Kathy Acker

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Kathy Acker
Kathy Acker.jpg
Acker in 1984
Born Karen Lehman
(1947-04-18)April 18, 1947
New York City, United States
Died November 30, 1997(1997-11-30) (aged 50)
Tijuana, Mexico
Occupation Novelist, playwright, essayist, poet
Citizenship United States
Notable works Blood and Guts in High School (novel)
Great Expectations
New York (short story)
Notable awards Pushcart Prize (1979)
Spouse Robert Acker (1966–????)
Peter Gordon (1976, annulled)

Kathy Acker (née Lehmann; April 18, 1947 – November 30, 1997) was an American experimental novelist, punk poet, playwright, essayist, postmodernist and sex-positive feminist writer. She was influenced by the Black Mountain School poets, the writer William S. Burroughs, the artist and theoretician David Antin, French critical theory, philosophy, mysticism, and pornography.[1]


The daughter of Donald and Claire (Weill) Lehman, Kathy Acker was born Karen Alexander in New York City. There is some question as to her year of birth, 1947; the Library of Congress lists her birth year as 1948, but most obituaries state that she was born in 1944.[2] The pregnancy was unplanned; Donald Lehman abandoned the family before Kathy was born, and her stepfather's name appears on the birth certificate. Her relationship with her domineering mother even into adulthood was fraught with hostility and anxiety because Acker felt unloved and unwanted. Her mother soon remarried, a union that Acker later characterized as an essentially passionless marriage to an ineffectual man, and Acker was raised in her mother and stepfather's home on New York’s prosperous Upper East Side.

In 1966 she married Robert Acker, and changed her last name from Lehman to Acker. Although her birth name was Karen, she was known as Kathy by her friends and family. Her first work appeared in print as part of the burgeoning New York City literary underground of the mid-1970s. Like other young women struggling to be writers and artists, she worked for a few months as a stripper, and listening to the stories of women so different from those she had known before profoundly influenced her early work. During the 1970s she often moved back and forth between San Diego, San Francisco and New York. She married the composer and experimental musician Peter Gordon shortly before the end of their seven year relationship.[3] Later she had relationships with theorist, publisher, and critic Sylvère Lotringer and then with filmmaker and film theorist Peter Wollen. In 1996, Acker left San Francisco and moved to London to live with writer and music critic Charles Shaar Murray.[4]

She married twice, and while most of her relationships were with men she was openly bisexual. In 1979 she won the Pushcart Prize for her short story "New York City in 1979". During the early 1980s she lived in London, where she wrote several of her most critically acclaimed works. After returning to the United States in the late 1980s she worked as an adjunct professor at the San Francisco Art Institute for about six years and as a visiting professor at several universities, including the University of Idaho, the University of California, San Diego, University of California, Santa Barbara, the California Institute of Arts, and Roanoke College.

In April 1996 Acker was diagnosed with breast cancer and she elected to have a double mastectomy. In January 1997 she wrote about her loss of faith in conventional medicine in a Guardian article, "The Gift of Disease".[5] In the article she explains that after unsuccessful surgery, which left her feeling physically mutilated and emotionally debilitated, she rejected the passivity of the patient in the medical mainstream and began to seek out the advice of nutritionists, acupuncturists, psychic healers, and Chinese herbalists. She found appealing the claim that instead of being an object of knowledge, as in Western medicine, the patient becomes a seer, a seeker of wisdom, that illness becomes the teacher and the patient the student. However, after pursuing several forms of alternative medicine in England and the United States, Acker died a year and a half later from complications of cancer in an alternative cancer clinic in Tijuana, Mexico. She died in Room 101, to which her friend Alan Moore quipped, "There's nothing that woman can't turn into a literary reference;" Room 101, in the climax of George Orwell's 1984, is the basement torture chamber in which the Party attempts to subject a prisoner to his or her own worst fears.[6]


At Brandeis University she engaged in undergraduate coursework in Classics at a time when Angela Davis was also at the university. She became interested in writing novels, and moved to California to attend University of California, San Diego where David Antin and Jerome Rothenberg were among her teachers. She received her bachelor's degree in 1968. After moving to New York, she attended two years of graduate school at the City University of New York in Classics, specializing in Greek. She did not earn a graduate degree. During her time in New York she was employed as a file clerk, secretary, stripper, and porn performer.[1]

Literary overview[edit]

Acker was associated with the New York punk movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The punk aesthetic influenced her literary style.[7] Acker's controversial body of work borrows heavily from the experimental styles of William S. Burroughs and Marguerite Duras. Her writing strategies at times used forms of pastiche and deployed Burroughs's cut-up technique, involving cutting-up and scrambling passages and sentences into a somewhat random remix. Acker defined her writing as existing post-nouveau roman European tradition. In her texts, she combines biographical elements, power, sex and violence. Indeed, critics often compare her writing to that of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Jean Genet. Critics have noticed links to Gertrude Stein and photographers Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine. Acker's novels also exhibit a fascination with and an indebtedness to tattoos.[8] She even dedicated Empire of the Senseless to her tattooist.

Acker published her first book, Politics, in 1972. Although the collection of poems and essays did not garner much critical or public attention, it did establish her reputation within the New York punk scene. In 1973 she published her first novel The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula: Some Lives of Murderesses under the pseudonym Black Tarantula.[9] In 1974 she published her second novel, I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining.

In 1979 Acker finally received popular attention when she won a Pushcart Prize for her short story "New York City in 1979." She did not receive critical attention, however, until she published Great Expectations in 1982. The opening of Great Expectations is a clear re-writing of Charles Dickens's classic of the same name. It features Acker's usual subject matter, including a semi-autobiographical account of her mother's suicide and the appropriation of several other texts, including Pierre Guyotat's violent and sexually explicit "Eden Eden Eden". That same year, Acker published a chapbook, entitled Hello, I'm Erica Jong.

Acker wrote the script for the 1983 film Variety, directed by Bette Gordon with actors including Nan Goldin, Will Patton, and Luis Guzmán.[10] Acker wrote a text on the photographer Marcus Leatherdale that was published in 1983, in an art catalogue for the Molotov Gallery in Vienna.[11] In 1984, Acker's first British publication, the novel Blood and Guts in High School was published.[citation needed]

Acker went on to write several novels published by Grove Press. She also wrote for several magazines and anthologies, including the periodicals RE/Search, Angel Exhaust, monochrom and Rapid Eye. As she neared the end of her life, her work was more well received by the conventional press; for example, The Guardian published a number of her essays, interviews and articles, among them was an interview with the Spice Girls.[1]

Acker's book In Memoriam to Identity draws attention to popular analyses of Rimbaud's life and The Sound and the Fury, constructing or revealing social and literary identity. Though she was known in the literary world for creating a whole new style of feminist prose and for her transgressive fiction, she was also a punk and feminist icon for her devoted portrayals of subcultures, strong-willed women, and violence.

Despite the increased recognition she got for Great Expectations, Blood and Guts in High School is often considered Acker's breakthrough work. Published in 1984, it is one of her most extreme explorations of sexuality and violence. Borrowing from, among other texts, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Blood and Guts details the experiences of Janey Smith, a sex addicted and pelvic inflammatory disease-ridden urbanite who is in love with a father who sells her into slavery. Many critics criticized it for being demeaning toward women, and Germany banned it completely. Acker published the German court judgment against Blood and Guts in High School in Hannibal Lecter, My Father.

Acker published Empire of the Senseless in 1988 and considered it a turning point in her writing. While she still borrows from other texts, including Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the appropriation is less obvious. However, one of Acker's more controversial appropriations is from William Gibson's 1984 text Neuromancer in which Acker equates code with the female body and its militaristic implications. The novel comes from the voices of two terrorists, Abhor, who is half human and half robot, and her lover Thivai. The story takes place in the decaying remnants of a post-revolutionary Paris. Like her other works, Empire of the Senseless includes graphic violence and sexuality. However, it turns toward concerns of language more than her previous works.

In 1988 she published Literal Madness: Three Novels, which included three previously published works: Florida deconstructs and reduces John Huston's 1948 film noir classic Key Largo into its base sexual politics, Kathy Goes to Haiti details a young woman's relationship and sexual exploits while on vacation, and My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini provides a fictional autobiography of the Italian filmmaker in which he solves his own murder.

Between 1990 and 1993, she published four more books: In Memoriam to Identity (1990); Hannibal Lecter, My Father (1991); Portrait of an Eye: Three Novels (1992), also composed of already published works; and My Mother: Demonology (1992). Her last novel, Pussy, King of the Pirates, published in 1996, showed signs of Acker's broadening interests as it incorporates more humor, lighter fantasy and a consideration of Eastern texts and philosophy that was largely absent in her earlier works.

Posthumous reputation[edit]

Three volumes of her non-fiction have been published and re-published since her death. In 2002 New York University (NYU) staged Discipline and Anarchy, a retrospective exhibition of her works,[12] while in 2008 London's Institute of Contemporary Arts held an evening of her films.[13] In 2007, Amandla Publishing re-published Acker's articles that she wrote for the New Statesman from 1989–91.[14]

In 2015, Semiotext(e) published I'm Very Into You, a book of Acker's email correspondences with media theorist McKenzie Wark, edited by Matias Viegener, her executor and head of the Kathy Acker Literary Trust.[15]

In 2017, the American writer and artist Chris Kraus published After Kathy Acker: A Literary Biography, the first fully authorized biography of Acker's life experiences and literary strategies.[16][17][18]

Published works[edit]

  • Politics (1972)
  • Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula By the Black Tarantula (1973)
  • I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining (1974)
  • Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec (1978)
  • Florida (1978)
  • Kathy Goes To Haiti (1978)
  • N.Y.C. in 1979 (1981)
  • Great Expectations (1983)
  • Algeria : A Series of Invocations Because Nothing Else Works (1984)
  • Blood and Guts in High School (1984)
  • Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream (1986)
  • Literal Madness: Three Novels (Reprinted 1987)
  • My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini
  • Wordplays 5 : An Anthology of New American Drama (1987)
  • Empire of the Senseless (1988)
  • In Memoriam to Identity (1990)
  • Hannibal Lecter, My Father (1991)
  • My Mother: Demonology (1994)
  • The Stabbing Handspoken word guest appearance on alternate mix of song by Oxbow included on reissues of album Let Me Be a Woman (1995)[19]
  • Pussycat Fever (1995)
  • Dust. Essays (1995)
  • Pussy, King of the Pirates (1996)
  • Bodies of Work : Essays (1997)
  • Portrait of an Eye: Three Novels (Reprinted 1998)
  • Redoing Childhood (2000) spoken word CD, KRS 349.
  • Rip-Off Red, Girl Detective (pub. 2002 from manuscript of 1973)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Guide to the Kathy Acker Notebooks, 1968-1974". Fales Library and Special Collections. New York University. Retrieved 12 August 2017. 
  2. ^ "Kathy Acker, Novelist and Performance Artist, 53". The New York Times. December 3, 1997. Retrieved August 5, 2017. 
  3. ^ Wynne-Jones, Ros (13 September 1997). "Interview: Kathy Acker: Written on the Body". The Independent UK. Retrieved 12 August 2017. 
  4. ^ Kraus, Chris (August 11, 2017). ""Cancer Became My Whole Brain": Kathy Acker's Final Year". The New Yorker. Retrieved 12 August 2017. 
  5. ^ Kathy Acker (18 January 1997). "The gift of disease". The Guardian (original publisher, posted on Outward from Nothingness). Retrieved 27 September 2017. 
  6. ^ Crispin, Jessa (October 2006). "An interview with Neil Gaiman". bookslut.com. Bookslut. Retrieved August 4, 2017. 
  7. ^ Kraus, Chris (2017). After Kathy Acker. Cambridge: MIT Press. ISBN 9781635900064. Retrieved 12 August 2017. 
  8. ^ Staff writer (October 1996). "Brief in English: Kathy Acker in Helsinki". Ylioppilaslehti (student magazine). Finland: University of Helsinki, Student Union. 
  9. ^ Acker, Kathy (1992). Portrait of an eye: three novels. New York: Pantheon Books. pp. 1 and back cover. ISBN 9780679740230. 
  10. ^ Stevenson, Jack (October 31, 2010). "Haunted Cinema: Movie Theatres of the Dead". Bright Lights Film Journal. 70. 
  11. ^ Acker, Kathy; Leatherdale, Marcus (1983). Marcus Leatherdale: His photographs – a book in a series on people and years. Vienna, Austria: Molotov. ISBN 9783950370317. OCLC 719286533. 
  12. ^ "Press release – Discipline and Anarchy: The Works of Kathy Acker". NYU News (student newspaper). New York University, Office of Public Affairs. October 31, 2002. Archived from the original on March 1, 2010. 
  13. ^ Stevens, Andrew (December 28, 2007). "Looking back at Kathy Acker". The Guardian, (Books blog). London. 
  14. ^ "Amandla Publishing: Kathy Acker". Amandla. Retrieved 12 October 2017. 
  15. ^ Crawford, Ashley. "Kathy Acker & McKenzie Wark review: Their emails are fascinating and ghoulish". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved August 4, 2017. 
  16. ^ https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/aug/31/after-kathy-acker-by-chris-kraus-review
  17. ^ https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/sep/04/after-kathy-acker-a-biography-chris-kraus-review
  18. ^ https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2017/08/after-kathy-acker-life-and-death-taboo-breaking-punk-writer
  19. ^ Wenner, Niko (March 2009). "About "Acker Sound/Read All Over" (blog)". myspace.com/nikowenner/blog. Myspace. Archived from the original on 2012-11-30. 

Further reading[edit]

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