She liked S&M and she was a submissive. She’d go to the gym and shock the urban professionals by displaying her bruises. One lover, a married journalist with the German weekly Der Spiegel, would “force” Acker to orgasm by staring at her from across a hotel lobby.
For Acker, the place was always here; the time was always now. She’d put her beeper in her vagina and have her lover call. She’d write while masturbating and advised her students to do the same. One friend said that, during sex, she’d bark like a dog. She kept dozens of stuffed animals; these had to be swept away before one could sleep with her.
She was mercurial; she left unexpected abrasions, and a lot of people behind. She could retract her emotions in a heartbeat, and her abandoned friends felt like frogs run over by a lawn mower. She wanted to be beyond anyone’s power to wound, but she never quite got there.
Acker’s lovers would notice, as did she, that she had a lot of moles and masses on her body. She named one of these Mike and didn’t worry about it. “Mike” turned out to be malignant.
Acker had long been into past-life regression and tarot card readings, and she dedicated one of her books to her astrologer. Perhaps predictably, she refused chemo. She went the alternative route and died at a holistic clinic in Tijuana in 1997. Had she lived, she would be 75, the same age as Paul Auster and Stephen King.
Twenty-five years after her death, Acker is having a resurgence. Several of her books have recently been reissued as Penguin Classics, fulfilling one of her dreams. Olivia Laing’s 2018 novel “Crudo” played with Acker’s life and techniques. She has inspired a billion words of commentary. The scholarly debris is vast.
McBride’s book follows Chris Kraus’s 2017 biography, “After Kathy Acker.” Kraus is a powerfully original writer, and her book is quirkier. She knew Acker, for good and ill, and there is a jousting sense of rivalry. McBride is more dispassionate.
Acker would have probably scorned both books. In “Blood and Guts in High School” (1984), she wrote:
Don’t get into the writer’s personal life thinking if you like the books you’ll like the writer. A writer’s personal life is horrible and lonely. Writers are queer so keep away from them.
EAT YOUR MIND: The Radical Life and Work of Kathy Acker, by Jason McBride | Illustrated | 390 pp. | Simon & Schuster | $29.99
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