she meant us,
that’s the way she read
–Pam Brown “1995”
“At a certain point, I realized the ‘I’ doesn’t exist. So I said to myself: if the ‘I’ doesn’t exist, I have to construct one, or maybe even more than one,” remarked experimental fiction icon and Filthy Dreams role model Kathy Acker in a 1991 interview with Sylvère Lotringer. True to her statement, Acker’s radical and nearly always raunchy novels and serials from her early The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula to her last Pussy, King of the Pirates work to dually destabilize and multiply identity. Through a singular merging of plagiarism and intensely personal episodes from her own life, Acker, like her canon of pirates, murderesses and criminals, pillages language in order to split apart and stitch together an ever-evolving “I.”
Unsurprisingly, Acker’s life is almost one of fiction itself. With a storied reputation more in line with male writers like her beloved Burroughs, Bataille and Genet than her female contemporaries, Acker, though questioning stable identity in her own writing, solidified an inescapable persona–the leather-bound, shorn-haired, tattooed post-punk biker goddess. Kathy was and will always be a sexy, scary, seminal figure–perhaps more myth than author. And as Chris Kraus deftly showcases in her recently published After Kathy Acker, it’s this myth that both made her and potentially, trapped her and the analysis of her work.
A critic and writer of incredibly personal fiction herself, as seen in her novel I Love Dick, Kraus is perhaps uniquely suited for the role as Acker’s biographer, taking on the task of tackling Kathy’s frequently factually suspect accounts of her experiences–ones veiled in white lies, half-truths and legend. Rather than pinning Acker’s timeline down once and for all, Kraus, instead, embraces Acker’s inconsistencies to make a biography that is, at once, protective of the Acker myth and ready to break it down.
Much of the care Kraus takes with Acker may have to do with her own relation to Acker’s work. As she tells Interview Magazine, “She was a tremendous influence on me. When I first came to New York in the late 1970s, Kathy was very well-known. Her books were everywhere. I even read her early self-published books. I just kind of inhaled them. I felt that she was speaking straight to me. I mean, it was this voice in my head that could’ve been my voice. You know that reading experience?” However, Kraus is no breathless fan girl–she’s willing to be a skeptic, as well as a sympathetic ear.
Namely, Kraus refuses to shy away from some of the more unsavory parts of Acker’s persona. In fact, Acker, on numerous occasions, comes off as completely irritating and exhausting to be around–competitive, jealous and often unconcerned with others surrounding her. And this rhetorical honesty is a good thing–Acker was a complicated woman. She was vulnerable, as described consistently through the book by her friends and colleagues, while also fearless in her writing and pursuit of a career.
After Kathy Acker opens with Acker’s memorial in 1998 after her death in Tijuana. Describing the memorial, Kraus introduces the continued difficulty to pin down a singular truth about anything related to Acker, even her memorial. She begins, “Like everything in the past, everyone remembers it differently, and some of the people involved hardly remember at all. We’re talking about something that happened more than seventeen years ago. But on January 23, 1998, which was a Friday, friends of the late writer Kathy Acker drove from San Francisco to Fort Funston park about twenty-five minutes away, to scatter her ashes” (13).
It’s an apt beginning, guiding readers through the imperfection of memory and an acceptance of these frequent disparities. If you want a straightforward, “Karen Lehmann (Kathy Acker) was born…,” this is not that biography, but that biography could likely never be written. Almost nothing about Kathy’s life and history can be safely stated as fact. Her identity was as slippery in life as it was on the page. “When I started work on the book, it was more about looking beyond the image, you know? Trying to access the person through her writings and through little fragments and bits and pieces of what people said,” explains Kraus to Interview Magazine.
Kraus addresses this particular challenge directly in the book: “Although she wrote first-person fiction and gave hundreds of interviews in which she was asked to recite the facts of her life over and over again, these facts are hard to pin down in any literal way. Because in a certain sense, Acker lied all the time. She was rich, she was poor, she was the mother of twins, she’d been a stripper for years, a guest editor of Film Comment magazine at the age of fourteen, a graduate student of Herbert Marcuse’s” (14).
However, as Kraus continues, “But then again, didn’t she do what all writers must do? Create a position from which to write?” (14) She did. Like her unstable subjects and ever-switching narrators, Acker’s persona, as Martha Rosler says to Kraus, “depended on an endless series of reflecting, fictive personas, like a hall of mirrors” (42). While she began constructing her storied image even in high school (her yearbook read in part: “Whatever she is, she’s different”), Acker’s multitudes can largely be found in her own writing.
A masterful combination of biography and criticism, Kraus mines Acker’s creative output as a means for locating Kathy. In so doing, Acker emerges as an unwavering, uncompromising and almost cannibalistic writer who was willing to spin events, from the grief of her (largely) estranged mother’s suicide to her doomed love affairs (“Writing to and from her own life, Acker, until her death, was drawn to the heightened emotional pitch of doomed love”), into raw literary material. In After Kathy Acker, as in Acker’s own endlessly difficult nonlinear narratives, the emotional core is often more important than the reliability of the story itself.
Kraus details Acker’s career-long repetitions of certain moments in her life, pointing out the shifts in perspective and tone through time. For example, Acker returned to her work at a live sex show at Fun City in Times Square, as well as her reoccurring Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID), in numerous texts, reworking, retooling and recontextualizing it each time. “Throughout her career, in book after book, Acker would describe the cyclic despair of doing sex work to buy medicine so she could keep doing sex work, crafting these months of her life into something more allegorical than her actual life on West 163rd Street….Over the years, as she experienced new forms of grief the tone of these stories and their effect on the narrator would shift,” observes Kraus (55-56).
Through these repeated efforts, Acker’s life became a myth “created through means both within and beyond her control” (14).“Disinclined toward conventional narrative but determined to write constantly, producing a book at least every two years, Acker worked and reworked her memories until, like the sex she described, they became conduits to something a-personal, until they became myth. This was the strength and also the weakness of her writing,” states Kraus (58).
On one hand, becoming myth as a female writer is a heroic feat: “While these women were widely respected for their achievements as writers, they never sought or attained the iconic status of the Great Writer as Countercultural Hero that Acker desperately craved. Until she achieved it, no woman had,” notes Kraus (162). But, on the other hand, there’s something tragic captured in After Kathy Acker. While aiming to destroy traditional notions of identity in her writing, shattering and rebuilding the ‘I’ as a refusal of patriarchal language, she, at the same time, cemented her own image. In the end, it ended up overshadowing her literary genius, particularly during her years in tabloid-ridden London in the 1980s.
And yet, that myth perhaps accounts for the continued popularity of Acker’s work in contrast to many of her Downtown, NYC contemporaries, though their stars would surpass her in her lifetime. Acker–whether woman or myth–remains essential to her “drunken girls, as Pam Brown describes in her poem 1995. She exists as a glimpse at the possibility to be vulnerable and unyielding, in Acker’s words, “plagiarists, liars and criminals.”