Kathy Acker made her reputation as a novelist by combining sexually transgressive content and postmodern technique, long before it was fashionable. As Acker herself might have described it, her work was a quest to discover what it means to be a cunt. Along the way, she acquired a certain image–tough, punky, wild–that she didn’t exactly discourage, though it sometimes seemed to weary her. In the last months of her life, she talked about leaving the literary world completely.
Acker approached having cancer the way she did everything else–by ignoring the bourgeois rules of caution. At the time of her death last weekend at an alternative treatment center in Tijuana, she had completed a life of doing exactly what she wanted to do. But I know she wouldn’t have seen it that way. I don’t think she ever overcame her deeply ingrained pessimism, though that was the task she set for herself as she battled her illness.
Acker was a bundle of contradictions: so frank in her writing about sex and the unloveliest of emotions, but so armored and enigmatic in life. (I thought she had turned 50 this year, but apparently she was 53. It’s not the sort of information she would have been clear about.) And if the scenarios that recur in many of her 10 books–the mother dead by suicide, the girl abandoned by her father (or lover or friend), the relationships born as much in hatred as in love–were rooted in her own childhood, she never really wrote autobiography.
Acker has yet to be taken as seriously as she deserves to be. No doubt that has much to do with the sexual content of her work, and with those female narrators who seem interchangeable from book to book, different names tagged to the sound of one voice raging–obscene, cynical, bewildered, and demanding to fuck. This elusive figure, roaming through a world of lies and fakes, knows that identity itself is an internalized fiction. In all her books, Acker was obsessed by her relationships to men and to (male) language. She’s part of that century-long tradition of writers, from dadaists to deconstructionists, who rail at the limitations of the word.
Yet the piece Acker wrote about her cancer experience for an English newspaper–“The Gift of Disease,” she called it–may have been the most shocking thing she ever did. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 1996. She had decided on a mastectomy over radiation or chemo because it was cheaper. (She had no health insurance.) Then she got a double mastectomy because she didn’t want to have one breast. Then she abandoned Western medicine–after learning that the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. Then she began working with healers in San Francisco, but left them to follow a lover to London. Almost immediately, she broke up with the lover. But she soon found other healers and then insisted that she was cured.
In August, still living in London, Acker began to feel very ill but decided it was parasites. She never considered canceling her tour with the Mekons, with whom she’d collaborated on a CD based on her last novel, Pussy, King of the Pirates. By the end of October, when she arrived in San Francisco intending to make her home there once again, she could barely stand up. Persuaded at last to check into an emergency room, she was told that the cancer had spread to every part of her body and she probably had a week to live. She had a friend drive her to Mexico, where she fought like hell for her life for another month.
Unsentimental to the end, she refused to feel sorry for herself, complaining to me only once that life no longer had any joy. There’s a sadness and longing for connection in her work that she never liked to admit to in life. “Wants go so deep,” she once wrote, “there is no way of getting them out of the body, no surgery other than death.”
Friends of Kathy Acker are now trying to pay for her medical expenses. Checks should be made out to Giorno Poetry Systems, 222 Bowery, New York, N.Y. 10012. (Write “Kathy Acker Fund” on the check.) Contributions are tax-deductible.