Writing Through Kathy’s body

Schlock! began by splicing together two books, E.L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey and In Memoriam to Identity, a novel by Kathy Acker.


Kathy Acker was a cult feminist subversive novelist, who wrote using ‘cut-up’ methods – she preferred to call it ‘stealing’ rather than borrowing or ‘appropriation’. She would take disparate texts, ‘high literature’ and ‘schlock’ and splice them together with her own autobiographical texts. The result are often shocking and always compelling poetic narratives. In spite of Acker’s dislike for the notion of the writer’s unique ‘voice’ – preferring to use and steal lots of different voices – her writing is utterly distinctive. When Acker was a child she wanted to be a pirate; she grew up to become a literary pirate. She died of cancer in Mexico in 1997. ‘Schlock!’ is framed by the story of Kathy’s journey from cancer diagnosis to death, her narrative is mostly told through sign language. Kathy’s sign name is Pirate (patch over eye).

Here’s an extract from In Memoriam to Identity by Kathy Acker:

The man stuck his hand up the kid’s ass, repeatedly making and unclosing a fist, until unfiled fingernails ripped the membranes. At the end of the tunnel of membranes the kid’s heart was beating. Then the man pushed his arm up until he was holding the heart. The heart felt like a bird. Holding on to the heart, he threw the kid to the ground, kicked him in the side until the kid knew that he was nothing, had no mother.

Of course my ‘Kathy’ is a Kathy of my imagination, a Kathy that I met through reading. Acker seemed to perform her personality in multiple ways, through her writing, and through her interviews, for instance when she spoke about writing while masturbating.[1] And maybe that does have an impact on her writings – she’s the only writer I’ve encountered who genuinely does seem to write with her body, even on the page… her body of writing seems pierced through with flesh and metal. Kathy Acker’s writings get to the heart of the kind of emptiness and abuse that’s on the surface of Fifty Shades of Grey. She used language to drill down into absence and numbness and expose the isolation and disconnection of the figures that roam through her words.

Here’s a section from the book version of Schlock! ‘The Kathy Doll’. It’s a conversation between Kathy and ‘It’. It starts out as a child and transforms into cancer.The text is drawn part from Fifty Shades and part from In Memoriam to Identity. This extract isn’t in the performance:

K:   You burned up my genitals darling

It:   You weren’t meant to like it mother

K:   I’d like you to be courteous and to follow the set of rules

I’ve given you and not defy me. Simple.

It:   I didn’t ask to be born

K:   You were sexually aroused by it

It:   I need to control you

K:   You want to punish me for giving birth

It:   Yes, I do.

I found reading Fifty Shades of Grey a very odd experience. For a book that is supposedly full of sex, it seems disembodied, it feels like the narrative is written from a distance, a long way under water, nothing seems real. I went to see the film and there was a group of girls getting excited by the lines they recognised and the appearance of various expensive things. I realised that all the film has to do is show the tie and the suit and the car and the plane, it doesn’t have to have characters with depth or an interesting narrative. The readers of the book have filled all that in for themselves, all they needed was a few markers to hang the existing fantasy onto. But I did have a very emotional reaction to the text . I got through it by highlighting the lines I found disturbing (the bits that made me blink twice…)

“Please don’t hit me,” I whisper, pleading. His brow furrows, his eyes widening. He blinks twice.

“I don’t want you to spank me, not here, not now. Please don’t”

Fifty Shades of Grey is today’s ‘schlock’, the kind of text Acker might have worked with. It seemed to me that I could use the text of Fifty Shades to write about Kathy. To write about Kathy I needed to use her writing methods and write about the body and femaleness and sex and abuse and pain and death and control and orgasm, but mostly to write about Kathy I needed to write about writing, I couldn’t separate Kathy from writing from her body from sex from a woman from a child from an orgasm from death…

The performance is loosely structured using events from Kathy Acker’s life – particularly her actions following being diagnosed with breast cancer. Ultimately I wrote through my source materials to explore sex, disease, control and death, taking Kathy’s name as subject.

You can read more about Acker’s writing methods and experience of being accused of plagiarism in her essay Dead Doll Humility. 

Schlock! is at the Rosemary Branch theatre 8th-26th November alongside a series of post-show talks and double bills with Helen Seymour’s To Helen Back. Book here

Schlock! Field & McGlynn
Schlock! Field & McGlynn

[1] Ellen G. Friedman ‘A Conversation with Kathy Acker’

The Review of Contemporary Fiction. Fall 1989, Volume 9.3. Available online: http://www.dalkeyarchive.com/a-conversation-with-kathy-acker-by-ellen-g-friedman/