Kathy Acker - Biography
Kathy Acker (1947-1997) was a literary terrorist. She was a novelist, performance artist, playwright and essayist. Kathy Acker is known for her postmodern, experimental, and sex-positive feminism. Her radical and at times seemingly anarchic aesthetic stances made Kathy Acker a Punk icon.
On April 18, 1947 (or according to the Library of Congress 1948 and her obituaries 1944), Kathy Acker was born Karen Lehmann. Her parents, Donald and Claire Lehmann, were wealthy and Jewish. The couple did not expect the pregnancy, and Donald Lehmann left his family before Kathy Acker’s birth. Kathy Acker’s early life in New York’s Upper East Side was dominated by her strong-willed mother. Her mother remarried a man who has been characterized as passionless and ineffectual. Although the family was returned to a degree of respectability, Kathy Acker was raised in a household where she felt neither loved nor wanted.
As a daughter of a Jewish family with upper-middle class standing, Kathy Acker was expected to behave in a demure and polite way. As a way of trying to free herself from the stifling atmosphere, Kathy Acker explored her interest in pirates. She desired to be a pirate, but according to the logic of childhood, she knew that only men could become pirates. It was through researching pirates that she found a way to escape from her restrictive environment. Questions of the limitations of her gender suffused this research, Kathy Acker began to see textual pleasure as being analogous to sensual pleasure.
In her youth, Kathy Acker was officially known as Karen Lehman. The name she is known by was arrived at in a simple manner. Kathy was her nickname, and Acker was the surname of the first man she married. However, this fluidity of names (a phenomena that is not unique among women) represents the type of disjunctive and boundary blurring features that Acker investigated throughout her writing. Although Kathy Acker married twice, her bisexuality was widely known.
At Brandeis University, Kathy Acker pursued an undergraduate education in classics. She would later move to San Diego, California, in order to continue her studies. She would graduate from the University of California with her bachelor’s degree in 1968. She studied with Jerome Rothenberg and David Antin. Later she would study Classical Greek at the City University of New York. She abandoned the program before receiving a degree.
Her first published writings emerged from the Underground New York Literary scene in the 1970s. These early writings were marked by her experiences as a stripper. But her other influences included David Antin, Gilles Deleuze, William S. Burroughs, the Black Mountain School (especially the poets Charles Olson and Jackson Mac Low), Fluxus, French critical philosophy and French feminism. The extreme nature of her writing and poetics placed outside of the very limited and intellectually myopic world of mainstream American literature. Her work was embraced by small presses. These presses sought to create new modes of thought and understanding. Some of the presses to embrace the work of Acker include RE/Search, Rapid Eye, and Angel Exhaust. Many of her books have been kept in circulation by her association with the grand-dame of cutting edge presses, Grove. Towards the end of her life, the mainstream co-opted her writing and intellectual ability which provided Acker financial opportunity. In one particularly fascinating convergence, The Guardian newspaper had Kathy Acker interview the Spice Girls.
Kathy Acker was interested in writing as a performative act. To accomplish her goals, she blurred the boundaries of creation and plagiarism. She mixed autobiography and pornography through cut-up techniques. These methods resulted in the exploration of the instability in the female development of identity. She also used parallel characters in her novels and attacked the language using unconventional syntax. Her In Memoriam to Identity explores the resonances between the life of the poet Arthur Rimbaud and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. She strains the construction of literary and social identity in this transgressive novel. Her work has been compared to that of Jean Genet and Alain Robbe-Grillet for her combination of biographical, sexual, violent and power motifs. Acker often constructed her experimental work in a manner similar to William S. Burroughs cut-up method. Aleatory processes were central to her work.
Her reputation is highly contested because of her manipulation of existing texts. Many see her manipulations as a skillful while others accuse her of straightforward plagiarism. Feminist scholars have also had trouble in addressing her work. Some view her use of violence as a way of exposing the sexual exploitation of women in Capitalism. Others argue that Kathy Acker is just operating in such a way as to support the inherent misogyny of Western culture.
In 1972, Kathy Acker’s first book, Politics was published. This collection of essays and poems was ignored by critics and the public. However, the punk rock community of New York embraced this work. It made her a fixture. In the following two years, she published her first novels The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula: Some Lives of Murderesses and I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining.
She was awarded the Pushcart Prize for her work of short fiction “New York City in 1979” in (coincidentally) 1979. After the seventies ended, she spent the early eighties in London, and it was here that she wrote some of her most critically significant works. In 1984, her novel Blood and Guts in High School was released in England.
Many consider Blood and Guts in High School to be the work in which Kathy Acker establishes herself as a significant writer. As in many of her works, Kathy Acker explores sex and violence in this work. The sex and violence in this work is considered by many to be the most extreme in Kathy Acker’s oeuvre. The story revolves around the nymphomaniac Janey Smith. This character is incestuously in love with her father and then sold into sexual slavery. In this work, Acker riffed of the great American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Germany banned Blood and Guts in High School for the extremity of its content. Kathy Acker would exhort some small revenge on the weak-stomached German judiciary by publishing the judgment in her book Hannibal Lecter, My Father.
When she returned to the United States, the San Francisco Art Institute employed Kathy Acker as an adjunct professor. After this, Kathy Acker found employment at many institutions of higher education including the University of California-San Diego, the University of California-Santa Barbara, the California Institute of Arts, the University of Idaho and Roanoke College.
Doctors diagnosed Kathy Acker with breast cancer in the spring of 1996. They performed a double mastectomy. The invasive procedures that Acker was subjected to shattered her belief in conventional medicine. She wrote “The Gift of Disease” for the The Guardian. In this work, she explains how the mutilation of her treatment caused her to reject the passivity that normal patients were expected to possess. Acker sought treatment and knowledge from alternative healers including herbalists, acupuncturists, psychics, and nutritionist. She argued for a disease paradigm in which the illness was a teacher and the ill were learners. Kathy Acker died within eighteen months of the beginning of her quest for alternate treatments. Her last days were spent in a cancer clinic in Tijuana, Mexico.