• 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."

    Even now, it is strange to me.
    I have no idea why I am telling it.

    Article continues below


    In May 2016, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I have a history of breast calcifications, and had undergone, three years before, a needle biopsy on the same spot that later held malignant cells. Left breast, over my heart. But no, the diagnosis wasn’t initially clear, it was pre-cancer, stage zero, a point so small, the doctor wanted to do an excisional biopsy (also called a lumpectomy) to confirm the disease and maybe get it out. And yes, the cancer was real and still there, so I underwent a second surgery a week later. This time, they cleared the margins, which meant I would not have mastectomy and I could go to theory camp that summer which is what I was calling the School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell University, where I had a fellowship to study madness. I don’t remember where I was heading on the day the doctor called and said I could keep my breast. That’s not how she phrased it. That’s what I wrote in a text to a professor on my dissertation committee. I was sitting on a bus in Denver. I don’t remember if I was going somewhere or returning to a temporary home.


    Protection from the mojo hand: Here is Kathy Acker’s zippo lighter in the shape of mountain lion’s head. Or maybe a panther, a pussy for sure. Silver pewter, it feels smoothly cool in my hand, fine lines covering its head, neck, and chest. Cubic zirconia set as small eyes, muzzle whisker-lined and spotted with follicles. The animal’s mouth is open. Two lines of sharp teeth guard her grotto-like throat. Press back on the ears, lesser-known erogenous zone, and a flame fills and exceeds the mouthy orifice. On the bottom, a small sticker reads “Modern Japan.”

    Article continues below

    Unlike most medical stories, all the horror in this one occurs in its beginning.
    Gradually there will come an end to the fear. 

    At the time of the first biopsy, I was writing an essay on Kathy Acker and her Don Quixote, which opens beautifully, paradoxically with an abortion and a conception: an aborted fetus, a conceived idea. The death that composts life. Kathy’s narrator, Kathy-catheter, is on a mission “to right every manner of political, social, and individual wrong.” To do this, she must become a knight, a “female-male or night-knight,” and this requires the abortion (say night-night as in bye-bye), which will turn the hospital gown of “pale or puke green paper” into a book or armor that protects, deflects, guards.

    So much of Acker’s writing is about reading and what she was reading, and this is also how her work, aside from its appropriation, is like Cervantes’ Don Quixote; both books (and Acker’s literary corpus, which is to say her life) are what happens when you, as Kathy says in an interview, “use fiction as a way in [your] life and in [your] writing.” There is a superstition among writers that what you write will also happen to you, which is why one writer I know wrote a story in which she got everything she wanted, though it turned out she didn’t want very much. To meet her lover but not to fuck him. To meet her lover while refusing to be touched, penetrated, changed by the encounter. Kathy writes and fucks her lover, no gentle aversion but saying yes to that swirling void of mental + corporeal, metaphoric + literal, thinking + feeling. To stand, like God’s Job, before an extreme fissure. To listen to the voice emerging from chaos and not turn away.


    Protection from bicycle mishap: Citibank A’Advantage statement. Closing date: 10/12/94. Kathy’s charges trace a route from San Francisco through Dunsmuir, CA, into Bend, OR, White Salmon WA, Moscow, ID, where she stays for several days. She buys stuff: Bookpeople of Moscow, Palouse Country Sports, Ken’s Stationary. She stays at the Best Western University Inn. On a different statement, closing date: 9/12/94, still in San Francisco, she visited Comic Relief, The Booksmith, Backseat Betty for lingerie. Miles accumulated one billing period: 942. Miles accumulated the billing period before: 325. Amount taken as a cash advance: $500. Fee for cash advance: $10. 

    Article continues below
    I find Kathy’s stuff and have that feeling I sometimes get of not being alone. I spread the items across my bed and look at them. I lay with them.

    After the surgeries and back in Los Angeles, I began transforming my stepdaughter’s teenage bedroom into a writing office. This required sanding and painting the walls (I hired guys) and painting the ceiling (I did that myself). In the basement, I took apart Kathy Acker’s writing desk so I could move it into my new office. I was home alone and two weeks into a six-week course of radiation therapy. I was tired, but not too tired to carry the desk upstairs, as long as I carried it in pieces. The desk had been in my basement for more than 10 years as part of the Les Figues Press office; Matias Viegener, Kathy’s friend and literary executor, offered it when Vanessa Place and I moved our family and Les Figues into the house. I took apart Kathy’s desk like I’d done many times. I looked at her photo of Jean Genet, taped to the desktop. I took out the drawers, their familiar marks of L or R, but this time I saw something new: materials that had fallen into the back of the desk, behind one of the lower drawers. Papers, mostly, but also a few items. A lighter. A pen and an ink cartridge. I put the cartridge into the pen and began to write. 

    When I walked out of that surgeon’s office, I thought that I might be about to die, to die without any idea of why. / My death, and so my life, would be meaningless.


    Article continues below

    Anna Joy Springer says that Kathy makes visitations, like a saint, I add, or the Virgin Mother Goddess. The objects I find, my new small personal archive of Acker items, sat undetected for nearly 20 years. Before it was in our basement, Kathy’s desk was I don’t know where, at CalArts for some period of time. Certainly, it was taken apart and put back together repeatedly and by several different people. I don’t know what Kathy wants me to discover in this mix of items. Anything, object or experience, can become a means for divination. Candle wax, flame, or smoke. Coffee grounds or tea leaves, shoes or walking. Birds, dust, needles, clouds, roosters. Blood stains on a menstrual pad. Yoni yoni. Divination: “The action or practice of divining; the foretelling of future events or discovery of what is hidden or obscure by supernatural or magical means; soothsaying, augury, prophecy.” Does the supernatural hide the sought nugget or reveal it?

    I find Kathy’s stuff and have that feeling I sometimes get of not being alone. I spread the items across my bed and look at them. I lay with them. I google “Kathy Acker cancer” on my phone. I begin reading her essay “The Gift of Disease,” republished on Outward from Nothingness, in a special section edited and curated by Gabriela Torres Olivares, who also translated Kathy’s essay into Spanish. After the two lumpectomies, while at theory camp studying madness and sweating and slowly healing, I was also editing and designing Enfermario, a story collection by Gabriela Torres Olivares, translated by Jennifer Donovan, published by Les Figues. In one of the stories: “Once upon a time there was a cancer and, although there had often been many and there will continue to be many and many more will follow, it is necessary to mention that this one was special. In addition to teeth, hair, and fingernails, it had a hollow center. A space where it stored molecules of remembrance. We are, in fact, discussing a cancer with memory.”

    I had already learned one thing, though I didn’t at the time know it:
    that I live as I believe, that belief is equal to the body.


    Protection from stagnation: I imagine him as one of Kathy’s relations, a nephew or cousin, with a nose like hers and a similar closed-mouthed smile. This is his school photo. On the back, in blue ink, someone wrote “12 yrs.” On the front: poufy dark brown hair and thick eyebrows. Lighter brown eyes, steady gaze, pale skin with medium tone. His green izod shirt has an orange alligator. There’s a spot of ink on his cheek.

    Article continues below

    I did not come to Kathy’s writing willingly. But everyone kept talking about her, and by everyone, I mean people in and around the experimental art and writing scene in Los Angeles, circa 2005-06, people who were becoming my friends. Maybe that’s why I had a Kathy Acker book in the car when Vanessa and I stopped for gasoline on Beverly Blvd. We were in the white Volvo station wagon, heading downtown for the Last Sunday of the Month reading series at The Smell, which I curated with the boys (that’s another story). Vanessa was pumping the gas, so I opened and read a brief passage, from the beginning of “Florida,” I think. It made me angry. Why, I ranted, was this considered such a big deal. In those days, I was often angry and only later, when I could be more curious about and less driven by my emotions, could I sense beneath this anger to the jealousy and resentment of a dispossessed self. I wanted and did not want to say cunt if I wanted to, like I wanted and did not want to be a fucking cunt. A people-pleasing cunt, can I be that, please.

    Make me feel worthless, poor, invalid, shameful or hateful and I’ll know you love me. Keep me in sight. Make me go to war.

    But everyone kept talking about Kathy’s work, so I brought Literal Madness: Three Novels to the Warhammer 40K Convention in Anaheim, CA—at that point, that’s the only one of her books we had. It was my stepson’s 10th birthday, and this was his outing, along with his best friend, Nik. All day, I followed the boys around the terrains and battlefields, plus the periodic non-warring activity like painting or gluing together newly-imagined units or lords. My job was to keep the boys in view and thus safe from sexual predators. And while the boys battled, I sat on the floor reading Kathy Goes to Haiti. I was one of maybe 20 women in a room of nearly 1000 males. I didn’t know what to make of Kathy Goes to Haiti, but sometimes I was very turned on. A year or two later, in preparation for a writing workshop with Lance Olsen, I read Blood and Guts in High School and that’s when, true to my proselyting childhood, I wanted to proclaim the good news: DEAR GOD, EVERYONE! YOU MUST READ THIS BOOK BY KATHY ACKER AND RIGHT NOW! Because guess what everyone? We generally date versions of our parents, and the abused and neglected and wounded among us seek lovers who will evoke the feeling of pain that, neurobiologically, we’ve patterned and named loved.

    Make me feel worthless, poor, invalid, shameful or hateful and I’ll know you love me. Keep me in sight. Make me go to war. In Blood and Guts, Kathy collapses individual and political violence by literalizing Janey’s sexual relationship with her father who is also her “boyfriend, brother, sister, money, amusement, and father.” This, along with the serious humor of her profound exaggerations and hyperbolism, triggered such sweet relief—to find the words that will make you get my emotional point. That’s the fantasy, anyway. “My wound is inside me. It is the wound of lack of love. Since you can’t see it, you say it isn’t there. But I’ve been hurt in my feelings. My feelings’re my brains.”

    Bodies are part of the challenge to learn about compassion.
    We learn from diseases: they are gifts

    Divination is another form of reading, as obviously indicated in terms like palm reading or tarot reading. The diviner—who we could also call a prophet or fortune teller, card-reader or witch—is really just someone who has honed their intuitive and mental capacities toward certain ways of knowing so they can better tend to the mix of images and language presented in the objects being read. These objects—tarot cards, bones, crystal balls, novels, literature—reflect energetic or psychical aspect of the querent, primarily, but also of the reader. The good reader discerns her energy from the querent’s, thus more accurately reading the situation. Or as Kathy describes a tarot reading in the beginning of Great Expectations: “not so much a fortune—whatever that means—but a fairly, it seems to me, precise psychic map of the present, therefore: the future.”

    Months maybe even a year before my cancer diagnosis, I began thinking about Saint Agatha, whose name came into my thoughts one day while mediating. I looked her up. She’s the patron saint of breast cancer patients—plus Sicily, bellfounders, Palermo, rape victims, and wet nurses—and is generally portrayed with a plate that holds her two severed yet remarkably unbloody breasts. Other times, she’s constrained by one or two men while another man touches her breast with a pair of pliers, the moment before the cut. Or she may hold the breast removal tool herself; women are experts in the art of self-mutilation. In the stories, she is described as pure of heart and full of love for God and God alone. When Quintanus, a powerful man, a governor or high-ranking diplomat, wanted to marry her, she refused. So he sent her to a brothel as her first torment, then to prison where she was physically tortured, and when she still refused him, he ordered her breasts cut off. She was miraculously healed and this further enraged him. Because he wanted dominate her and she wouldn’t submit. To him, anyway, for in the myth or story, she’s focused on God, that bigger dom. So the man ordered St. Agatha “stripped naked and rolled […] over hot coals which were mixed with sharp shards,” thus literally subjecting her body to the feelings he couldn’t wouldn’t express: humiliation, vulnerability, weakness, pain.

    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.

    More Story
    Reading Women Talk Jesmyn Ward and Sarah Smarsh For our month on working class stories, Kendra, Autumn, and Jaclyn discuss Where the Line Bleeds by Jesmyn Ward and Heartland...
  • Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

    For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.