Reissue of This Post-Punk Novelist’s Work Puts Her Back in the Countercultural Conversation Where She Belongs
By Mary Karmelek
If the writer Kathy Acker (1944-1997) had an Instagram account, what would she post? I imagine we’d see images of Don Quixote, BDSM, astrology, Jean Genet, the Beat writers, tattoos, Latin poetry, punk rock, weightlifting, post-structural theorists, and female pirates—all things she drew on in her writing. Her Instagram account would be encyclopedic — and only a matter of time before it was removed for violating the rules of decency.
Known for her punk aesthetic and graphic depictions of sex in her writing, Acker loved to push boundaries and question tradition. Sadly, she died 20 years ago, just as the internet began infiltrating the most intimate and mundane parts of our everyday lives. A writer hailed as an icon of the counterculture, Acker redefined first-person narrative in the wake of second-wave feminism and post-punk New York. While the 60s saw hippies talk about free love and women demand liberation from patriarchy, Acker explored what the hell these rallying cries actually meant—in theory and in practice.
In her brief 53 years, she recorded an album with the Mekons, palled around with William Burroughs and became a favorite photography subject for Robert Mapplethorpe. Yet despite her prominence thirty years ago, Kathy Acker is seldom spoken of now—even though many writers are indebted to her style and technique. As Chris Kraus acknowledges in her recent biography After Kathy Acker, “…critics of all kinds have embraced discursive first-person fiction in the last years as if it were a new, post-internet genre. These contemporary texts owe a great debt to the candor and formal inventiveness of Acker’s work and the work of her peers and progenitors.”
At a time when women are bravely coming forward to share tales of abuse and harassment while simultaneously having to fight for control of our own bodies from the law, when sexuality is being both censored and exploited on the global stage of the internet, the question is, why aren’t we talking about Kathy Acker?
Grove Press has just reissued a new edition of Acker’s novel, Blood and Guts in High School which may restart that conversation gives a whole new generation of readers the chance to be shocked, awed, and inspired. Featuring an introduction by Kraus, this reissue is as timely as when Acker published the novel, widely considered her best work, in 1984.
Blood and Guts in High School follows Janey Smith as she breaks up a sexual relationship with her “father” in Mexico, joins a gang in New York, gets sold into prostitution, and finally lands in the Middle East where she wanders the desert with Jean Genet before dying and being reborn. But, of course, the narrative is not as linear as any summary may make it seem. It’s cut up with drawings from Acker’s dreams, a section of Persian poetry, scenes of rape, abortion, and assault, and scenes from Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
The New York Times review called the novel “abusive toward women” for its graphic depictions of sexual violence, and while these scenes may be uncomfortable to read for some, it’s more likely that the discomfort comes from having to confront the idea that these types of abuse exist, often right in front of us. Acker aimed to make readers question all of their pre-existing notions of normalcy. For many, especially women, it was the first time they experienced an author or a protagonist speak this way—about themselves, about others, about family, lovers, sickness, dreams, desires, and fears. It was inspiring, and for many, healing.
Kathy Acker was born Karen Lehman in 1944-ish (the exact year, like many details from her life, is foggy) to an upper-middle class New York Jewish family. She never met her biological father, Donald Lehman, who left her mother, Claire, while she was pregnant. As a child, Kathy felt neglected and themes of an absent father and careless mother fill her work. She attended an all-girls private school on the Upper East Side but started immersing herself in the downtown punk scene in high school. She went on to study classics at Brandeis University but left after her sophomore year to marry Bob Acker, a Brandeis senior who planned on pursuing grad school in San Diego. Though they soon drifted apart (Kathy’s sexual voracity was never suited to a traditional monogamous relationship), it was here that Acker’s writing life began to take shape under the tutelage of poet David Antin, whose classes she sat in on at the University of California-San Diego.
From Antin, she learned the technique of “appropriation”—essentially taking pieces from other texts and using them, sometimes word for word, to draw connections between seemingly contrary sources. It appealed to Acker, who was an avid reader of classic literature but couldn’t rectify the language and narrative of these texts with her personal feelings and experiences. If literature was supposed to be a roadmap to self-discovery, it led nowhere Acker and many of her peers wanted to go. In fact, most of it, in her opinion, led to a dead end. But by bringing together seemingly disparate sources like French philosophy, dime store pornography, Shakespeare, and her own diary entries, Acker aimed to write texts that offered infinite ways of reading and spoke to the idea that identity is never static.
During the early 1970s, Acker moved back and forth between New York and California.
Like any aspiring artist, Acker knew she needed to eschew the traditional 9-to-5 employment in order to focus on her craft. But also like any aspiring artist, she needed money. Sex permeates her work, and Acker was fascinated by the power dynamics that arose with the intersection of sex, language and politics. So it’s not surprising that when an opportunity to participate in a weekly live sex show presented itself, she took the job. Performing one day per week provided enough funds for seven days and plenty of source material—including the disgusting feeling of being objectified by the male gaze. It was also during this time that she was diagnosed with PID (pelvic inflammatory disease), a painful and chronic condition that made intercourse excruciating. She would insist that in order to afford medication for the condition, she had to do sex work, and the cyclic conundrum would appear throughout her work as a demon constantly on her heels.
While in New York, she began to spend time at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, seeing Patti Smith perform there in 1971. A few months later, Acker would read her own work at the legendary venue, but she began to feel that her work was more suited to prose than poetry. She went back to San Diego in 1972 and began a series of writing experiments in which she sought to tap into the freedom and innocence of the child’s mind in order to access pure sensory experience and unadulterated wonderment—a sort of drug-free acid trip. The pieces would later become part of her serialized novel, The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula.
Acker continued her practice of repurposing texts throughout the 70s, and found herself more at home in New York’s downtown art scene, garnering the admiration of the avant-garde. Many visual artists, including David Salle and Barbara Kruger, practiced the same “appropriation” of images in their work as Acker used in her writing, and they all believed in mixing forms of high and low culture to produce works that subverted traditional notions of art.
After tiring of New York, Acker spent time in Europe, giving readings and performing in festivals. She briefly went back to the West Coast but returned to New York after self-publishing her 1982 novel Great Expectations. The novel appeared in many downtown bookshops and cemented Acker’s reputation as a figure of the Lower East Side art scene. Grove Press, which had become synonymous with literary avant-garde, acquired the rights to much of Acker’s work in 1983. They’d previously published the work of writers like Jack Kerouac, Samuel Beckett, and William Burroughs; when they republished Great Expectations that year, Burroughs provided a blurb: “Acker gives her work the power to mirror the reader’s soul.” There’s no doubt that this floored Acker, who considered Burroughs her model and had previously called him “the first writer, the only one who was working politically in the field of language as power. He was questioning language. Everybody else was just thinking about it.”
Here is a clip from an interview that Acker conducted with William Burroughs:
By the 90s, the New York that Acker had known was changing, and while her peers were enjoying mainstream success, she resisted catering to what was considered acceptable prose. In London, she felt that her image—that of a tattooed, pierced, spikey-haired punk Siren—began to overshadow her writing. She moved back to California for a job at the San Francisco Art Institute and found a home in the dyke leather scene, where she no longer felt pressure to prove herself. She continued publishing novels and, though the literary world reacted less than favorably, she won praise from artists and musicians for her genre-crossing productions, including her books My Mother: Demonology, which she recorded as an operatic spoken word album with Tribe 8 and producer Hal Williams, and Pussy, King of the Pirates which was turned into a trash rock opera performed with The Mekons.
In 1996, Acker was diagnosed with breast cancer and received a double mastectomy, but she quickly abandoned traditional Western medicine for alternative healing methods. She had a team of herbalists, acupuncturists, astrologists, and nutritionists that treated her, but it proved futile as the cancer had metastasized throughout her body.
On November 1, 1997—The Day of the Dead—Acker checked into an alternative clinic in Tijuana, Mexico where she died shortly thereafter. She was back in the country where Blood and Guts begins.
Now, twenty years later, it is time for her rebirth.
Trailer for the 2008 documentary film Who’s Afraid of Kathy Acker?