Obituary: Kathy Acker
Wednesday 03 December 1997
The punk turned post-modernist Kathy Acker was a controversial figure on the literary scene with her bike-girl/bad girl image and her graphic writing about sex and violence, menstruation and incest, suicide and S & M.
The novelist as performance artist, the author of Blood and Guts in High School (1984) wrote all her work with public presentation in mind. In recent years she was interested in the multimedia possibilities for fiction - she began with a CD she made with the Mekons of her novel Pussy, King of the Pirates.
Fascinated by language and its relation to power and to the body, she used violent sexual imagery, repetition and other people's plots to explore concepts of narrative. Plagiarism was for her a deliberate literary act: she openly pillaged work ranging from Defoe and Robert Louis Stevenson to Harold Robbins and Erica Jong.
She was born in 1944 in New York into a Jewish family in the glove business. Her father, Donald Lehman, left her mother, Clare, when she was three months pregnant with Kathy. Although Clare remarried a year later, she always blamed Kathy for Lehman's going. Kathy's relationship with her mother - she once said that "at a deep level my mother couldn't stand me" - helped forge her rebellious nature, although it was in some small way balanced by a loving relationship with her grandmother, who would spend days with her in New York's galleries and museums.
By the age of 14 she was involved in the avant-garde in New York, through P. Adams Sitney, the young editor of Film Culture, the independent film- maker's bible. She met the second generation of Black Mountain poets and film-makers like Stan Brakhage who made her, she said, "their mascot". At the same time she had fallen in love with Latin at school, particularly the poets Catullus and Propertius. In 1963 she went to Brandeis University to study Classics.
Around this time, at the age of 19, she changed her name through marriage from Alexander (her stepfather's name) to Acker. In interviews she told conflicting stories about her brief marriage to Robert Acker, a penniless 17-year-old friend. The first was that her parents stopped supporting her when she was 18 so she married to qualify for a scholarship at Brandeis. The second was that her parents disinherited her because she married him.
In 1965 she went to the University of California in San Diego to study under Herbert Marcuse, the Marxist psychologist who was a major influence on the burgeoning counter- culture. (The pioneer linguist Roman Jakobson had been her tutor at Brandeis.) Later she continued her studies in Classics and philosophy in New York.
However, she had decided at the age of 21 that she wanted to be a writer. Her first book, Politics, was half prose and half poetry and, like all her work, heavily influenced by William Burroughs. Her early works, which she hawked from bookshop to bookshop, were all self-published or produced by the underground small presses. Although she could have worked as an academic she didn't want distraction from her writing so took a myriad of mindless jobs.
They included a job in the sex industry. Again, there are conflicting stories. One says that to help pay for her studies at San Diego State she worked as a stripper in a vaudeville house. Another says it was on 42nd Street in New York and it was a (fake) sex show to pay hospital bills. Perhaps she did both.
Her mother committed suicide when Acker was 30. After years of silence, they had begun to see each other again four years before. But then her mother lost all her money. She couldn't cope with impoverishment. Her mother's death features in most of Acker's novels, most particularly in My Mother: demonology (1993). Acker always contended the bits about her mother were the only autobiographical parts of her books.
In the early Eighties Acker was part of the punk/avant-garde scene in New York - a friend of the rock poet Patti Smith and the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who took a famous photograph of her. Her second marriage was to the experimental composer Peter Gordon. She had moved to London, however, when she broke through in 1984 with Blood and Guts in High School, which had taken her 10 years to write. At the age of 40, the punk writer had become a literary celebrity.
Thereafter she wrote novels, stories, essays, a film script (Variety, 1985) and an opera libretto (The Birth of the Poet, 1985). The New York Times once called her books "a rock 'n' roll version of the Critique of Pure Reason by the Marquis de Sade as performed by the Three Stooges".
She was fascinated by violence and that area where she felt sex and violence meet. She claimed she had never tried to say anything in her work, being concerned more with form than content. However, looking back on her books, she saw them as "a devastating picture of sex and society". Her writing concerned the body and she worked on her own body throughout her life: first by bodybuilding, then by tattooing (cats, flowers and fish), then by body piercing (pierced eyebrows, amethyst-pierced tongue and, as she happily discussed in a Guardian interview a couple of years ago, pierced labia).
She had gone back to live in America at the start of the Nineties - she launched and led a writing department at the San Francisco Art Institute - but came back to London in 1995 because of a relationship with a man. (She had relationships with both men and women throughout her life.) Her return coincided with her discovery that she had cancer. She had a double mastectomy but refused chemotherapy. She chose to rely on faith healers and alternative medicine and declared herself healthy again in an interview in the Independent on Sunday in September, when her latest collection of essays and one of short stories were published. She spoke of having nipples tattooed on her body and blamed her continuing weight loss on mistakenly drinking canal water.
She summed herself up thus:
I made a decision when I was young that I was not going to be a second- rate writer . . . I was going to go all the way and do ground-breaking work . . . This meant that I was either going to fall flat on my face or I was going to do something. I still hope that my work will break things open for people.
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