Jason McBride’s bracing Kathy Acker biograpy ‘Eat Your Mind’


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. Your work is unreadable; their appeal is undeniable. She died a tragic death of breast cancer at the age of 50. She was a bodybuilder, she was a feminist – but maybe not. “I’m so queer I’m not even gay,” she said. She struck a wild pose: tattooed, getting on a motorcycle. She once forced Neil Gaiman to “whip her p—.” Even in death, she is deeply intimidating.

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

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

Book cover on the left and a headshot of a man on the right

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

(Simon & Schuster; Liz Sullivan)

Acker grew up in New York in an “affluent” neighborhood with a mother who concealed her Jewish affiliation and the fact that her husband left the moment he learned she was pregnant, and revealed from an early age Hardness. She was “off the street,” though those streets may have been the Upper East Side, where Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller were neighbors. Especially after the death of her stepfather, the family’s prosperity was far more precarious than it appeared. On Christmas Eve 1978, Acker’s mother checked into the Midtown Hilton with less than $30 in her bank account and took her own life.

When Bob Dylan becomes Bob Dylan most fully, switches religions, and develops violent fantasies, that is art. When artists do that, it’s out of joint. But like Dylan, Acker wasn’t on this earth to make friends. “She was so ac-,” Eileen Myles tells McBride. “But the fact of the matter is that she got up every day and wrote. It was their religion. That’s why she was here. That’s great. That’s great for a woman. It’s great for a woman to say, ‘I got this,’ and then deliver.”

McBride is a card-carrying member of the Acker cult. But he’s also willing to acknowledge her troubled moments, of which there were more than few. Acker once called poets “the white N—s of this earth” and, as a Jewess, described herself as a “woman of colour”. McBride plays interference: “Empathy has its limits; it can be misdirected. Not all trauma is the same,” he writes. “But Acker herself never really acknowledged this and didn’t allow her freedom as an artist to be interfered with. Not surprising for someone who has always seen fixed identity as a trap.”

A woman with a buzz cut in an apartment with a bookshelf behind her

Acker at her home in Haight-Ashbury in 1975.

(Andrew L Harris)

The personal is political, sure, but often artists’ biographies are too eager to victimize the monster. McBride resists this by speaking to those who are knowledgeable about his subject and aren’t afraid to be frank. Acker was so determined to be a writer that you get the feeling she’d rather marry a man than have a job beneath her dignity (she’s married twice). “My last job was selling cookies,” she said. “It was so bad. I was 31 and I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ Hours of sentences out of my mouth: ‘Which cookie would you like?'”

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

Black and white photo of a woman in a buzz cut with tattoos wearing a dress and patterned tights

Field in Austin, Texas in 1995.

(Ali Hossaini)

Eat Your Mind effectively intertwines Acker’s books with the events of her life. More importantly, it places her in the grand scheme of letters and ties her ideas to predecessors like Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous; to contemporaries like Myles and Lynne Tillman; and to those who came after her, including Kate Zambreno and Sheila Heti. Acker received some pretty harsh reviews throughout her life, with reviews claiming her work had “nothing to offer” calling her writing “nasty and argumentative.” It is not far-fetched to compare this critique with the reception of contemporary writer Ottessa Moshfegh. “She’s a different kind of writer,” the late Sylvere Lotringer said of Acker. “She became a writer even though she wrote.”

I think what Lotringer meant was that Acker had something to say and her struggle was figuring out how to say it. As Myles puts it, “She was on a rise.” Scholar Avital Ronell said, “Like many writers … she had that narcissistic motor. That meant if it wasn’t on her GPS, she didn’t want to hear about it. She didn’t want to be held up or slowed down.” For his part, McBride writes, “She didn’t know that time was running out, but she’s always lived as if it were.” Part of the fascination we have with certain dead artists has concerns the question of who they might have been or what they might have achieved if they had lived longer.

In the end, things got weird for Acker. A friend, sensing she wanted “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,” said Kevin Killian, “I felt their energy enter my body.”

Black and white photo of a smiling group of people

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

(Laurie Neaman / Top Stories)

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

“Eat Your Mind” does everything a good biography should have and more. McBride reminds us that there’s still something deeply romantic about the artist’s costume that Acker wears so well. For readers and consumers, this achievement is enticing. For the performing artist it can be destructive. “Writing is a way of dealing with being human,” writes Acker in In Memoriam to Identity, “…to write is to kill yourself while staying alive.”

Ferris’ latest book is Silent Cities: New York.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-11-21/kathy-acker-late-punk-empress-of-radical-lit-gets-a-fitting-biography Jason McBride’s bracing Kathy Acker biograpy ‘Eat Your Mind’

Sarah Ridley

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