sexually omnivorous, plenty tended to happen the night before.

Neighbors dreaded her pounding on typewriters. She was not the most naturally gifted writer — Susan Sontag and David Foster Wallace were among her detractors — but she played her hand exceedingly well, and she came along at the right time.

Two: Acker lied, or exaggerated, about almost everything, right from the start. She leads a biographer on a merry chase. There’s little evidence, for example, that her mother (one of Acker’s novels is titled “My Mother: Demonology”) was the monster Acker made her out to be. Acker once said, “I’m so queer I’m not even gay.” But McBride has talked to everyone, and she seems to have strongly preferred men to women.

Some of Acker’s lies were so brazen that they can still make you smile. On the back of her “Great Expectations” was a dream blurb from Robbe-Grillet (“fulfills the sort of demands that Sterne or Canetti makes of the novelist”). Acker wrote it herself.

A lot of Acker’s early work was self-published. She had a mailing list, and she’d send her work out as pamphlets. She wrote by day and, broke, stripped at night. Other young women stripped to pop songs; Acker preferred the Velvet Underground or Ornette Coleman.

She made a few porn reels with a boyfriend. A later sex film — talky, arty, shot in crumbly black and white — is now known as “The Blue Tape.” It has a complicated afterlife in the art world.

Acker’s fame slowly grew, and she came to know everyone. There are cameos here from nearly every experimental artist or writer or scene-maker of the 1980s and ’90s. She slept with nearly everyone as well.

Acker (she took her last name from the first of her two husbands) loved sex; it was important to her. She collected lovers, one friend says, the way other people collect books. The taking of new lovers fed and energized her work. She explored them as though they were new cities.

She liked S&M and she was a submissive. She’d go to the gym and shock the urban professionals by displaying her bruises. One lover, a married journalist with the German weekly Der Spiegel, would “force” Acker to orgasm by staring at her from across a hotel lobby.

For Acker, the place was always here; the time was always now. She’d put her beeper in her vagina and have her lover call. She’d write while masturbating and advised her students to do the same. One friend said that, during sex, she’d bark like a dog. She kept dozens of stuffed animals; these had to be swept away before one could sleep with her.

She was mercurial; she left unexpected abrasions, and a lot of people behind. She could retract her emotions in a heartbeat, and her abandoned friends felt like frogs run over by a lawn mower. She wanted to be beyond anyone’s power to wound, but she never quite got there.

Acker’s lovers would notice, as did she, that she had a lot of moles and masses on her body. She named one of these Mike and didn’t worry about it. “Mike” turned out to be malignant.

Acker had long been into past-life regression and tarot card readings, and she dedicated one of her books to her astrologer. Perhaps predictably, she refused chemo. She went the alternative route and died at a holistic clinic in Tijuana in 1997. Had she lived, she would be 75, the same age as Paul Auster and Stephen King.

Twenty-five years after her death, Acker is having a resurgence. Several of her books have recently been reissued as Penguin Classics, fulfilling one of her dreams. Olivia Laing’s 2018 novel “Crudo” played with Acker’s life and techniques. She has inspired a billion words of commentary. The scholarly debris is vast.

McBride’s book follows Chris Kraus’s 2017 biography, “After Kathy Acker.” Kraus is a powerfully original writer, and her book is quirkier. She knew Acker, for good and ill, and there is a jousting sense of rivalry. McBride is more dispassionate.

Acker would have probably scorned both books. In “Blood and Guts in High School” (1984), she wrote:


EAT YOUR MIND: The Radical Life and Work of Kathy Acker, by Jason McBride | Illustrated | 390 pp. | Simon & Schuster | $29.99

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