“Eat your Mind”: one man’s take on Kathy Acker.

I’m always surprised when someone I consider to be well-read hasn’t heard of Kathy Acker. Maybe they don’t know Acker because her work isn’t taught as much as white male writers or maybe it’s because her work is never easy, often confrontational, and makes some people very uncomfortable. Acker’s influence on pop culture is as deep as her influence on modern literature (if you don’t believe me, just ask Google). Her work remains difficult for some, incredibly compelling for others, and is always rife with complex layers of meaning. In his lengthy biography, Jason McBride draws from Acker’s correspondence, journals, and interviews with her friends, ex-lovers, editors, former roommates, and others. His reportage is solid and supported by notes, a bibliography, even a helpful index, but it wasn’t until I reached the final pages and his afterword that I could discern whether or not he actually liked Acker or her work. (Spoiler: I think he does.)

Anyone who’s read Chris Krauss’s “After Kathy Acker” (2017) and trusts her take on things, knows that Acker wasn’t always easy to know or love or work with. But I challenge you to name an outspoken, highly skilled creative person who is any or all of those things – the list is short.  Because Acker often incorporated her own sex life into her writing, most people who write about her end up writing about what she and others have said about her sex life. Presumably, they do this with the premise that because much of her work draws from her own real and imagined experience, and in order to understand her work, they must incorporate her personal life – often in explicit detail. I wonder if we’d do the same if she was male. Maybe, but I doubt so many people would come forward with their varied opinions, complaints, and tales of sexual adventures (real or imagined). Acker died of cancer in 1997 and one of the problems with writing about someone who’s dead is the necessary reliance on what they’ve left behind. In Acker’s case, there are her papers held in archives (primarily at Fales and Duke), her published work, reams of press interviews, academic books and critiques, and of course all of those exes who have opinions and stories and, in some cases, axes to grind. McBride’s clearly done his research using all of these sources. 

I’ve written a lot about Acker (including an entire chapter of my dissertation) and in approaching this review, I wanted to think past a basic critique of the writing, (I’ll get to that) or a critique of writing a woman’s life in part through interviewing past sex partners and ex-friends, or even contrasting McBride’s work with Chris Kraus’s book (which I reviewed in 2017). Because Acker was obsessed with form and finding different ways to write, I tasked myself with first thinking more deeply about biography and how McBride is constrained by this form and how that works both for and against his project.  A biography is, by definition, a detailed account of a real person’s life. It’s how history used to be told (Plutarch for example), part of how Christianity spread its message (see Einhard on Charlemagne), and how historical myths were created and repeated (Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur”). As early as 1550, secular people were becoming celebrities through biography (see Giorgio Vasar’s “Lives of the Artists”) but the form that we often think of as biography was largely shaped by James Boswell’s “The Life of Samuel Johnson” (1791) and Lytton Strachy’s “Eminent Victorians” (1918). And although biography is sometimes positioned as somehow “low-brow” versus literary fiction which is considered “high-brow,” a lot of people read biographies and we tend to like to think of them as “true” stories. But as Paul James points out in a recent critique of biography (and I’m paraphrasing here), biographies are usually written about public people who project a persona. In other words, if a person is famous, they are always already writing their biography, or, as the post-structuralist trope goes, life is a series of self-inventions. Certainly, that’s what most Western writers, artists, celebrities, even average people, are doing all the time – self-inventing. Or, as McBride quotes Acker, “one doesn’t express true or false identity…one makes identity.” (143) For McBride to write a coherent, cohesive, accurate biography of Acker is, in essence, an impossible task. And yet, he’s made a good attempt. 

Structured mostly chronologically, after a helpful preface, the narrative starts with Acker’s childhood, “Parents Stink: 1947-1964,” and ends with her death and its immediate aftermath, “The School of the Self: 1990-1997.” There are timestamps in each of the book’s five sections, for example, “What it Means to be Avant-Garde: 1964-1976,” and McBride is careful to include cultural movements and names in each – sometimes going off on tangents that seem more about what he’s interested in and less about Acker. For example, there’s a digression about the porn industry and Larry Fink in Chapter 11 and a long passage on David Antin (Chapter 14) where McBride also oddly namedrops Spalding Gray and Garrison Keillor. Antin I can understand – Acker claimed him as an influence and friend but the other two aren’t even in the same creative universe. And that’s one of my critiques – there’s a lot of namedropping in McBride’s book – some justified (Acker knew a lot of famous and semi-famous people), some that reads a bit like pandering, and some that’s just confusing unless you really know a lot of semi-famous creatives.  

Parts of McBride’s text reads like he’s leaning too heavily on Kraus’s book and much like Kraus’s text, McBride often focuses on Acker’s sex life, her struggles to maintain friendships and sexual/romantic relationships, even her personal appearance. McBride (like Krauss) augments Acker’s own writings with narratives provided by those who knew her and those who fell out with her. But where Kraus digs deep into Acker’s work in places, McBride seems more hesitant. At a recent reading I attended, Simone White talked about the “precision and contour of prose versus journalism” and perhaps that’s my own hesitancy with McBride’s book – it reads more like journalism and less like literary biography. And sometimes, his language just falters: “Her brand kept the real world at bay,” (307) or describing Acker’s “Pussy, King of the Pirates” as if it “lurches along the gangplank of its narrative like a drunken sailor dying to fall into the sea.” (304) 

Despite the distracting tangents and weird judgments, awkwardly overwrought metaphors, and almost obsessive cataloging of Acker’s sex life, this is a good biography and one I wish I’d had access to when I was researching my dissertation. There are moments that make me angry, like McBride’s seeming insistence that Acker was a passive receptacle “soaking up” influences and crediting the men in Acker’s life as gateways to the cultural media that fed her work: David Antin (collage), Sylvere Lotringer (the French theorists), and P. Adams Sitney (Rimbaud, avant-garde film). And then there are the many missed chances to push the critique of the white male world that drove Acker to not just recreate through collage and what she called “plagiarism” but drove her project of redefining what it means to write and to find a way of living and being in an oppressive patriarchal world. That McBride barely touches on Acker’s understanding of how her work was part of the punk aesthetic shows that he has a very different (and I’d argue misguided) understanding of Acker’s importance and influence. He does briefly reference Kathleen Hanna, and almost flippantly those originators of punk Poly Sytrene and Siouxsie Sioux but the connections aren’t emphasized well. He also states that “the wisest, most emblematic sentence that Acker ever wrote [was] ‘Perhaps all that humans have ever meant by love is control.” (294) I’d argue instead that Acker has many brilliant sentences, among them, “Every howl of pain is a howl of defiance” or in writing on Laure, “A woman’s life isn’t only who she lives with and fucks. The details of the life of a woman who writes concern her writing as much as the details of the life of a man who writes.” (293) 

Where McBride’s work really shines is in the last pages writing on Acker’s final days. He’s sensitive, almost loving, as he depicts her death in a Mexican clinic. He writes in his afterword about the growing interest in Acker since her death, stating that “Acker’s work has become more relevant and resonant with every passing year.” (335) He details the “cottage industry” that’s grown around Acker in academia and the more personal projects written by friends and exes. And finally, he highlights one of the most beautiful passages in any of Acker’s works, “Soon many other Janeys were born and these Janeys covered the earth.” (338) That Acker was as flawed as any other human is likely true, but that her work, her words, and her brash courage will continue to influence and to create new Janeys, is also true. Biography is a difficult form and Acker a near impossible subject. McBride’s book is flawed but also a well-researched addition to the growing body of work on one of our most important writers.






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