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Kathy Acker in her own words
Photo by Kathy Brew; excerpt from Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker, 1978, courtesy the estate of Kathy Acker

Kathy Acker in her own words

As London’s ICA hosts the first UK exhibition dedicated to the countercultural icon, we draw on a handful of her own quotes to explore her life, work, and captivating legacy

As I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy Acker opens at the ICA in London, we expand on our spring/summer issue project with a day dedicated to exploring the writer’s sometimes complicated legacy: from the artists who were influenced by her, to a retelling of her life through her own words.

Kathy Acker had a penchant for bending the truth. Conflicting stories of her age, controversies, and even her death continue to surround the experimental writer – a fitting legacy for someone who lived their life through the malleable twists and turns of language.

A free-spirited punk drawn to the idiosyncratic, Acker is just as renowned for the construction of her own identity – something she consistently grappled with in her work – as she is for her explicit, disjointed writing. Rising to notoriety as part of New York’s literary underground in the mid-70s before achieving cultural acclaim in London, Acker stood out from her contemporaries as an anarchic force uniting pop culture and the world of literature.

Provocatively breaking taboos and unpicking the gruesome complexities of sexuality and power, Acker was a writer like no other. As London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) launches I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy Acker, a new exhibition delving into her written, spoken, and performed work, we walk you through Acker’s riotous life, as told by the writer herself.

“At a deep level my mother couldn’t stand me”

Kathy Acker was born in New York in 1947 (though many obituaries incorrectly state her year of birth as 1944), to Donald and Clare Lehman. Three months into the unplanned pregnancy, Acker’s father abandoned the family, igniting the subsequently tumultuous relationship between Acker and her mother, as Clare always blamed her daughter for Donald’s leaving. Though her mother quickly remarried – Acker was given her stepfather Albert Alexander’s name, as he appears on the birth certificate – Acker regarded their relationship as passionless, and grew up feeling unloved and rejected, particularly by her overbearing mother.

This hostile relationship played a huge role in Acker’s development of a rebellious disposition, and ultimately had an enormous influence on her work. In a 1997 interview with literary magazine io, Acker explained: “They (my parents) were horrible. And I was this good little girl – I didn’t have the guts to oppose them.” Her rigid upbringing and desperation to be free from her parents’ rule undoubtedly influenced her anarchic style of writing, and rejection of traditional literary boundaries.

Despite being estranged from her mother for a large portion of her life, the two had begun rebuilding their relationship four years before Clare committed suicide, when Acker was just 30-years-old. Clare’s death features heavily in Acker’s novels – who once claimed the parts about her mother were the only autobiographical aspects of her books – particularly in My Mother: Demonology (1993), which confronts childhood emotional abuse, and the conflicting desires of wanting to be loved while yearning for solitude.

“One thing I do is stick a vibrator up my cunt and start writing – writing from the point of orgasm and losing control of the language and seeing what that’s like”

Acker studied Classics at Brandeis University near Boston before setting her sights on writing aged 21. Acker was especially “fascinated with the relationship between language and body”, and the role of words in the construction of identity. Explicitly reminding the reader of the inseparability of her body and work, the novelist relentlessly featured disturbing violence and graphic sexual references in her writing, exploring her own experiences of abortion and pelvic inflammatory disease – though Acker once remarked, “I think it’s taboo that fascinates me, and not sexuality per se”. Acker’s 1984 breakthrough novel Blood and Guts in High School – a story of sexual slavery and incest – tackles, in grim detail, emotions which trigger physical reactions, including rejection, sexual desire and torment, and a desperation to be loved. The novel was deemed so macabre that it was banned in Germany and South Africa.

Also considering her own body a work of art, Acker used body building, modification, and her punk aesthetic – becoming iconic for her bleached blonde skinhead, red lipstick, and leather clothing – as a kind of self-curation; a physical extension of her written expression.

“The two things, in a way, were schizophrenia, but a schizophrenia that never tore me apart – though almost did at times”

Though born into a wealthy family, and having attended an all-girls school on the Upper East Side, Acker spent her youth living in deprived areas of New York, and immersing herself in downtown avant-garde culture. Estranged from her parents, and under the advice of poet David Antin – a father-figure to Acker – she dropped out of school to focus all her efforts on writing, remarking in a 1989 interview, “I’ve seen too many English departments destroy people’s delight in reading”. With no money or credentials, Acker ended up working in a sex show in Times Square, and writing in her free time. The above quote, taken from a 1986 interview, reveals the disparity she felt in her life at the time (early 1970s), while exemplifying her resilience in the face of struggle.

Considered the only job she ever had outside of writing, Acker regarded stripping as “a real art unto itself”, with her experiences at the sex show providing (often sinister) material for future books, giving her new insight into gender and power. Given Acker’s crude fascination with sex, and her staunch belief that the body and language are inextricably intertwined, it’s unsurprising that sex work acted as an inspiration for the writer – a method of awakening creativity through the connection of body and mind.

“To survive in New York is to be a little like those hamsters on a wheel, the wheel turns faster and faster”

Though embedded in the burgeoning punk scene of 1980s New York, Acker urged to escape, feeling her life “was never going to change” if she remained in the city. Imbursed with her grandmother’s inheritance money, Acker moved to London in 1981 and quickly became an underground idol. As her biographer Chris Kraus wrote in The Guardian last year, Acker’s writing “spoke powerfully to a disillusioned post-punk generation in Thatcher’s Britain”, while her brash American attitude and glamorous looks made her an instant celebrity. “In England, the media has made this huge image of Kathy Acker,” the writer once complained, “I’m very well known here and I get tons of work. But to say they like what I do? No, I wouldn’t say that. They fetishise what I do.”

Acker felt detached and alone in London, despite her newfound fame and the success of Blood and Guts in High School, and as the years went on the British literati began to dismiss her work, maintaining her iconoclastic reputation as a figurehead of underground culture, rather than giving her writing recognition.

“All that matters is work and work must be created, and can’t be created in isolation”

Acker is renowned for her cut and paste style of working, consistently borrowing from other authors and poets, and incorporating snippets into her books. Once declaring “I have about a hundred cats living in me and all of them are curious”, Acker was fascinated by work she didn’t understand, copying scenes in an attempt to make sense of them. Instead of copying directly, Acker would inject erotic scenes and lewd, violent language, regarding her books as textual collages. The writer’s work – heavily influenced by William S. Burroughs – centred on form rather than context, using disruptive structures to interrupt the flow of narrative; this is exemplified in her first book Politics (1972) which jumbled scenes and locations, lacked proper grammar, and interspersed prose pieces with poetry – also trademarks of her future works.

The line between Acker’s cut-up experimentation and perceived plagiarism came to a head in 1989. The writer was forced to issue a public apology – though no such apology can be traced today – to author Harold Robbins after a 2000-word section of his 1974 novel The Pirate was found in a republished edition of Acker’s early works. Following the scandal, Acker wrote that she “understood that she had lost… more than a struggle about the appropriation of four pages”, but had “lost her belief that there can be art in this culture”. The above quote demonstrates Acker’s view that language transcends initial intent, and that meaning can be contorted and changed depending on the speaker.

“I am the one who must heal in order to be healed”

In April 1996 Kathy Acker was diagnosed with breast cancer – the illness that would ultimately end her life. Following a double mastectomy which led to Acker writing in The Guardian, “As I walked out of his office, I realised that if I remained in the hands of conventional medicine, I would soon be dead, rather than diseased, meat”, the novelist refused chemotherapy and instead put her faith in alternative medicine. Though an arguably fitting decision based on her disobedient inclination, Acker’s friends were distraught by her decision, which they deemed a death sentence.

Acker’s quote above refers to the teachings of her healers, who instilled in the writer the idea that recovery begins with the mind. The quote also holds significance in Acker’s work, and her internal turmoil over her childhood and failed relationships, suggesting she never truly felt harmony inside. This idea is mirrored in Blood and Guts in High School; though written years before her diagnosis, it acts as a devastating premonition for Acker’s battle with cancer, with protagonist Janey contracting the disease. In the novel, Acker compares cancer to having a baby – as if you can only have one or the other – writing: “It eats you, and, gradually, you learn, as all good mothers learn, to love yourself”. 

“I’m what happens after death, which is writing”

Kathy Acker died on November 30 1997 in an alternative cancer treatment in Mexico. Having isolated numerous friends, and with many of her later works disregarded by the literary establishment, a benefit fund for her treatment raised less than $2500. Acker’s battle with cancer wasn’t something she drafted into the myth of her life, writing: “I was being reduced to something I couldn’t recognise”. Losing control over the construction of her own narrative was terrifying to Acker, who spent her entire career maintaining power through the deliberate confusion of her reader. Writing in The Guardian, Acker referenced her desperation for explanation and reason: “To die without any idea why… my death – and so my life – would be meaningless”.

As the quote above asserts, Acker’s writing has lived on long after her death. Today, her work is just as radical as ever – shocking, rambunctious, and utterly inimitable, much like the writer herself. 

Aptly, Acker’s final moments were spent in ‘Room 101’, a reference from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four which depicts a fictional torture chamber where prisoners are subjected to their worst fears. As writer Alan Moore said: “There’s nothing that woman can’t turn into a literary reference”.

I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy Acker, supported by NOWNESS, is on at London’s ICA May 1 – August 4 2019