The avant-garde writer Kathy Acker liked to say that she wasn’t one person but many. “I’m sure there are tons of Kathy Ackers,” she told an interviewer late in her career. A quick study of her life bears this out. She was the disappointing Karen Alexander, a self-described “good little girl” who didn’t dare challenge her parents until she was in her teens. She was the intimidating woman at the loft party, with “harsh makeup and amazing punk hair,” who nonetheless struck perceptive observers as “fragile” and “childlike.” She was a sex worker, an office temp, a college instructor, and one of the most famous writers on the London scene. Later in life, she was something of a feminist icon, a muscle-bound motorcycle rider who enjoyed being photographed topless, the better to flaunt her tattoos.
Acker made this multiplicity—what she sometimes called her “schizophrenic” quality—the main subject of her transgressive, at times alienating fiction. In fourteen novels, sundry short stories, and one essay collection, she took aim at villains large and small: neglectful parents, abusive boyfriends, hard-driving bosses, Nixon, Reagan, and capitalism itself. Influenced by the conceptual artists of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, and determined to exploit the revolutionary potential of literary language, she dispensed with the conventions of fiction (consistent characterization, intelligible plots) and replaced them with stolen texts, shape-shifting protagonists, explicit sex scenes, and hand-drawn maps of her dreams. The goal was to break through the repressive political structures that confined people to one name, one gender, one socially determined fate. Her fiction asked not “Who am I?” but, rather, in a more philosophical key, what it meant to have an “I”—or several.
These days, it’s become a truism to say that the self is socially constructed. But Acker was an early adopter of this axiom, a writer who not only intuitively grasped the self’s mutability but took it as her creed. Uncertain about who she was, and indignant at the idea that she should have to stay fixed, she was always ready to leave a given city, or a given relationship, and find herself somewhere new. As a result, she appeared to friends and acquaintances as contradictory, unknowable. “Kathy’s whole persona depended on an endless series of reflecting, fictive personas, like a hall of mirrors,” the artist Martha Rosler said. The scholar McKenzie Wark, who had an affair with Acker in the mid-nineties, echoed Acker’s own words: “There are only Ackers in the plural.”
In a new biography, “Eat Your Mind: The Radical Life and Work of Kathy Acker” (Simon & Schuster), Jason McBride writes that Acker was “governed by, and thrived on, contradiction.” In this brisk, lively book, we learn that Acker was skeptical of autobiography yet drew repeatedly from her own life; felt liberated by the literary canon but also trapped by it; desperately needed people yet often pushed them away. McBride, who has thoroughly researched his subject’s life, doesn’t aim to resolve these contradictions, explaining that Acker “didn’t seek to be solved.” Fair enough. But biography, at its best, offers not just a portrait but a theory of its subject. We can’t help but wonder why Acker was so resistant to the idea of a stable self, and what this fear meant for her life and her work.
Luckily, Acker’s fiction gives us plenty of clues. Populated by orphans, prostitutes, sailors, and pirates, her novels are about people in miserable circumstances who have no choice but to change. They run away; they abandon old loves; they transform from one thing into another. In her most optimistic work, such as “Pussy, King of the Pirates” (1996), her last novel, such misfits band together and find ways to survive in a cruel world. But in many of her books a runaway escapes from one torture chamber only to find that another awaits: she leaves a bad relationship and ends up in sexual slavery, or she is freed from a callous family only to end up with an abusive man. “I ran away from pain,” the narrator of Acker’s 1982 novel, “Great Expectations,” says. And yet the narrator knows that “the only anguish comes from running away.” If Acker’s life and work offer a lesson in how to slip the confines of a fixed identity, they also serve as a warning about what might happen if one succeeds.
“I tried to run away from the pain named childhood,” Acker writes in “My Mother: Demonology,” her 1993 novel. By all accounts, the pain began before Acker was even born. Her mother, Claire, the beautiful child of a well-off Jewish family, became pregnant after a brief romance; the father left before she gave birth. Claire met, then swiftly married, Albert (Bud) Alexander, a gentle if unimpressive man who agreed to treat the child as his own. Acker was born in Manhattan on April 18, 1947; she was named Karen, for Bud’s sister, a name Claire disliked and refused to use, calling her daughter Kathy instead. Shortly after the delivery, Claire was diagnosed with appendicitis—one last bit of trauma in the Acker origin story.
Acker learned this part of her history only as a teen-ager, and she obsessively returned to it in her fiction. “Before I was born, my mother hated me because my father left her (because she got pregnant?) and because my mother wanted to remain her mother’s child rather than be my mother,” she writes in “Great Expectations,” which functions as an elegy for Claire, who died by suicide in 1978. “My image of my mother is the source of my creativity.”
Claire shaped her daughter’s childhood as well as her fiction. She was intelligent but undereducated, scornful of her dim-witted husband, and discontented with her life as a Sutton Place matron and the mother of two girls. As Acker remembered it, her mother vented her frustration on her bookish elder daughter, encouraging her to be less intellectual, less emotional, more like everyone else. But at the Lenox School, a private school for girls on the Upper East Side, Acker stood out among her moneyed, Waspy classmates. She was unattractive, according to her peers; unkempt, unfriendly. She also started having sex early and bragged about it like an adolescent boy. When she skipped a rehearsal for a débutante ball to meet up with an older boyfriend, her mother slapped her across the face and called her a whore. “My parents were like monsters to me,” Acker recalled in a 1997 interview. “The only time I could have any freedom or joy was when I was alone in my room,” writing.
She would find another kind of freedom in a peripatetic writer’s life, one that would run up and down both coasts and, in time, take her around the world. This life began at Brandeis, a college teeming with beatniks and aspiring intellectuals, where Acker matriculated in the fall of 1964. She studied classics—the field would influence her fiction, primarily by giving her an aesthetic theory to challenge—and took advantage of loosened mores, attending orgies thrown by theatre kids. Eventually, she settled into a relationship with a history major named Bob Acker. The two married and moved to San Diego, where Bob began graduate study at the University of California while Acker finished her degree. She wasn’t charmed by their new home. As she later wrote, “Sunny California is totally boring; there are too many blond-assed surf jocks.”
But it was in San Diego that Acker encountered two of her most formative influences: the poet David Antin and his wife, Eleanor, a conceptual artist. Elly was exploring the “transformational nature of the self” through unconventional methods of portraiture. David, meanwhile, taught his poetry students a controversial approach to composition: he encouraged them to go to the library, find books on topics that interested them, and “steal” their contents. Then they would put together pieces of different works, “like a film,” or “like a car collision on I-5.” Within weeks, his students were creating “wonderfully quick, shifting beautiful things, like racecar drivers shifting gears.” This method—which Acker first called “appropriation” and later, more provocatively, “plagiarism”—would come to define her career.
If the Antins supplied Acker with the form for her early fiction, her years in New York—where she moved in 1970, leaving Bob behind—supplied her with the content. Estranged from her family, and looking for a way to pay the bills that didn’t interfere with her writing time, Acker and her then boyfriend found work in the sex industry. They started by acting in pornographic films, then switched to performing in a live sex show in Times Square. The money was good—twenty dollars a show—but Acker was ambivalent about the experience. According to her, the show gave her “street politics”; that is, a “bottom up” way of understanding “power relationships in society.” In “The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula,” her breakthrough work, which she self-published in installments in 1973, Acker offered an extended description of the show: