The assassination of Kathy Acker
What kind of writer would Kathy be if she were still alive? So much of her work speculated on the future that would arise from the nightmarish neoliberal present. Could you call it prophetic? Her apocalyptic work, In Memoriam to Identity, or The Burning Bombing of America. Her attention to Islam, colonialism, and terrorism, to the symbol of the World Trade Center, which fell four years after her death. Her sense of the ever-expanding police state and the utter collapse of an unjust economy, leading inexorably to worse. She called out the false and incestuous fathers and avenged and redeemed the wrathful mothers. She thought about the terrorist, who can’t not be herself, who is driven to do as he does. She even wrote her own requiem in the year before she died, a libretto for an opera, Requiem, that remains incomplete. Electra, the main character, is Kathy: a Jewish, upper-middle-class woman from New York with cancer, rethinking her childhood. She’s also Electra, an appropriation of Eugene O’Neill and Aeschylus. All the Electra accounts, Kathy says, “have, as center, the question of evil in the family. Perhaps, more accurately, the investigation of the possibilities of the transformation of evil and disease. The possibility of the transformation of death into life.”
About a decade before she died, her friend, the writer Gary Indiana, wanted to have a baby with Kathy. It was both a running joke and a sick obsession; Kathy hated it and cited it as one of the reasons their friendship ended. The horror of pregnancy runs through her writing, which Indiana could hardly have missed had he actually read her work, much less observed her around babies. Three years before she died, Indiana published Rent Boy, with a misogyny-fueled character cruelly based on Kathy: “I read one of Sandy’s books. It was all my cunt this and my cunt that for two hundred pages, stick your big dick in my cunt sort of stuff. But literary, you know.” One reviewer called Rent Boy “a poisoned apple.”
Kathy wouldn’t read it but she did ask me how bad it was. It’s a study in Kathy’s galvanizing presence, but also a literary assassination. She was haunted by it without knowing what he said, a knife hurled into the air. William Burroughs was fascinated with the figure of the assassin, originating in a medieval sect of hashish-crazed trained killers led by Hassan I Sabbah whose precept was “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” His fanatically loyal followers had a sense of radical freedom, which inflamed them into intense acts of violence. Their power was so legendary that simply knowing one of Sabbah’s followers wanted him killed would cause the quarry to die of a heart attack or seizure: an assassination by ether.
A few months before Kathy died, Gary Indiana published his novel Resentment, with yet another thinly veiled character modeled after Kathy. A writer whose work the narrator considers to be a “shotgun wedding of the infantile and the obscene,” she delivers a reading “in dolphin language, mooing out long Icelandic-sounding verbal squiggles, seal barks, throaty vowel arabesques, churning the diaphanous sleeves of her tunic in mimicry of porpoise flippers …” a “demonic abandonment of all dignity and imperiousness, groveling for their attention by any means available.” In spite of himself Indiana conveys the power Kathy held over her audience, who — inexplicably to him — continue to idolize her. A writer whose work is ballistic and even dangerous, gun-toting, yet Indiana stuffs her into a crib or even a toy box peppered with grungy dildos.
My brother Valentin was in Tijuana with us. He was with Kathy on the days I had to drive back to Los Angeles to teach, often sleeping overnight in her room as I did. He’s a strapping lad: a rock climber, high-school dropout, one-time punk rocker, and recovered heroin addict who’d just barely pulled his life together. I was hoping he’d flirt with her, maybe even sleep with her. She would have loved it: sex on a hospital bed in an alternative cancer clinic in Tijuana, BC, Mexico. They had endless conversations about Burning Man, punk rock, and escaping the world. He was away when she died, but we found a note she wrote him telling him to go on with his life and educate himself, which he did: he chose to live. Kathy’s death was eclipsed for both of us less than two years later when our mother died. My brother and I held her as she stopped breathing. It was an eclipse but also a continuum, the death of two fantastic, strong women, neither of which I could avert. My failure. My narcissistic wound. Most of what I write is about my failure to write what I once might have written, which is really the failure to do everything I might have done.
On the morning of Kathy’s last day, Connie Samaras came down from Los Angeles. She’d been in the hospital with a blood clot probably induced by a nicotine patch. I could tell the end was near, and when Connie asked if she could come I knew I needed her there with me, that I couldn’t do it alone. I was exhausted and once Connie arrived I slept intermittently in the second bed. She took a photograph of the stuffed rat that was on the bed, Kathy’s favorite stuffed animal in the last years. Connie got into bed with Kathy, stroked her, soothed her, and kissed her. It felt erotic, the last stand of love against death, love in death. Connie woke me about 11 p.m. and said she thought it was close now. We played the same music, over and over. Philip Glass’s piano sonatas and Hindu chants. The sensors were removed and the tubes were pulled out, and when they were gone Kathy looked surprised but also more relaxed. We were moving without thinking, as if we were on a train or a boat together. Three of us in the bed, some kind of queer pietà. Kathy died at 1 a.m., November 30, 1997, with both of us holding her. Her last words were “up, up, up,” which may have meant nothing more than her wanting the back of her bed raised up. Famous last words. Goethe’s were “mehr Licht,” more light, but he may have just wanted a candle. At that stage, there’s not much to see. None of us were thinking and not much was said; we were on a train, until Kathy fell off and we continued on, or the opposite: we fell off and the train went on without us. The train keeps moving, that’s the thing. People rage about the internet but we’ve been losing the fight against the moment for centuries. Presence always eludes us.
1. See the full description of Requiem here.