Kathy Acker Masturbated Here

By Jack SkelleyDecember 16, 2023

Kathy Acker Masturbated Here

JASON McBRIDE and ANAHID NERSESSIAN with KATHY ACKER’S WRITING DESK, Poetic Research Bureau, Los Angeles, December 11, 2023.

It’s a fact: Kathy Acker often wrote while masturbating. And she encouraged her students at San Francisco Art Institute to do the same. Jason McBride noted this at Poetic Research Bureau (PRB) for the paperback launch of his monumental biography Eat Your Mind: The Radical Life and Work of Kathy Acker. The practice was one way the genre-smashing Acker soaked her novels in the emotional ups and downs of eros. At this ceremonial event, Matias Viegener—writer, author, teacher, friend of Acker, and executor of her will (she died in 1997 at age 50)—donated her legendary desk and chair to the PRB archives. It dramatically backdropped McBride’s talk. (Books for this event provided by Stories Books & Café.)

UCLA Romantics scholar Anahid Nersessian (check out my LARB chat with her about her 2021 book Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse) posed keen questions, as did the audience. This included famous writer friends of Acker, such as Amy Scholder and Adele Bertei, plus a bunch of younger Acker acolytes. Throughout the event, Acker’s auburn desk (complete with a taped-on, inspirational photo of novelist Jean Genet) and tuck-and-roll leather chair mutely represented her inspiring and baffling body of work.

McBride’s Acker captivation ignited from witnessing an incandescent Toronto performance in 1988: “She magicked her sharp, ferocious prose into something sublime.” It stuck with him over decades and through relentless research until he came to know the writer who disguised her life story (problematic, often self-contradictory) to frustrating degrees: “I would grow angry with her and sad about her, even as I became invested and fascinated with her.” 

At most of his book tour appearances, McBride has encountered audience members with similar reactions. Some, he said, have expressed what a “liar” she was. Multiple women claimed sexual encounters with her. And at one New York event, one woman declared that “Kathy had stolen [her] boyfriend.” 

The mysteries of her life, inflected with erotics, are at the core of her fiction. Since her death, Acker’s legacy has sprouted its own genre, sometimes taking the controversial term “autofiction.” In this mode, the narrator assumes the role of the author (her narrators are often named “Kathy”) and uses this (false) verisimilitude to tell “the truth.” Chris Kraus, the Semiotext(e) publisher and author of influential novels such as I Love Dick (1997), as well as the 2017 Acker biography After Kathy Acker, has told me (also in LARB), “I always hated the term. ‘New narrative’ is more accurate.” 

Acker masterfully baited readers with this trickery, crafting fertile, fractured fictions. McBride’s book provides a dual service: it gets to the root of her mystery identity (“Did she lie? Yes, but in her letters she is the most factual”), while at the same time it bares deeper, human, emotional truths, often tragic, that continue to make readers weep and writers write.


Photo by Gary Leonard.

LARB Short Take live event reviews are published in partnership with the nonprofit Online Journalism Project and the Independent Review Crew.

LARB Contributor

Jack Skelley is the author of the novel The Complete Fear of Kathy Acker (Semiotext(e), 2023). Jack’s other books include Monsters (Little Caesar Press), Dennis Wilson and Charlie Manson (Fred & Barney Press), and Interstellar Theme Park: New and Selected Writing (BlazeVOX). Jack’s psychedelic surf band Lawndale (which released two albums on SST Records) has a new album, Twango.


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