Art by Andrew Haas
HELLO, I’M ERICA JONG. It’s April 2018 and I’m at a Kathy Acker film program at Performance Space New York. We’re watching TV footage of Kathy reading a dramatic monologue that eviscerates feminist novelist Erica Jong. ALL OF YOU LIKED MY NOVEL FEAR OF FLYING BECAUSE IN IT YOU MET REAL PEOPLE. PEOPLE WHO LOVED AND SUFFERED AND LIVED It’s 1986 and Kathy’s leather vest fits loose over a black top with droopy, white-striped sleeves. A leather headband hugs her buzzcut; a chunky earring dings brightly as she speaks HELLO, I’M ERICA JONG. I’M A REAL NOVELIST. I WRITE BOOKS THAT TALK TO YOU ABOUT THE AGONY OF AMERICAN LIFE, HOW WE ALL SUFFER, THE GROWING PAIN THAT MORE AND MORE OF US ARE GOING TO FEEL I’m wearing a boss leather jacket gifted by a friend. It gleams with metal, smells tough. But the shoulders are too broad. It wants to scream sex but screams Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator instead OH YES MY NAME IS ERICA JONG I WOULD RATHER BE A BABY THAN HAVE SEX. I WOULD RATHER GO GOOGOO. I WOULD RATHER WRITE GOO-GOO
Then the text erupts. First published as a standalone chapbook, Acker’s scathing mock monologue was reprinted in Blood and Guts in High School (1984), her most widely read novel. In my mid-twenties, I lifted it to use as my MySpace bio. A bold move, ventriloquizing Acker having read only two of her books and understanding little about the feminist—or other—discourse of her time. Like my leather it didn’t quite fit but it could. I loved the all caps bravado, the catty velocity, a jeweled switchblade zipping through space. In lifting it I liked that it made me seem like a person who had, was into, sex. I wasn’t, not beyond the imaginary. This was during my graduate school years in Philadelphia, when I was posturing as desiring (straight) sex, as (straightly) sexually desirable, a posture supported by the presentation of this text as “me.” Not totally a pose: I too was sardonically against “real people” in fiction, what a racket. Characters: they’re words on a page! On the side of anti-realist fiction I was with Acker all the way. In the field of sex, not so much. I was the baby. I would rather have gone googoo than have sex. If I was using this passage in a knowing, in-on-the-joke way, it was also a private message, a challenge, to myself: Stop being a baby! Be like Kathy: Do it. I would need a few more years, a few new genders. MySpace, incidentally, would be in decline.
There’s danger in reading this passage, this concept of the baby, the googoo, straightforwardly. Acker is not serious about this distinction between being a baby and having sex. She’s using hyperbole to snark at the fictional and feminist modes of Fear of Flying, which is not about having sex per se, but about the fantasy of achieving sexual liberation—a then-dominant feminist imperative that Acker thoroughly scorned. At the risk of being overearnest I want to be clear that I, who spent five years co-editing a scholarly volume on asexualities, do not believe that one remains an infant, unformed, inchoate, if one has not pursued, or desired, sex. Nor the reverse logic, that one is necessarily not an immature babypants if one has. But I do want to cradle the baby a bit, mobilizing this expletive googoo as a comforting coo. Then I want to kick it.
This film program at PSNY is curated by Matias Viegener, the executor of Kathy’s estate. This afternoon he tells us, between clips, that Acker was interested in what he calls “unhappy sex.” He talks about the sexual pessimism in her work—while irresistible, sex is never a path to liberation—and shows us a clip from The Blue Tape, her infamous collaborative film with Alan Sondheim, with whom she enjoyed a consuming epistolary infatuation, yet dismayingly unhappy sex. In one long, unsettling scene, Kathy doms Alan, working over his cock with her mouth and hands while he tries to maintain a verbal flow. As he approaches orgasm, he loses language. His terror is evident. He shrieks. The Blue Tape, Matias says, was in part a rejection of the sexual utopianism of the 60s and 70s. Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying was the counterpoint against which Kathy was writing. The sexually liberated woman. Googoo.
I still haven’t read it. I first met Matias on a panel I co-organized at the 2015 &NOW Festival called Bad Boundaries. Today, at PSNY, Matias stepped off the elevator burdened with bags. I’m terribly sick and on cold medicine, he told me, then planted a wet kiss on my cheek. One of my perennial contradictions is that while my writing exults in messy boundaries, leaky bodies, genre and subjective collisions, in person I can be pretty closed off. When I lifted this passage for my MySpace bio, I had kissed just two people, cis men, barely. In both instances I fled, the contact too threatening. Googoo. And yet I was relieved. The profile pic I paired with my Kathy Acker citation was a crop of the female serial killer of men from the horror film Audition, my head pasted on top, wispy bangs and penetrating gaze: a wannabe femme, kill-all-men-type pose. Along with Acker, I was reading Andrea Dworkin and Valerie Solanas, who together confirmed my erotophobia: sex was clearly against women, and as a woman, I would opt out. Asexuality as feminist resistance. For years I had used anorexia as a method of sexual (and other) refusal: distracting myself so thoroughly with weight and calorie counts that I didn’t have the room to worry about anything else, especially sex (which could only have meant straight sex at that time). As my new shield I was using radical anti-porn feminism. Maybe this was going googoo but it was also recognizing the ways in which sex as an institution—a state-regulated, religiously inscribed, family-focused, couple-centric, straight-supremacist, patriarchal institution that normalized rape culture and corralled sex to the privacy of the marital bed—was against us. I had grown up in the wake of AIDS, with abstinence-only sex ed, watching Monica Lewinsky made into a national scapegoat. By the time I was twelve I felt sure I would never have sex.
If radical anti-porn feminism gave me a politics for my sexual disinclination, it also gave me a vector of abjection to desire. That vector led me to Acker and Chris Kraus, who wrote frankly about desiring abjection. Acker and Kraus (also Dennis Cooper, Samuel R. Delany, Dodie Bellamy, etc.) presented sex as anti-utopian and yet worth pursuing. Whether or not pursuing female / queer / trans desire in an anti-female / anti-queer / anti-trans and generally sex-negative culture is potentially liberatory, it’s still often an ugly pursuit—humiliating, ego-threatening, abject. In Blood and Guts in High School, Janey’s irrepressible desires lead to multiple abortions, repeated bouts of pelvic inflammatory disease, and an economic and emotional dependence on men. “Sex you’re gonna stop,” Janey begs. “I hate you” (125). Googoo? Janey, of course, is both ten years old and the adult author writing her, a child-adult, an adult-child. Like me.
“If we think of ‘literariness’ as a kind of style, the most prevalent mode of what we call literary fiction—e.g., quiet moments indicating big meanings, language that sings through the ugly parts—Acker didn’t eschew this mode so much as antagonize it.”
I was introduced to Kathy Acker when I was 24, when my older writer friend Leeyanne read me the first few pages of Blood and Guts in High School over the phone. My exhilaration was immediate and my desire, for once, strong. Kathy with a K, she said, as I searched for a copy on Abe Books. At the time I was living with my parents in Alexandria, Virginia, while saving money for graduate school. I remember reading Blood and Guts on the Metro as I commuted to my job at Science Magazine, mortified by the dick pics and guarding the pages against curious eyes. Reading it made my eyes hot, my pulse quicken. I connected intensely to Janey’s hysteria, her little-girl voice, to the ways in which Acker’s slippery, self-conscious sentences ironized both.
In my undergrad fiction workshops at UVA I had turned in formally experimental work about girlhood—recursive video game stories and choose your own adventures—and my straight man professor would say a few vaguely positive things before pausing. …But is it literary? Acker’s wild, clearly genius writing centered girls and was determinedly anti-literary. As we know, Acker was tremendously erudite, her body of work engaging with—and often actually plagiarizing—an extraordinarily broad archive, including not just Dickens and Genet but also mass market true-crime books and her own diaries. If we think of “literariness” as a kind of style, the most prevalent mode of what we call literary fiction—e.g., quiet moments indicating big meanings, language that sings through the ugly parts—Acker didn’t eschew this mode so much as antagonize it. The first section of Blood and Guts in High School is titled “Parents stink.” The opening sentence is built with bad grammar.
Two years later, when I reread Blood and Guts at Temple as part of my tutorial with Samuel R. “Chip” Delany, I didn’t have a good answer when Chip asked why I responded so strongly to her work. (This was not in itself surprising as I was generally tongue-tied around Chip.) By this time I had developed a completely unfounded overidentification with Acker and was annoyingly Acker this, Acker that in my program. She was god. And I felt that my connections to her work should have been obvious to anyone: it was so me. A preposterous notion, since I was, shall we say, “basic,” at least on the surface: a middle-class white girl raised Catholic and costumed in suburban mall clothes, leading a straight-passing, largely ace life. The stuff that made up Acker’s books was the stuff of her life, and mine was markedly different: I hadn’t lost a mother to suicide, nor experienced abortion, divorce, cancer, New York. I wasn’t Jewish (in fact I unwittingly erased Acker’s Jewishness in the scholarly article I published in 2009 interrogating, from a postcolonial perspective, Janey’s subaltern status). And I didn’t experience much, if any, sexual desire.
If Chip asked me now, I would say I connected to the book’s strategic overdeterminism. The way it plays out, exaggeratedly, the brutal implications of being a desiring straight woman in an anti-woman world. I was none of those things—not yet desiring, not comfortably straight, not at ease as a woman—but these were the expectations foisted upon me. I connected to—even appreciated—the book’s strict gender binary. The straightness. The horror of it all. It confirmed my own sense of stuckness. In this hyperbolic vision of gender oppression, I felt seen. I had so much gender anxiety I felt often actually deranged—because some quality of my gendered experience was still unlanguageable: the transness I couldn’t see or name.
Beyond that, the obvious, and I think this is mainly what I said to Chip: it gave me an arsenal of experimental techniques to play with.
Last year I completed the novel I started at Temple during that time, 2006ish. It’s a totally different book now, of course, fifteen years later—and lives in the world now as Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body, published in September 2021 by Feminist Press. The first draft, then called Matilda, lifted Roald Dahl’s telekinetic girl genius and plopped her into a series of narrative environments in a structure modeled after Blood and Guts in High School. The book was conceived as a novel of crisis, the central problem being the eating disorder crisis of the 90s and early 2000s, though not yet historicized as such. I basically replaced all of the sex in BGHS with bingeing and purging and food restriction.
I want to talk about a section from that draft that is notable for also being my first real publication, in 2008, in Wreckage of Reason: An Anthology of Contemporary XXperimental Writing by Women Writers, the kind of “women’s writing” anthology I no longer fit into, and, with its “XX” genetic essentialism, a good example of the kind of oblivious cissexism, until recently, of much of the discourse of women’s writing (and to which I, too, was then oblivious). In this section, which has since been cut from the novel, I adopted, after Acker, a mode of hysterical pastiche and plagiarized several different texts to demonstrate metatextually how (I felt) both mainstream and experimental feminist narratives excluded girls and women with eating disorders. The first text is a scene from a YA novel, Sloppy Seconds, in which the main character, Jessica Darling, frequently expresses disgust at girls with eating disorders. On a date at a diner, her crush, Marcus Flutie, congratulates her about eating. “You eat!” he says, pleased. “Most girls don’t eat.” Well, Jessica Darling isn’t like most girls, she informs him. Those girls are dumb. (I’m paraphrasing.) In my version, my character Matilda is at a restaurant with her crush Stephen Lamont. Unbeknownst to Stephen, she has been chewing up her food and spitting it into her napkin. Her friends show up and first shame her for eating a burger before realizing she’s been doing something worse, pretending to eat a burger, and they seize Matilda’s napkin, flinging her disgusting half-eaten burger bits into Stephen’s aghast face.
Matilda flees to the parking lot, where she bumps into a mysterious leather-clad woman on a motorcycle, distinctly out of place at this Friendly’s restaurant in Chester, Virginia. HELLO I’M KATHY ACKER she introduces herself. ALL OF YOU LIKED MY NOVEL BLOOD AND GUTS IN HIGH SCHOOL BECAUSE IN IT YOU MET A SUBMISSIVE HYSTERIC FEMALE COMPLICIT IN HER OWN DEGRADATION. JANEY WHO LOVED COCK AND WAS REJECTED BY EVERYONE FROM JEAN GENET TO FEMINISTS TO THE REVOLUTIONARIES OF NORTH AFRICA. I’m using substitution here, a frequent Acker technique, on that same Erica Jong passage. MY NOVEL CONTAINED SEX AND PICTURES OF COCKS. THAT’S WHY YOU LIKED IT. MY NEW NOVEL DIETS ARE DUMB HAS SEX TOO. IT’S WITH FOOD. AND IT CONTAINS TWO NEW CHARACTERS. MATILDA AND ME. MATILDA IS STARVING HERSELF TO CONFORM TO SOCIETAL NORMS. IN OTHER WORDS, MATILDA IS DUMB AND I KILL HER. GOODBYE.
This goes on for the full length of the original. Matilda climbs on Kathy’s bike and together they roar into the future which is also the past: my character’s future, that is, which is Acker’s past. The dialogue that follows revises Acker’s interview with Andrea Juno in the ANGRY WOMEN issue of Re/Search Magazine, where she defends cutting and other kinds of body modification as subversive forms of specifically female creativity, in contrast to anorexics, whom she describes as zombies or puppets. According to Acker, women who get piercings and tattoos, or who modify their bodies through weight-lifting, as she was doing, are actively searching for who to be…whereas women who starve themselves or get cosmetic surgery are obeying the normal society. It’s very different.
I had originally conceived this encounter between a fictive Acker and my own fictive self as a fantasy in which Kathy would teach me how to be a radical girl, a sexual girl, a desiring girl. She would teach me how to be her. Then I read this interview. The scene became, instead, a confrontation in which I used her tactics to show how she was rejecting me. At the end of the scene, Matilda sobs (parroting Janey) I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry. Please tell me if the world is horrible and if my life is horrible and if there’s no use trying to change, or if there is anything else. Is hunger OK? Acker shoves my character off the bike and thunders away after backing up over her legs.
The original language at the end of those lines reads Is desire OK? With the substitution I wanted to suggest that hunger in this context is or can be desire sustained and cultivated, deliberately left unfulfilled, a void for something yet to arrive. In coming to understand my own history of food restriction, it was important for me to see it as a creatively political response to sexism and misogyny, a way of divesting from the normal society. I felt I had been actively searching for who to be within a context of limited-seeming options. Now I understand it as both/and. It was (at times) an active and critical act. It was (at times) a zombie act. It was (at times) a coping mechanism during a confusing and alienating time. It was (at times) another identity to try on. It was (at times) an exploration of corporeal limits. It was (at times) normal everyday behavior. It was (at times) a transgender practice.
The novel has undergone a near-complete transformation since those early drafts—as have I—and I ended up deleting this scene and most of the remnants of Acker. In its final realization as Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body, it’s become a queer and trans coming-of-age story in the form of a girl group mystery series that gets taken over by an eating disorder narrative. It moves episodically through the textual girl worlds of my childhood—the Baby-Sitters Club, Girl, Interrupted, Fiona Apple’s Tidal, etc. The heavy problem at its heart is not sexism and misogyny but (surprise!) hetero- and cis-normativity (especially as they are entangled with sexism and misogyny). But though it’s anchored now in a trans disidentificatory standpoint, the book is still obsessed with, and affiliated with, the category of the girl.
Hegel, or the panopticon, sees all, except for the beginning of the world. In that beginning, which is still beginning, there is a young girl. Her name’s not important. She’s been called King Pussy, Pussycat, Ostracism, O, Ange. Once she was called Antigone…
—Pussy, King of the Pirates (163)
Acker’s work offers a complex, far-reaching analysis of gender and sexuality, capitalism, language, the politics of aesthetics, transnational politics, power. At the center of it all, of her theory of everything, is the girl. Acker’s girl is absorptive, avaricious, appropriative. She can become Don Quixote, she can become Mohamed Choukri, she can become a series of murderesses. Destabilized and porous, Acker’s girl invites us to become her, and to reorient her around us or vice versa. The girl mutates, defying fixity, over Acker’s body of work, and culminates, in her final novel Pussy, King of the Pirates, in the figure of the girl pirate.
In Pussy, King of the Pirates, which revises Treasure Island, O teams up with Ange, whose mother left her a map to Pirate Island. Together they meet a grimy pub owner in Brighton named Silver who tells them she used to be a sailor. When they show Silver the map, she leads them to a gang of drunk tattooed girls led by a captain named Pussy, and they hire the pirate girls to take them to Pirate Island. The novel is both a female friendship narrative and a girl group narrative—in fact, here the two are in tension, as O and Ange somewhat apprehensively fall in with the pirate gang. The most central protagonists, O and Ange retain their difference from the pirate girls, who seem a lot like genderqueer dykes—or simply off the grid of determinable gender.
One of the pirate girls is Antigone, who has returned from her death in Sophocles. In her short point of view section, Antigone is out shopping, yearning to escape what feels like a disappearing world. Faced with the prospect of buying one of the huge, autumn-colored chenille sweaters on the racks, the only clothes which remain in the world, she decides:
I will be _____ instead.
_____ is something impossible.
I’ll be a girl pirate. (177)
A temporary substitute, then, for something impossible, for something unlanguageable, the girl pirate exists on some Muñozian horizon of queer—and trans—possibility. Some of the pirate girls aren’t female (whatever that means), and some are not always girls. I want to be female again, laments Bad Dog, presumably genderqueer or transmasculine-ish. I’m not always a girl, Silver tells O (who responds simply, Oh). If Bad Dog and Silver are not (always) girls, still they claim the category. Girls got to survive, Silver says when they see that O and Ange have found the treasure. Since girls includes us—we need that treasure (265).
Acker’s pirate girl is also an adult. Many of Acker’s characters are perpetual adolescents, never babies but forever girls, even when they are (like Antigone) dead, even as their childhoods come to an end, again and again. In Pussy, King of the Pirates, Acker writes, Childhood ended when Pussy learned that she was pregnant (72). Later, upon changing leaky post-abortion pads in a public hallway, King Pussy declares, Childhood was officially over (88). For O, childhood ends when Silver seduces her into joining the pirate girls: At this moment, she observes, I parted from childhood (228). And yet she is still a girl.
The biggest way in which Acker continues to haunt my book is in its construction of a deliberately immature protagonist. Some readers of the latest drafts have said—this character seems too young for her age. The convention of course in coming-of-age novels is that our protagonists are far wiser than their years, and my character is wincingly the opposite. That’s because she doesn’t want childhood to end. She needs to be _____. Something that still seems impossible.
In 2019 I had the opportunity to talk with Tegan and Sara about their memoir High School and the decision to resist retroactively mocking their younger selves in it. I approached this Trans/Acker talk with similar intentions—to write compassionately, non-ironically, about this early draft of my book and the younger self who wrote it.
In the Q&A I found myself doing some distancing. I couldn’t help but worry, given conversations about wounded women earlier that day, that everyone was inwardly groaning about being made to think about eating disorders. That morning Torrey Peters delivered an outstanding talk on “The Cult of the Sad Literary Trans Woman.” Following Leslie Jamison’s then-recent essay “The Cult of the Sad Literary Woman,” Torrey asked why, in contemporary literature, did cis women characters become post-wounded (e.g., in Jamison, Maggie Nelson, etc.) and why trans women characters (e.g., in the work of Casey Plett and Jia Qing Wilson-Yang, and in Torrey’s then-forthcoming Detransition, Baby) did not, and instead remained sad; and suggested that (some) trans women fiction writers may be invested in sadness/woundedness as a way of authorizing their entry into women’s domestic fiction.
My own project is not about sad trans women or no-longer-sad cis women but about wounded girls and sort-of or maybe-not-girls. What is at stake in writing feminine woundedness from a position of nonbinary transmasculinity? Girl literature is fraught for me but still it is my heritage. For many years I felt my relationship to girl literature was suspect, that, though I loved it, it wasn’t quite for or about “me”. After I came out as queer and went butch in 2007, it seemed officially so; accordingly, I abandoned my novel. Conversations about Gurlesque poetry in 2009-10 renewed my interest and investment in these issues, and when I read Amy King’s queer critique of the Gurlesque anthology, I wondered if my abandoned book might be about that tension—the uncertain place of the queer girl in the literature of the girl—but I couldn’t get back into the headspace. It wasn’t until I started thinking seriously about taking testosterone circa 2014 that I went back to this book and thought: Oh. Rereading those early drafts maybe convinced me I’m trans. But how, then, I worried, could I rewrite a book so strongly engaged in girl lit as a masculinized (albeit ambivalently) person?
Well, you just do. Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body attempts to make more space for queer/trans/nonbinary experience in the literature of the (always already wounded?) girl—particularly in the literature of eating disorders.
A few people asked me generous, brilliant questions about my anti-sex rewriting of Blood and Guts in High School and I wish I’d had more to offer. I wanted to suggest a linkage between an anti- or asexual position and deeply felt (if unnamed) gender dysphoria but was anxious about saying this directly both because it is personal and because of the ways in which ace and trans people (and ace trans people) get saddled with pathology. Obviously not all (and perhaps very few) ace people are awaiting a trans epiphany that will activate erotic desire; not all trans people are dysphoric, or dysphoric in ace-spectrum-manifesting ways. But for me, dysphoria has been (another!) wound, and asexuality offered some kind of ward of protection. And also, while the published book is still rooted in sexual ambivalence, that early draft has been written over and out of it for good reasons.
Someone asked me a terrific question about how sex frustrates language, as demonstrated in The Blue Tape. Upon further thinking, I want to suggest something else: not about sex and unlanguageability, but about how unbodyability may frustrate desire; how language may lead one to it. During the same time I was writing this largely antisexual novel, I was also producing erotic fiction: my short story “Slug,” for instance, a weird pornographic fantasy in which my avatar Patty has to leave her body and become a ____ instead. ____ is something impossible. She becomes a giant slug.
I’ll never become a giant slug but this writing—and the reading that supported it, including Acker—helped me live in the body I had. And I’ll never become Kathy Acker but her work is the horizon I turn to for a glimpse of what may be possible with language and desire.
Adapted from a talk given for the 2019 Trans/Acker conference at The New School, organized by McKenzie Wark. The first section is excerpted in revised form from the chapbook Kicking the Baby. A few selections from the second half appear with adjustments in the novel Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body.
Megan Milks is the author of the novel Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body and Slug and Other Stories, both published this fall by Feminist Press. Their personal history of early online fandom, Tori Amos Bootleg Webring, is recently out from Instar Books as part of the "Remember the Internet" series.
Andrew Haas is a private studio artist working in Brooklyn, New York.