In April, 1996, just before her forty-ninth birthday, the writer Kathy
Acker had a routine biopsy of a small lump she’d discovered in her left
breast. It was the same unpleasant procedure she’d undergone
periodically since her first cancer scare, in 1978. But this time it
The doctors proposed a lumpectomy followed by radiation, but she
demanded a double mastectomy and declined further treatment. She
thought, I’ll get rid of it all, just give me a mastectomy. Which, to
her old friend Eleanor Antin, seemed like an act of total self-hate.
“She was so afraid,” Antin recalls. “Her response was very paranoid.
Because it was like, to her, radiation meant evil things, invisible rays
coming into you, do you know what I mean?” Georgina Ritchie, a
past-lives regressionist she’d already consulted, also criticized this
decision, feeling that the mastectomy destroyed an essential, defining
part of her femininity. I never liked my breasts, Acker retorted, and
I’d rather look like a boy.
Adopting an antioxidant diet designed to eliminate toxins, she consulted
healers, acupuncturists, card readers, and astrologers. After the
surgery, she’d describe routine anesthetization procedures as if they
were medical torture:
One of the green figures introduced a pre-anesthetic into the I.V.
fluid that was dripping into veins. As soon as she inserted the liquid,
I felt cold creeping around the base of my skull, eating at me. My
brains were nauseous. I knew that I didn’t want to be here. Then I knew
that I couldn’t escape because my mind had been changed . . .
When they discovered that the cancer had spread into some of her lymph
nodes, the doctors urged her to start chemotherapy, but she declined.
(She was afraid that her hair would fall out, she was afraid of losing her
teeth, she was afraid that her muscles would wither. . . .) Eventually, she’d
come to explain this decision as strictly financial: At the time, I was
working as an adjunct professor at an art college and so did not qualify
for medical benefits . . . The price [of the] mastectomy was $7,000. I
could afford to pay for that. . . . Chemotherapy begins at $20,000. Still, she had more than two hundred and sixty thousand dollars left
from her trust, and many self-employed people in San Francisco bought
their own coverage. Her reasoning here wasn’t flawless.
She never spoke to the doctor again. Instead, she consulted Georgina
Ritchie, who referred her to the healer Greg Schelkun. He told her, You
have to want to be well. You have to learn how to be well. That can take
a lifetime, or five lifetimes. “All her friends,” Eleanor Antin
recalls, “became enemies. She made enemies of everyone. So no one could
talk to her.” Ritchie attributed Acker’s state of dis-ease, or
un-health, to unresolved childhood trauma. Appearing in a cameo role in
“Eurydice in the
Ritchie tells Acker’s character, I roto-root the past. When a person
goes through regression, childhood or past lives, that person is able to
situate the trauma in the whole picture and so, stop obsessing about
it. To overcome cancer, she had to find out what caused it. This
notion pleased her. Meaning, to Acker, had always meant power. It was a
protection against chaos and failure.
You have an abnormal childhood you will have to live childhood over
again, the twenty-four-year-old Acker had written in her notebook. With
Ritchie, she set out again to retrace her childhood in earnest, to
discover what had gone wrong.
Cancer became my whole brain:
She wrote in her notebook that spring.
If only I could think enough, if only I
could think hard enough, . . ..
If I can find out the cause of cancer
then I can change that cause
that’s my only chance
then cancer will go away.
Later, she would transcribe one of her sessions with Ritchie and fold it
into “Requiem,” her opera libretto:
GEORGE: Did Electra’s mother try to kill her before she was born? Yes.
When she was three months in the womb?
When you were seven months in the womb, your mother tried to abort you using something to do with heat, a method common in those days.
ELECTRA: I know this.
GEORGE: The abortion didn’t work because you were meant to be born. You were helpless when all this happened. That’s why you’re scared.
By July, 1996, her healers agreed that she was now cancer-free. In
London that spring, she’d met the writer and music critic Charles Shaar
Murray, and within twenty-four hours they’d decided that they were in love
and resolved to spend the rest of their lives together. Now she gave up
her apartment in San Francisco, packed up her books, and moved to London
to join him. “She was working,” Murray wrote later, “on the assumption
that she was free of cancer and would do whatever was necessary to stay
that way. She maintained a rigorously controlled diet . . . supplemented
with all manner of herbs and pills and powders, frequent visits to a
gallery of healers, and daily hours of yoga and meditation. Her interest
in all things spiritual and esoteric . . . deepened daily.”
Soon they discovered that living together in Murray’s small, cluttered
Islington flat wasn’t ideal for two self-employed writers. She liked to
sleep until noon; he was an earlier riser and wrote in the morning. And
there was the question of money. Murray lived modestly, Acker less so.
Writing as Eurydice in a short dramatic text, “Eurydice in the
Underworld,” she addresses Murray as Orpheus: I traveled to your land
though I was scared that the trip would kill me . . . legally I was
alien; there was no work . . . I was a nobody, a rat, a dowdy housewife
. . . in the outside world I was no one; there you were someone. Which
perhaps was a stretch. She was extremely well-known. To younger
contemporaries, such as the writer Stewart Home, she seemed “so much
cooler than Charles. She was a much cooler person, cooler, hip.”
She and Murray decided that things might be better if she found her own
place. And so, just two months after arriving in London, she bought a
nearby basement apartment near the canals, at 14 Duncan Terrace, for a
hundred and thirty thousand British pounds. It was a cramped warren of
low-ceilinged rooms, but the house overlooked a thin strip of park with
wrought-iron fences and benches.
Even in separate quarters, the couple’s disagreements continued. As
Murray wrote, “We were caught in an endless cycle of breakups and
reconciliations. Sometimes two or three a week. Our feelings for each
other were far too strong for us to let each other go, but our inability
to create a practical emotional structure inhabitable by both of us kept
driving us apart.”
She was seeing a Chinese herbalist, a cranial-sacral therapist, and a
healer. She was constantly tired, but the following month she travelled
back to the States to give readings. During that trip, she spent several
days visiting with William Burroughs at his home in Lawrence, Kansas.
[T]he whole Kansas visit meant so much to me, she e-mailed her
friend Ira Silverberg, the literary agent and editor. My lineage . . .
William, as I’m sure you know, is happy, and to my surprise open and
openly kind (he’s always been kind but scary to me on the surface) . . .
he hugged me again and made an effort to speak to me despite my
ridiculous shyness . . . most of all, for me, I could see how clear he
is, how without rancor and all the obterfuscations that blind most
people. Back home in London, the “Charles mess” continued. He just
keeps wanting to play James Dean and Natalie Woods (was that her name)
and strangely, I’m too old and too in need of a home. Allen Ginsberg
had just retired from his faculty job in the creative-writing department
of Brooklyn College, and Acker asked Silverberg to help her apply for
it, but he had no clue how to do that. Finally, the department told her
they’d consider bringing her in as a visiting writer. As usual, back on
the road. . . . Silverberg suggested that she buy a subscription to A.W.P.
(Association of Writers & Writing Programs)—“a very valuable resource in
looking for teaching work”—and apply for jobs, cold. Most of her
colleagues and friends knew of her cancer diagnosis, but no one could,
or would, help her find more stable employment.
Meanwhile, she’d already accepted a visiting-writer position at Hollins University, in Roanoke, Virginia, for the 1997 spring semester.
Throughout the late fall of 1996, she worked on “The Gift of Disease,” a
long essay about cancer and healing commissioned by the Guardian
Weekend magazine. The essay, she hoped, could eventually be expanded
into a book about her encounters with healers. The piece ran in January,
and then she left London for Hollins University. The job was easy
enough, but setting up another one-bedroom apartment, buying a
motorcycle and a printer, and joining a gym consumed most of salary. I
can’t keep living out of a suitcase and owning a motorcycle in every
port, she e-mailed Ira Silverberg. Still, she kept most of her e-mails
to Silverberg—now editor-in-chief at Grove Press—upbeat and cheery.
Sometimes she slipped: I’m down here til May and the loneliness really
stinks. There isn’t even a bookstore. A bit worried about the health;
have gotten myself run-down what with the strangeness and loneliness
here, the break-up with Charles, and moving here. Oh well . . . love to
everyone. A week later, she called him and tried to talk with him about
her career. I have been so much in a non-literary world and this, in a
way, is a kind of early attempt to make contact with the literary side
of things again . . . I have no idea how to move this information
[about healing] back to your side of the fence. In fact, I am not sure
I know how to move “me” back to your side of the fence. I am a bit
nervous . . . His reply—“career is ever-shifting”—was sagelike but
Back in London in June, she thought about moving to a less depressing
apartment and even applied for a mortgage. She was having terrible
shooting pains down her back and right arm, which she understood as the
somatic effect of her anxiety and perpetual travel. She still had no
agent. She’d written two new short pieces, “Eurydice in the Underworld”
and “Requiem,” both drawn from her life after cancer. Her old friend
Gary Pulsifer had just founded the independent press Arcadia Books. He
suggested combining these essays with some of her earlier works into a
new book for Arcadia. She trusted Pulsifer, and at the time she had no
other choices. They agreed that the new book would be titled “Eurydice
in the Underworld.” That summer, they met often for lunch at a barge
restaurant near her apartment. She didn’t look well. As a resident alien
in the U.K., she could have received free conventional treatment.
Pulsifer didn’t approve of her medical choices, so they rarely talked
about cancer. “Sure, chemotherapy’s poison,” he told me, in London, in
2015, “but it’s a chance.” At the time, he was being treated for cancer,
which he died from sixteen months later. “Kathy,” he said, “was
fascinated by the whole world, or aspects of the whole world. And she
pulled the world into herself, which is quite unusual.”
As summer progressed, she got sicker. She couldn’t eat or digest food or
walk more than a few blocks without tiring. I affirm that every day is
a day of wonder. I affirm that though I don’t see it, I have more money
than I need, I earn more than I need, I live in a house w/ room for all
my books next to where I can walk in the woods, I am healthy I love my
work, my money & my books are in the hands of the right people & I have
time for my work, every day I open more & more to vision, she wrote in
One late afternoon, she and Murray went for a walk along the canal.
Again, they were arguing. Her hands moving fast as she talked, she
dropped her Evian bottle into the water. Murray leaped down the bank,
fished it out, and handed it back. She took a long drink of water, not
thinking then about how the filthy canal water must have seeped through
the cap. By August, her liver had swollen to four times its size, but
she was convinced that the pain in her gut was a viral infection. Every
effect has its cause. Murray had poisoned her. The next time they
fought, it was final.
“Eurydice” was about to come out with Arcadia Books in September, 1997,
but Acker saw no reason to stay in London. She put her flat on the
market and invited the friends she was still in touch with to stop by
for a drink and help themselves to the unwanted clothes, books, and Ikea
furniture that weren’t worth shipping. When Gary Pulsifer arrived, toward
the end of the party, nothing was left except a box of financial
records. He took them. Someday, he thought, these could be useful, and
they have been.
Her Islington flat sold for a hundred and sixty thousand British pounds
while she was on the plane to Chicago, where she was scheduled to
perform with the Mekons for three nights at the Chicago Museum of
Contemporary Art. She wore a gauzy white tunic over black leggings and
danced out in front of the band. The cool, clear soprano voice of the
singer Sally Timms ranged over Acker’s lyrics from her book “Pussy,
King of the
The foul breath of the lower
mouth Becomes a jewel
Jewels can’t be cut
Except with special
Tools You had to cut
me open I was so
She was tired during rehearsals because, she explained, she was getting
over a bad case of food poisoning. Sometimes during performances she
closed her eyes and just swayed toward the microphone. Everyone in the
show knew she was terribly ill and understood that she’d rather not talk
In San Francisco, she checked into the Market Street Travelodge, an
overpriced down-market motel south of the Tenderloin. She weighed less
than a hundred pounds. In her suitcase she had some notebooks and
clothes, her favorite stuffed animals, a few books, including the I
Ching and the Bhagavad Gita, and an assortment of vitamins, Chinese
teas, herbal supplements, and antioxidant compounds. She got back in
touch with her healers and called her old friend Bob Glück. Glück was
shocked when he saw her condition and urged her to go to a hospital. She
didn’t call him again.
At age 30, she wrote in an undated notebook that year, I was working
in a cookie shop. There was absolutely nothing in the society that in
any way made it seem possible for me to earn my living as a writer. I
was, & still am, the most non-commercial of writers. I said, if X
doesn’t exist you have to make it exist. You just imagine it.
Now I knew why I was so upset when friends cried over my plight. All of
me needed the opposite: joy and light. I would imagine, & those who
wouldn’t imagine it with me would have to go. I was too weak for any
Several days later, she moved to a boutique bed and breakfast in the
Mission run by a lesbian couple she’d known from the mid-nineties dyke
scene. She hid out in her room, coming downstairs to make pots of
medicinal tea, until finally the owners told her, “You’re too sick, you
should be in a hospital, you can’t stay here.” She called some friends,
who convinced her to go to a hospital, where she was admitted
immediately. A CAT scan revealed that the cancer had spread to her
pancreas, lungs, liver, bones, kidney, and lymph nodes.
When he heard news of her illness, her friend and ex Sylvère Lotringer,
the critic and theorist, flew from New York to see her immediately.
Seventeen years earlier, when she’d asked him if he wanted to live
together, he’d been hesitant, never actually answered. And then she left
for Seattle. They never formally parted. “I hardly understood at the
time that we were breaking up, that I had to make a choice. After that,
we kept crisscrossing each other’s paths. There was a feeling that
something existed between us, but it was never said: a potential that
was never realized. I never stopped feeling close to her.” He was
shocked when he walked into her room at the U.C. San Francisco Medical
Center: “She was extremely thin. I actually sensed she could die any
second—she was so green-looking, and her skin was like parchment. Her
arms looked so pitiful I could hardly touch her, I was afraid of
breaking her. And yet she was very excited, at the same time, very
lively.” The lumps had returned to her breasts. She told him, I made
all the wrong choices, wrong boyfriends, wrong places.
She knew then that she had cancer—this little cute girl is not having
fun—but she wanted out of the hospital. In her essay “The Gift of
Disease,” she’d written about Max B. Gerson’s alternative-cancer-treatment research and the ongoing work of the Gerson Institute,
in Tijuana. Now, she begged her friend Matias Viegener to bring her down
there, but after they saw her X-rays they told him her cancer was too
advanced and they couldn’t admit her. Finally, Viegener discovered
American Biologics, a facility also situated in Tijuana, one block away
from one of Tijuana’s best hospitals. It was, and still is, frequented
by Amish and Mennonite patients whose religious beliefs preclude them
from buying commercial medical insurance. It was the only alternative-treatment facility that would accept her.
On Halloween night, Viegener ran around San Francisco, through costume
parades, renting a van and gathering Acker’s possessions. Their friend
Sharon Grace found a registered nurse, who was also a Buddhist, who
could help keep her comfortable during the nine-hour trip. The next day,
armed with oxygen tanks, I.V.s, and Demerol, they embarked on a medical
road trip and arrived at the Tijuana clinic on the evening of November
1st, the Mexican Day of the Dead. It felt like the final frontier: “We
left this hi-tech landscape and arrived at this tiny clinic in a
third-world country . . . It was the last stop, there was no going back.
And things were good for a week or two. She was happy to get the
Friends began calling and faxing. Eleanor Antin and her husband, David;
Ira Silverberg; Sylvère Lotringer; and others came down to visit. “The
clinic was really the end of the road,” Lotringer wrote in his notebook.
“Her legs were like sticks. Her arms were so pitifully thin . . . Barely fifty years old, she looked like an old Jewish woman. One
afternoon, she asked if I could go out and get a few of those little
pale blue notebooks that Mexican schoolchildren use. She wanted to start
writing again. It was so sad, seeing her imprisoned in her body, and not
yet ready to acknowledge her condition. It was like she was a child, and
couldn’t accept what was happening. She had this sense of invincibility,
in spite of everything.
“When I came back with the notebooks, she sighed. She knew she was too
weak to use them. She looked at me and asked, Do you think they’ll make
a film about me? ”
Thanksgiving that year fell on November 27th, and by then she was
slipping away. Viegener recalls feeling lonely. A few blocks away from
the clinic, gunmen from the Tijuana Cartel opened fire on the Zeta magazine editor Jesús Blancornelas, the “spiritual godfather of Mexican
journalism,” while he was on his way to the airport. Zeta had just
published a photograph of the cartel leader Ramón Arellano Félix. The
editor’s driver and bodyguard, Luis Valero Elizalde, was instantly
killed. Blancornelas survived, and would spend the rest of his life as a
virtual prisoner. That Saturday, David and Eleanor Antin and the poet
Mel Freilicher came down to visit Kathy. Surrounded by friends, she
began to stop breathing, intermittently. She asked Viegener to look for
the list. What list?
The list to call the animals. Kathy, we didn’t make a list. It’s the
list to call the animals back home.
This text was drawn from “After Kathy Acker,” which is
out from Semiotext(e) on August 18th.
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