Kathy Acker’s bracing biography of Jason McBride’s ‘Eat Your Mind’

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Eat Your Mind: The Radical Life and Work of Kathy Acker

By Jason McBride
Simon & Schuster: 416 pages, $30

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kathy acker is the perfect subject for a literary biography. His work is illegible; The charm of him is undeniable. She died a tragic death, of breast cancer, at age 50. She was a bodybuilder, she was a feminist, but maybe not. “I’m so weird I’m not even gay,” she said. She struck a fierce pose: tattooed, riding a motorcycle. she once forced neil gaiman to “whip his p—”. Even in death, she is deeply intimidating.

My mom, going through my books during a recent visit, picked up my copy of the latest book on Acker, the Jason McBride biography.”eat your mind: The Radical Life and Work of Kathy Acker”, and said: “What is East about?!” What, actually, mom.

Acker has become a little personality cult. She represents a kind of deconstructivist punk empress. Her work, with its collage of classic texts and her own biography, has influenced countless writers. Her name, dropped, is a business card. Kathy Acker is stalwart.

Cover of the book, on the left, and a photo of a man's head on the right.

Jason McBride, right, is the author of the first substantial biography of Kathy Acker.

(Simon & Schuster; Liz Sullivan)

Growing up in an “affluent” New York neighborhood with a mother who hid her Judaism and the fact that her husband had left the moment she learned she was pregnant, Acker acted tough from an early age. She was “from the streets,” even if those streets might have been the Upper East Side, where Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller were neighbors. Especially after the death of her stepfather, the family’s wealth was much more precarious than it seemed. On Christmas Eve 1978, with less than $30 in her bank account, Acker’s mother checked into the Midtown Hilton and took her own life.

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When Bob Dylan becomes completely Bob Dylan, changing his religion and spinning violent fantasies, It’s art. When female artists do this, it freaks out. Like Dylan, however, Acker wasn’t on this Earth to make friends. “She was so ac—” eileen myles he tells McBride. “But the fact is that she got up every day and she wrote. It was her religion. That’s why she was here. That’s great. That’s amazing for a woman. It’s amazing for a woman to say, ‘I’ve got that,’ and then deliver.”

McBride is a card-carrying member of the Acker cult. But he’s also ready to acknowledge his troublesome moments, of which there were more than a few. Acker once called the poets “the white Ns of this Earth” and described herself, being a Jew, as a “colored woman”. McBride plays interference: “Empathy has its limits; may be wrong. Not all traumas are the same,” she writes. “But Acker herself never really acknowledged it, and she refused to let it affect her freedom as an artist. For someone who only saw the fixed identity as a trap, this is not surprising.

A woman with a shaved head in an apartment with a bookshelf behind her

Acker in his Haight-Ashbury apartment in 1975.

(Andrew L. Harris)

The personal is political, sure, but often the biographies of female artists are too eager to make a victim of the monster. McBride resists this by speaking to those who knew about him and aren’t afraid to be candid. Acker was so doggedly determined to be a writer that she gives the impression that she would rather marry a boy than work a job that was below her (she was married twice). “My last job was selling cookies,” she said. “It was so bad. I was 31 years old and I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. Phrases that come out of my mouth for hours: ‘Which cookie would you like?’”.

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It’s shocking to know that this is McBride’s first book. He’s magnanimous when it comes to Acker’s critics, and can paint a picture of New York’s queer art scene almost as vividly as Cynthia Carr in “Fire in the Belly,” her biography of the artist. David Wojnarowicz. But Carr was one of Wojnarowicz’s friends. McBride never met Acker.

black and white photo of a woman in a buzzcut with tattoos wearing a dress and patterned tights

Acker in Austin, Texas, in 1995.

(Ali Hossaini)

“Eat Your Mind” effectively interweaves Acker’s books with the events of his life. Even more crucial, it places her in the grand scheme of letters, linking her ideas to her predecessors, including Julia Kristeva and helena cixous; to contemporaries like Myles and lynne tillman; and those who have come after her, Kate Zambreno and Sheila Heti among them. Acker received some pretty harsh criticism during her lifetime, critics who claimed that her work had “nothing to offer,” calling her writing “nasty and cantankerous.” It is no exaggeration to compare this line of criticism with the reception of the contemporary novelist. ottessa moshfegh. “She is a different type of writer,” said the late sylvere lotringer Acker said. She “she became a writer despite writing”.

I think what Lotringer meant was that Acker had something to say and his struggle was to figure out how to say it. As Myles says, “She was climbing.” Academic Avital Ronell said: “Like many writers…she had this narcissistic drive. That meant if she wasn’t on her GPS, she didn’t want to know about it. She didn’t want to be stopped or slowed down.” And McBride, for her part, writes: “She didn’t know time was running out, but then again, she had always lived as if it were.” Part of the fascination we have with certain late artists has to do with the question of who they might have been or what they might have accomplished had they lived longer.

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Things got weird at the end for Acker. A friend, sensing that she wanted to “touch”, felt Acker on her deathbed, after which she “kissed the air”. After she was cremated, some of her friends ate her ashes. “They were delicious,” Kevin Killian said, “I felt the energy from him entering my body.”

Black and white photo of a group of people smiling

A gathering of Top Stories contributors in 1983: from left, Jane Dickson, Lynne Tillman, Kathy Acker, Ursule Molinaro, Anne Turyn, Janet Stein, Judith Doyle, Constance DeJong. Front: Gail Vachon, Lulu Rubin.

(Laurie Neaman / Featured Stories)

It’s easy to want a piece of the creative action without the baggage of the artist himself. Narcissism, ambition, and flagrant disregard for others in the service of art are perhaps only enviable in the abstract. Particularly when it comes to women. Tillman thought she and Acker were friends, but “you were always friends with Kathy,” Tillman said. “She was never your friend.”

“Eat Your Mind” does everything a good biography should do and more. McBride reminds us that there is still something deeply romantic about the wardrobe of the artist that Acker pulls off so well. For readers and consumers, that return is enticing. For the performing artist, it can be destructive. “Writing is a method of dealing with the human being”, Acker writes in “In Memoriam to Identity”, “… to write you kill yourself at the same time while you are still alive”.

Ferri’s most recent book is “Silent Cities: New York”.