On Kathy Acker: A Desk, A Disease, An Accounting

"I find Kathy’s stuff and have that feeling I sometimes get of not being alone."

Protection from narcissism: Handwritten letter in silver marker, signed by Tony, who crosses his y to make an x, which is mirrored in the skull and crossbones image on the top right corner of the sheet. “Dear Kathy mucho appreciation for not involving agents… we can indicate your copywrite of your stuff in a list of copyright credits eg. P.31/42©Acker or on the page, whichever you prefer…. the first would be better less obtrusive Anthology and all other rights are yours of course no problems I hope …. I asked about emailing files on E-world – it might be tricky try doing it as a long letter instead be in touch love Tony.”

One of Kathy’s former students infers that Kathy liked to sleep with her favorite and the smartest students, but that she (the person telling the story) refused the offer because she wanted to learn writing from Kathy instead. During a day-long reading of Blood and Guts in High School at Performance Space New York, an old friend of Kathy’s says that while Kathy burned a lot of bridges, the two of them remained friends, although she suspected that Kathy resented her (the friend) for not doing more to help her (Kathy’s) career. In a collection of essays published after Kathy’s death, Avital Ronell writes that it wasn’t easy being friends with Kathy, and then the book with Ronell’s essay goes missing and I decide to leave Avital (and her troubles) alone. On the phone, Connie Samaras sighs that she misses Kathy—such a brilliant and promiscuous thinker, but those aren’t the right words either, says Connie (hi, Connie!), who promises she’ll one day tell me the story of Kathy’s death.

Over and again, in Kathy’s writing, we’re steeped in inter-relational power dynamics: the submissive and the dominant, the one or their other, the bottom to her top. “Fuck me,” “Whip me badly,” “You’ll do exactly as I tell you,” “Shut up, brat.” And there’s always sex as the literalization of desire. Some friendships are too hot to not go cold. Is this especially true for artists and writers? In Movers and Shakers, Mabel Dodge writes about her waning friendship with Gertrude Stein: “Once I asked [Gertrude’s brother] Leo why she had changed towards me, and he laughed and said because there was a doubt in her mind about who was the bear and who was leading the bear!” In the year before my cancer diagnosis, I lost three close friends, people I had become friends with through the process of publishing their writing. But I was tired of producing other people’s work, of talking to writers who were freaking out because their book didn’t make them important or rich or even noticed by the people in their community. I was sick of keeping tabs on the who did what for who, of asking people to donate money to support writers who turned around and asked me to do more. They weren’t bad or wrong to do so. We each held our structural positions, and I was also a compulsive self-sacrificer, oh mama do you love me now?

In Heal Your Body, Louise L. Hay writes about the mental causes of physical illness. Breast problems: “Overmothering. Overprotection. Overbearing attitudes. Cutting off nourishment.” Cancer: “Deep hurt. Longstanding resentment. Deep secret or grief eating away at the self. Carrying hatred. What’s the use.” This is not to blame myself for the cancer, or to say (like my mother surely would) that my bad attitude made me ill. But I was overmothering others and not nurturing myself. I was resentful and deeply hurt, in desperate need of self-compassion and self-acceptance. I needed to sit with the scared part of me that confused self with selfishness. To sit and notice, listen and not look away.

[I]f health is based on forgiveness, then I had to forgive myself.
Again, I enquire what health might be.

*

Protection from what remains undone: Five receipts from Whole Earth Access Computers, for purchases made between December 20, 1994 and April 11, 1995. Includes equipment and installs. Total dollar amount: $6260.66. Steve is listed at the salesperson in January, and by February, the invoices include the additional note: “Friend of Steve. Steve to deliver.”

Over and again, in Kathy’s writing, we’re steeped in inter-relational power dynamics: the submissive and the dominant, the one or their other, the bottom to her top.

It took two or three weeks to receive the initial surgery recommendation, I’m going back in time here, because after the mammogram, there was the ultrasound, then a needle biopsy, so I was three appointments in before they scheduled a consult with the surgeon. I don’t remember anything about that meeting except that Dr. Nguyen was kind and calming and had a ponytail, and there was a lot to cover so I was late to teach my creative writing class. When I finally rushed in, the students were sitting around the circle made of tables, patiently waiting, and I thought I have cancer, then couldn’t think this because it was too full of suffering, such a scary word. During this time, I was also working on a revision of the novel I’d been writing for nearly two decades. Stuck in some pages, I took a bath one morning before sunrise and had a vision of Mary Magdalene: do not use or distort me as they have. Since Mary Magdalene is the patron saint of both prostitutes and women ridiculed for their piety, I decided she’s about holding space for contradictions, that her body is this space.

When St. Simeon appears in Acker’s Don Quixote, the knight instructs him: “It’s a hard thing […] for a woman to become a knight and have adventures and save this world. It’s necessary to pass through trials sometimes so perilous, you become mad and even die. Such trials are necessary.” While St. Agatha didn’t go mad, the last round of torture did kill her, although not right away. The torture session was interrupted by an earthquake that destroyed the houses of two of Quintanus’ men. They’re the ones who begged for Q to stop. Not because they cared about St. Agatha, but to protect themselves from further harm. In “The Gift of Disease,” Kathy writes that conventional medicine would have killed her, that she needed to walk away, that the doctor said she’d be able to exercise two days after surgery, but of course she couldn’t. She had her breasts cut off. She would have had to wear a hideous surgical bra for more than two days, just to keep the sutures closed. She’d have to clean and dress her wounds, and avoid showers and other direct water contact. In “The Gift of Disease,” there is a tone of accusation. That the doctor lied.

To make money or out of habit, business as usual, but here’s the thing: It’s difficult to accept the fragility of our own bodies. That our bodies do things we don’t understand. Make malignant cells, which spread and hurt us. In “The Gift of Disease,” Kathy writes the power dynamic she’s been writing all along—the lying father/doctor, the rebellious daughter/artist who must make her own way. Meanwhile her body had become the extreme fissure, the chaotic God voice that is both right and wrong.

*

Protection from loss of voice: Cancelled checks and cash advance receipts. Cash for NYC tour. Cash for CTEman tour. Payable to Good Vibrations. Memo reads: TOYS. Payable to Cash. Payable to Kathy Acker. Memo reads: tour.

To see clearly is to perceive that one must die.

According to Jacques Lacan, the unconscious functions linguistically, as opposed to symbolically or instinctually, meaning that its lurking contents are evoked via Language, which awakens or stimulates the unrecognized or unknown into consciousness. This is the stuff that slips out slant—insults, jokes, self-talk, habitual phrases—and to attune to our speech can thus become one way in which the body, the tongue, can become a divining rod into that great inside unknown. There is an occult saying: as above, so below. As within, so without. I’ll add: as the one, so the many. If Language reveals contents of my individual unconscious, literature shows me about the collective unconscious.

Kathy, who wants to “right every manner of political, social, and individual wrong,” appropriates from, and thus attends to, this literature as a site of the collective unconscious, which is varied, sublime, unknowable and unfixed. The moon and the ocean, that which acts upon us without our knowledge, because we are water too. In her juxtapositions, Kathy seeks linguistic markers of trauma, especially sexual and domestic trauma, social inequality and oppression. And in tearing them apart, piecing them out and re-weaving them into new texts, she renders the collective unconscious visible. The trauma shimmering just beneath a sentence’s parallel structure.

I meet a lot of people who claim to know, or have known, Kathy, just like I’ve met so many who claimed to know, or knew, God. Some are more reputable than others.

The writer I know who wrote a story in which she got everything she wanted—she was one of my lost friends. Both of us had complicated relationships with our mothers, and most everyone does. Hers sounded controlling, maybe borderline; mine was religious, depressed, and couldn’t accept that I was gay. But after the 2016 election, which was shortly after my six-weeks of radiation therapy, I had to talk with my mother about what was going on. Not with my health (she thought I should treat the cancer with essential oils), but with the country, how or why she voted for an abuser-in-chief (oh Kathy knew: he’s our “boyfriend, brother, sister, money, amusement, and father”). So I traveled to Michigan and kept pushing and making space for connection beyond all we couldn’t agree on, even as swirls of energy and argument passed through but didn’t land. And then something happened. We spoke our greatest fear about the other. Her: that I (read her) am going to hell. Me: that she (read me) will live a life ruled by guilt and shame.

*

Protection for diseases of the skin: A letter from De Wolf Realty Co “Since 1879” about the San Francisco Rent Stabilization Ordinance. They are pleased to inform Kathy that her rent will remain the same through September 1st, 1993, but that they can, if they want, “bank” (yes, they use quotes) the amount of the legally-allowed increase for a potential future rate hike. “Your total ‘banked’ rent increase amount is now $44.72 (1992)” Stapled to the letter is a Statement of Interest on Security Deposit, signed by another Steve.

To heal in oneself is to begin to heal the self which is always whole.
I have written down some of what happened to me in the past nine months, though I as yet understand little.

This is what I’ve come to: my experience of Kathy is not unlike my experience of God. I meet a lot of people who claim to know, or have known, Kathy, just like I’ve met so many who claimed to know, or knew, God. Some are more reputable than others. My mother, for example, or Matias Viegener, who tells me gossip about Kathy and Chris Kraus on a drive from Big Bear to Los Angeles. Later I wonder if this was a story I wanted to hear, different from what was said. I wonder this about God as well. Is God a story I wanted? Yes. What about Kathy Acker? I didn’t ask for all the items I haven’t yet listed—her chess set, lamp, dining room table, rug, desk, chair, side tables, coffee table, reading chair. But at some point, we had these things of Kathy’s in our house, plus more. It made me feel special. Like being one of God’s chosen and saved. Although God and I are more complicated than that, just like Kathy and I aren’t an obvious first match. I love how at the end of Don Quixote, Kathy writes a God who makes love “to old women” and “spinster virgins.” God as a big gossip, the “Monstrous Liar and Monster-Wonder,” and God answers: “Since I am no more, forget Me. Forget morality, forget about saving the world. Make Me up.”

Yes, God-Kathy-the-swirling-void. I raise my hand. Again.

__________________________________

This essay is forthcoming in Eat your Heart Out: The Lifework of Kathy Acker, edited by Val Rauzier. Profils américains, Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2020
Teresa Rose Carmody
Teresa Rose Carmody
Teresa Carmody is the author of Maison Femme: a fiction (2015) and Requiem (2005). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Collagist, Two Serious Ladies, St. Petersburg Review, Faultline, Entropy, and more. Carmody is co-founding editor of Les Figues Press, an imprint of LARB Books in Los Angeles, and director of Stetson University’s MFA of the Americas.





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