Kathy Acker

American novelist, playwright, essayist, and poet

Encyclopedia from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Kathy Acker
Acker in 1996
Acker in 1996
BornKaren Lehman[1]
(1947-04-18)April 18, 1947[1][2]
New York City, New York, U.S.
DiedNovember 30, 1997(1997-11-30) (aged 50)
Tijuana, Mexico
OccupationNovelist, playwright, essayist, poet
CitizenshipUnited States
Notable worksBlood and Guts in High School (novel)
Great Expectations
New York (short story)
Notable awardsPushcart Prize (1979)
SpouseRobert Acker (1966–?)
Peter Gordon (1976; annulled)

Kathy Acker (April 18, 1947[1][3] – November 30, 1997) was an American experimental novelist, playwright, essayist, and postmodernist writer known for her idiosyncratic and transgressive writing. She was influenced by the Black Mountain School poets, William S. Burroughs, David Antin, French critical theory, Carolee Schneeman, Eleanor Antin, and by philosophy, mysticism, and pornography,[4] as well as classic literature.


The sole biological daughter of Donald and Claire (née Weill) Lehman, Kathy Acker was born Karen Lehman in New York City, in 1947,[5][6] although the Library of Congress gives her birth year as 1948, while The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica gave her birth year as April 18, 1948, New York, New York, U.S. and died Nov. 30, 1997, Tijuana, Mexico.)[7] and most obituaries, including The New York Times, cited the year as 1944.[8] Her family was from a wealthy, assimilated, German-Jewish background that was culturally, but not religiously Jewish. Her paternal grandmother, Florence Weill, was an Austrian Jew who had inherited a small fortune from the glove-making business.[9] Acker's grandparents went into political exile from Alsace-Lorraine prior to World War I due to the rising nationalism of pre-Nazi Germany, moving to Paris and then to the United States. According to Acker, her grandparents were "first generation French-German Jews" whose ancestors originally hailed from the Pale of Settlement. In an interview with the magazine Tattoo Jew, Acker stated that religious Judaism "means nothing to me. I don't run away from it, it just means nothing to me" and elaborated that her parents were "high-German Jews" who held cultural prejudices against Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews ("I was trained to run away from Polish Jews.").[10]

The pregnancy was unplanned; Donald Lehman abandoned the family before Karen's birth. Her stepfather's name, Albert Alexander, appears on the birth certificate but not on the April 18, 1947, registry of births in NYC (New York, New York, Birth Index, 1910-1965), which clearly states Karen Lehman.[1] 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, to Albert Alexander, whose surname Kathy was given, although the writer later described her mother's union with Alexander as a passionless marriage to an ineffectual man. Karen (later Kathy) had a half-sister, Wendy, by her mother's second marriage, but the two women were never close and long estranged. By the time of Kathy's death, she had requested that her friends not contact Wendy, as some had suggested.[11] Acker was raised in her mother and stepfather's home on New York's prosperous Upper East Side. In 1978, Claire Alexander, Karen's mother, committed suicide.[12][13] As an adult, Acker tried to track down her father, but abandoned her search after she discovered that her father had killed a trespasser on his yacht and spent six months in a psychiatric asylum until the state excused him of murder charges.[14]

In 1966, she married Robert Acker, and took his surname. Robert Acker was the son of lower-middle-class Polish-Jewish immigrants. Kathy's parents had held hopes that their daughter would marry a wealthy man and did not expect the marriage to last long.[15] Although her birth name was Karen, she was known as Kathy to her friends and family. Her first work appeared in print as part of the burgeoning New York City literary underground of the mid-1970s.

During the 1970s Acker 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.[16] Later, she had relationships with the theorist, publisher, and critic Sylvère Lotringer and then with the filmmaker and film theorist Peter Wollen.

In 1996, Acker left San Francisco and moved to London to live with the writer and music critic Charles Shaar Murray.[5]

She married twice. Although 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.[17]

Health and death

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".[18]

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, on November 30, 1997, aged 50, from complications of cancer in a Tijuana, Mexico alternative cancer clinic, the only alternative-treatment facility that accepted her with her advanced stage of cancer.[5] She died in what was called "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 Nineteen Eighty-Four, is the basement torture chamber in which the Party attempts to subject a prisoner to his or her own worst fears.)[19]


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, Eleanor 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.[4]

Literary overview

Acker was associated with the New York punk movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The punk aesthetic influenced her literary style.[20]

In the 1970s, before the term "postmodernism" was popular, Acker began writing her books. These books contain features that would eventually be considered postmodernist work.[21] Her 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.[22]

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.[23] She 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 (under the pseudonym Black Tarantula), The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula: Some Lives of Murderesses. The following year she published her second novel, I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining. Both works are reprinted in Portrait of an Eye.[24]

In 1979, she 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 an obvious re-writing of Charles Dickens's work of the same name. It features her 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.[22] She appropriated from a number of influential writers. These writers include Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Keats, William Faulkner, T.S Eliot, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Marquis de Sade, Georges Bataille, and Arthur Rimbaud.[25]

Acker wrote the script for the 1983 film Variety.[26] Acker wrote a text on the photographer Marcus Leatherdale that was published in 1983, in an art catalogue for the Molotov Gallery in Vienna.[27]

In 1984, Acker's first British publication, the novel Blood and Guts in High School was published soon after its publication by Grove Press in New York.[28]

That same year, she was signed by Grove Press, one of the legendary independent publishers committed to controversial and avant-garde writing; she was one of the last writers taken on by Barney Rosset before the end of his tenure there. Most of her work was published by them, including re-issues of important earlier work. She 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.[4]

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. Although 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.[22]

Notwithstanding 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. In 1988, she published Literal Madness: Three Novels, which included three previously published works: Florida deconstructs and reduces John Huston's 1948 film noir 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 1990–93, 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, was published in 1996,[29] which she, Rico Bell, and the rest of the Mekons - the rock band - also reworked into an operetta, which they performed at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, in 1997.[30]

In 2007, Amandla Publishing re-published Acker's articles that she wrote for the New Statesman from 1989–91.[31] Grove Press published two unpublished early novellas in the volume Rip-Off Red, Girl Detective and The Burning Bombing of America, and a collection of selected work, Essential Acker, edited by Amy Scholder and Dennis Cooper in 2002.[32][33]

Three volumes of her non-fiction have been published and re-published since her death. In 2002, New York University staged Discipline and Anarchy, a retrospective exhibition of her works,[34] while in 2008 London's Institute of Contemporary Arts screened an evening of films influenced by Acker.[35]

Posthumous reputation

A collection of essays on Acker's work, titled Lust for Life: On the Writings of Kathy Acker, edited by Carla Harryman, Avital Ronell, and Amy Scholder, was published by Verso in 2006 and includes essays by Nayland Blake, Leslie Dick, Robert Glück, Carla Harryman, Laurence Rickels, Avital Ronell, Barrett Watten, and Peter Wollen.[36] In 2009, the first collection of essays to focus on academic study of Acker, Kathy Acker and Transnationalism was published. In 2015, Semiotext(e) published I'm Very Into You, a book of Acker's email correspondence with media theorist McKenzie Wark, edited by Matias Viegener, her executor and head of the Kathy Acker Literary Trust.[37] Her personal library is housed in a reading room at the University of Cologne in Germany, and her papers are divided between NYU's Fales Library and the Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke University. A limited body of her recorded readings and discussions of her works exists in the special collections archive of University of California, San Diego.

In 2013, the Acker Award was launched and named for Kathy Acker. Awarded to living and deceased members of the San Francisco or New York avant-garde art scene, the award is financed by Alan Kaufman and Clayton Patterson.[38]

In 2017, American writer and artist Chris Kraus published After Kathy Acker: A Literary Biography, the first book-length biography of Acker's life experiences and literary strategies.[12][39][40]

In 2018, British writer Olivia Laing published Crudo, a fictional text covered by references to Acker's texts and whose main character is a woman called Kathy, suffering double breast cancer; yet book's events are situated in August–September 2017.[41]

In 2019, Amy Scholder and Douglas A. Martin co-edited Kathy Acker: The Last Interview and Other Conversations.[42]

Published works

  • 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 Hand (1995) – spoken-word guest appearance on alternate mix of song by Oxbow included on reissues of album Let Me Be a Woman[43]
  • Pussycat Fever (1995)
  • Dust. Essays (1995)
  • Pussy, King of the Pirates (1996)
  • Pussy, King of the Pirates (1997, Touch and Go Records) - Acker's operetta, performed & recorded by the Mekons with Kathy Acker
  • Bodies of Work : Essays (1997)
  • Portrait of an Eye: Three Novels (Reprinted 1998)
  • Redoing Childhood (2000) spoken-word recording, KRS 349.
  • Rip-Off Red, Girl Detective (pub. 2002 from manuscript of 1973)
  • Essential Acker: The Selected Writings of Kathy Acker (2002)[44]
  • New York City in 1979 (2018, Penguin Modern)
  • Kathy Acker (1971-1975) (2019, Éditions Ismael, 656p.), ed. Justin Gajoux and Claire Finch, critical edition of unpublished early writings from 1971-1975

See also


  1. ^ a b c d "Ancestry Library Edition". ancestrylibrary.proquest.com.
  2. ^ "The Births and Deaths of Kathy Acker - Literary Hub". lithub.com. November 30, 2017.
  3. ^ "Ancestry Library Edition". search.ancestrylibrary.com.
  4. ^ a b c "Guide to the Kathy Acker Notebooks, 1968-1974". Fales Library and Special Collections. New York University. Retrieved August 12, 2017.
  5. ^ a b c Kraus, Chris (August 11, 2017). "'Cancer Became My Whole Brain': Kathy Acker's Final Year". The New Yorker.
  6. ^ Turner, Jenny (October 19, 2017), "Literary Friction", London Review of Books, 39 (20): 9–14
  7. ^ "Kathy Acker | American author". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved April 30, 2019.
  8. ^ "Kathy Acker, Novelist and Performance Artist, 53". The New York Times. December 3, 1997. Retrieved August 5, 2017.
  9. ^ "Literary Friction". London Review of Books. Retrieved September 7, 2019.
  10. ^ Stratton, Jon (2008). Jewish Identity in Western Pop Culture: The Holocaust and Trauma Through Modernity. New York City: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 97. ISBN 978-1349372614.
  11. ^ Kraus, Chris (2017). After Kathy Acker. Cambridge: MIT Press. ISBN 9781635900064. Retrieved February 6, 2018.
  12. ^ a b Laing, Olivia (August 31, 2017). "After Kathy Acker by Chris Kraus review – sex, art and a life of myths". theguardian.com.
  13. ^ "Kathy Acker: Critical Essays". eNotes.com.
  14. ^ "The Killers". San Francisco State University. Retrieved September 7, 2019.
  15. ^ "Littoral Madness" (PDF). MayDay Rooms. Retrieved July 26, 2020.
  16. ^ Wynne-Jones, Ros (September 13, 1997). "Interview: Kathy Acker: Written on the Body". The Independent. Retrieved August 12, 2017.
  17. ^ Ware, Susan (2004). Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary Completing the Twentieth Century. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-01488-6.
  18. ^ Kathy Acker (January 18, 1997). "The gift of disease". The Guardian (original publisher, posted on Outward from Nothingness). Retrieved September 27, 2017.
  19. ^ Crispin, Jessa (October 2006). "An interview with Neil Gaiman". bookslut.com. Bookslut. Retrieved August 4, 2017.
  20. ^ Kraus, Chris (2017). After Kathy Acker. Cambridge: MIT Press. ISBN 9781635900064. Retrieved August 12, 2017.
  21. ^ McCaffery, Larry, and Kathy Acker. "An Interview with Kathy Acker", Mississippi Review, vol. 20, no. 1/2, 1991, pp. 83–97, jstor.org/stable/20134512.
  22. ^ a b c Kraus, Chris (2017). After Kathy Acker. Cambridge: MIT Press. ISBN 9781635900064. Retrieved January 12, 2018.
  23. ^ Staff (October 1996). "Brief in English: Kathy Acker in Helsinki". Ylioppilaslehti (student magazine). Helsinki, Finland: University of Helsinki.
  24. ^ Acker, Kathy (1997). Portrait of an Eye: Three Novels. New York: Grove Press. ISBN 0802135439. Retrieved January 12, 2018.
  25. ^ Hawkins, Susan E. "All in the Family: Kathy Acker's 'Blood and Guts in High School.'" Contemporary Literature, vol. 45, no. 4, 2004, pp. 637–58, jstor.org/stable/3593544
  26. ^ Stevenson, Jack (October 31, 2010). "Haunted Cinema: Movie Theatres of the Dead". Bright Lights Film Journal. 70. Archived from the original on January 19, 2013.
  27. ^ 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.
  28. ^ Kraus, Chris (November 9, 2017). "Kathy Acker's Blood And Guts in High School". The Paris Review.
  29. ^ "Fiction Book Review: Pussy, King of the Pirates". www.publishersweekly.com. Retrieved January 15, 2020.
  30. ^ Helbig, Jack (September 18, 1997). "Pussy, King of the Pirates". Chicago Reader. Retrieved May 13, 2020.
  31. ^ "Amandla Publishing: Kathy Acker". Amandla. Retrieved October 12, 2017.
  32. ^ Acker, Kathy (2002). Rip-Off Red, Girl Detective and The Burning Bombing of America. New York: Grove Press. ISBN 0802139205. Retrieved January 12, 2018.
  33. ^ Acker, Kathy (2002). Essential Acker. New York: Grove Press. ISBN 0802139213. Retrieved January 12, 2018.
  34. ^ "Press release – Discipline and Anarchy: The Works of Kathy Acker". NYU News (student newspaper). New York University. October 31, 2002. Archived from the original on March 1, 2010.
  35. ^ Stevens, Andrew (December 28, 2007). "Looking back at Kathy Acker". The Guardian. London, UK.
  36. ^ Scholder, Amy (2006). Lust For Life: On the Writings of Kathy Acker. New York: Verso. ISBN 184467066X. Retrieved January 12, 2018.
  37. ^ Crawford, Ashley. "Kathy Acker & McKenzie Wark review: Their emails are fascinating and ghoulish". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved August 4, 2017.
  38. ^ "Honoring L.E.S. avant-garde with first annual Acker Awards | The Villager Newspaper". thevillager.com. May 30, 2013. Retrieved November 9, 2018.
  39. ^ Cooke, Rachel (September 4, 2017). "After Kathy Acker: A Biography by Chris Kraus review – baffling life study". Theguardian.com.
  40. ^ "After Kathy Acker: the life and death of a taboo-breaking punk writer". Newstatesman.com. Retrieved January 12, 2018.
  41. ^ "Crudo". olivialaing.co.uk. Retrieved December 19, 2018.
  42. ^ "Obituary Spirit: On "Kathy Acker: The Last Interview"". Blog.lareviewofbooks.org. Retrieved September 5, 2020.
  43. ^ Wenner, Niko (March 2009). "About "Acker Sound/Read All Over" (blog)". myspace.com/nikowenner/blog. Myspace. Archived from the original on November 30, 2012.
  44. ^ [1][dead link]

Further reading

  • "no one can find little girls any more: Kathy Acker in Australia" (1997). Documentary film by Jonathan and Felicity Dawson. Griffith University, 90 minutes. Footage from this film is included in Who's Afraid of Kathy Acker? A documentary by Barbara Caspar
  • Devouring Institutions: The Life Work of Kathy Acker, ed. Michael Hardin (Hyperbole/San Diego State University Press: 2004). DEVOURING INSTITUTIONS
  • Lust for Life: On the Writings of Kathy Acker, ed. Carla Harryman, Avital Ronell, and Amy Scholder (Verso, 2006)
  • Kathy Acker and Transnationalism, ed. Polina Mackay and Kathryn Nicol (Cambridge Scholars, 2009)
  • I'm Very into You: Correspondence 1995--1996, by Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark, edited by Matias Viegener (Semiotext(e), 2017)
  • After Kathy Acker: A Literary Biography, by Chris Kraus (Semiotext(e), 2017)
  • Pérez, Rolando. "What is Don Quijote/Don Quixote And…And…And the Disjunctive Synthesis of Cervantes and Kathy Acker", Cervantes ilimitado: cuatrocientos años del Quijote. Ed. Nuria Morgado. ALDEEU, 2016. pp. 75–100.

External links

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