Black tarantula

Published December 3, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Kathy Acker loved Miles Davis and, like Miles, she didn't give a fuck, except about the things she gave a fuck about. She gave a fuck about books (the ones she wrote and the library of 30,000 volumes she amassed over the years), about the subliminal politics of everyday life -- where the brittle edges of gender politics and class would come into sharp focus -- and, mostly, about the power of words to define the world and shape our thoughts. Whoever controlled the words controlled thought, Kathy knew. She set out to understand and liberate words (and herself) by direct action: She'd seize control of language and reinvent it in her work.

I first met Kathy at the Phoenix Hotel, a famous/notorious San Francisco inn on the edge of the Tenderloin District. The Phoenix Hotel is known colloquially as the "rock 'n' roll" hotel. It's not too expensive, and its location and modest rooms lend street cred to the pop stars, wannabe hipsters and rock journalists who litter the pool area like the detritus that collects around the edges of airport runways. Kathy, on the other hand, always seemed perfectly at home among the goofy sculptures and piped-in bird calls from hidden speakers. She fit the place without trying. And she liked a nearby Cambodian restaurant. The rest of the Phoenix scene? She didn't give a fuck.

When I met Kathy, she'd just returned from several years of living in London. From her letters, I think those years in the U.K. in the mid- and late-'80s were her happiest. After growing up and living in New York for most of her adult life, she found London to be a new world. The British were smart (they liked books and writers!) and even, to her mind, possessed of a kind of innocence. "They still use the word 'villain' over here," she once wrote me.

Kathy was already a cult celebrity when she hit London, and the Brits took to her immediately, in the way the English do with some Americans. She was the Xena of American lit: strong and scary, maybe a little crazy, encased in leather. Even when she appeared on literary chat shows you could tell they thought she might jump up and turn the dump over at any minute. It was fun being treated like your ideas mattered. And being away from home gave her the kind of distance that let her examine the language of her homeland with a clear eye.

Her happy time in England came to an abrupt end with a call from a lawyer. Harold Robbins' publisher threatened to sue Kathy's U.K. publisher because she'd used the text of a sex scene from one of his books, rewriting the scene into nasty political satire.

Plagiarism is a touchy word among writers, but Kathy's whole art was based on the idea of plagiarism -- the appropriation and reworking of existing texts. It certainly wasn't anything she did secretly. She talked openly about appropriation as a way of putting existing texts into a new context, revealing subtle meanings that were inherent, but hidden, in the original. Kathy had lifted texts from her earliest days as a writer, when she was turning out amateur mail art projects in which she wrote her friends into porn stories and sent them out in little photocopied pamphlets. She continued the practice in more complete and complex works like "The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula by the Black Tarantula," in which she took on the stories and personas of Victorian murderesses, mixing their lives with elements from her own life and stirring the whole thing into a hallucinogenic broth compounded of violence, memory and slippery identities.

Why, she wondered, was Robbins making her work methods a problem? Visual artists had been working and reworking each other's images for decades, and writers such as William Burroughs had also built literary careers by reworking other writer's texts. The charges seemed indefensible to her.

So Kathy was genuinely shocked when her U.K. publisher caved in to Robbins' demands and told her she had to publicly apologize in print. Since her publisher wouldn't back her legally, she had no choice but to go along with the public humiliation. So much for English innocence. She left the U.K. and came back to the States, trying to
settle back into New York, but she found the place depressing and awash in death as AIDS tore through the artistic community. Still nursing her own wounds, she headed for San Francisco to try working in yet another new environment.

While living in San Francisco, Kathy got tired of the sedentary writer's life. Truthfully, she wasn't always at ease in her body. In her work you can see that she was acutely wary of her femaleness. Sometimes she embraced it, and sometimes she ran like hell from it. She was quite happy when she discovered bodybuilding. It was easy to run into her at the now-closed Gold's Gym on Valencia Street. The gym itself, the machines and the process of pushing her body to new but controlled extremes fascinated her. So did the culture of the gym: The red-faced neo-Schwarzeneggers going into 'roid rages when someone stepped too close to them, or the alternating flirtatiousness and competitiveness of the female lifters. Kathy was never a big woman, but bodybuilding made her feel strong, like she didn't have to run from her own skin, like she could rewrite the meaning of a woman's body and make it her own.

In 1996, Kathy was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy. She refused follow-up treatment -- radiation and chemotherapy -- opting instead to look for alternative methods, including nutritional and spiritual healing, acupuncture and homeopathy. It was hard for some of us, her friends, to understand why she wouldn't even try Western approaches to treatment. I talked with her about it a lot and came to understand her position: Neither Western medicine nor alternative medicines are objective, scientific constructs. At their core, they're belief systems. And Kathy had simply stopped believing in the traditional, Western approach.

Kathy died in an alternative treatment center in Mexico at 1 a.m. on Sunday. When she went, there were no tubes in her body and no nervous interns standing by with crash carts and heart needles. She was lucid and without pain, and she just let go, which is just the way she wanted to make her exit.

During her career, Kathy wrote poetry, novels, opera librettos, plays, journalism and rock lyrics. She even performed with bands such as Tribe 8 and the Mekons. Robert Mapplethorpe took her photo. She toured all over the U.S., Europe and Australia, reading her work to standing-room audiences. She taught literature and writing to a lot of rich kids who probably didn't deserve her, but like all writers, she had to pay the bills. She once asked me to whip her in class at the San Francisco Art Institute when she was trying to wake up her too-hip-to-live art school students, but word got out and a tremulous department dean advised her against such an extreme demonstration of the works of de Sade.

I suppose I should have written more about her work here, but it's Kathy's life I'm thinking about these days. Her work doesn't need my help to find a home, but let me at least tell you that if you haven't read "Blood & Guts in High School," "Empire of the Senseless," "In Memoriam to Identity," "My Mother: Demonology," "Hannibal Lecter, My Father" or "Pussy, King of the Pirates" (her last book, and all the critics who hated it can kiss my ass), go out and read some of them now. They're all available. Kathy worked with Grove Press for years and was one of the few writers I know who could say that nearly everything she'd written was still in print. She inspired me to go to a smaller press for my next novel. Being in print isn't immortality, but for a writer, it's the next best thing.

By Richard Kadrey

Richard Kadrey is a columnist for the Site and the author of several books, including the "Covert Culture Sourcebooks" and the novel "Kamikaze L'Amour."

MORE FROM Richard Kadrey

Related Topics ------------------------------------------