The daughter of Donald and Claire (Weill) Lehman, a wealthy Jewish family, Kathy Acker was born in New York City on April 18. There is some question as to her year of birth, however: the Library of Congress lists her birth year as 1948, a few sources have listed 1947, but most obituaries state that she was born in 1944. The pregnancy was unplanned, and Donald Lehman abandoned the family before Kathy was born; Acker’s relationship with her domineering mother even into adulthood was fraught with hostility and anxiety because Acker felt unloved and unwanted. Her mother soon remarried, a union that Acker later characterized as an essentially passionless marriage to an ineffectual man, and Acker was raised in her mother and stepfather’s respectable upper-middle-class Jewish home on New York’s Upper East Side.
As a girl, Acker was expected to act with ladylike propriety in this oppressive, well-to-do environment, yet she was fascinated by pirates, a fascination that continued until the end of her life. She wanted to grow up to be a pirate, but she knew that only men could be pirates. Thus Acker experienced early the limitations of gender. However, she found that reading about pirates was a way of running away from home, and she turned to books as her reality. She associated reading and writing with bodily pleasure and remained a voracious reader throughout her life.
Acker took her last name from her first husband, Robert Acker; though named Karen, she was known as Kathy by her friends and family. She studied classics as an undergraduate at Brandeis University with other well-known students such as Angela Davis, and aspired to write novels but moved to San Diego to further pursue her studies. Acker's first work appeared in print as part of the burgeoning New York City literary underground of the mid-1970s. She claimed that her early writings were profoundly influenced by her experiences working for a few months as a stripper. She remained on the margins of the literary establishment, only being published by small presses until the mid-1980s, thus earning herself the epithet of literary terrorist. In 1983 a text by Kathy Acker was published in an art catalogue of a fancy gallery in Vienna, called Molotov. The book was dedicated to the photographs of Marcus Leatherdale and also contained another text by Christian Michelides, the founder of the gallery. 1984 saw her first British publication, a novel called Blood and Guts in High School. From here on Acker produced a considerable body of novels, almost all still in print with Grove Press. She wrote pieces for a number of magazines and anthologies, and also had notable pieces printed in issues of RE/Search, Angel Exhaust, monochrom and Rapid Eye. Towards the end of her life she had a measure of success in the conventional press—the Guardian newspaper published several of her articles, including an interview with the Spice Girls, which she submitted just a few months before her death.
Acker's formative influences were American poets and writers (the Black Mountain poets, especially Jackson Mac Low and Charles Olson), William S. Burroughs, and the Fluxus movement, as well as literary theory, especially the French feminists and Gilles Deleuze. In her work, she combined appropriation, cut-up techniques, pornography, autobiography, persona and personal essay to confound expectations of what fiction should be. She acknowledged the performative function of language in drawing attention to the instability of female identity in male narrative and literary history (Don Quixote), created parallelism in characters and autobiographical personas and experimented with pronouns, upsetting conventional syntax.
In In Memoriam to Identity, Acker draws attention to popular analyses of Rimbaud's life and The Sound and the Fury, constructing or revealing social and literary identity. Though she was known in the literary world for creating a whole new style of feminist prose and for her transgressive fiction, she was also a punk and feminist icon for her devoted portrayals of subcultures, strong-willed women, and violence.
In April 1996 Acker was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy. In January 1997 she wrote about her loss of faith in conventional medicine in a Guardian article, "The Gift of Disease." In the article she explains that after unsuccessful surgery, which left her feeling physically mutilated and emotionally debilitated, she rejected the passivity of the patient in the medical mainstream and began to seek out the advice of nutritionists, acupuncturists, psychic healers, and Chinese herbalists. She found appealing the claim that instead of being an object of knowledge, as in Western medicine, the patient becomes a seer, a seeker of wisdom, that illness becomes the teacher and the patient the student. After pursuing several forms of alternative medicine in England and the United States, Acker died a year and a half later from complications of breast cancer in an alternative cancer clinic in Tijuana, Mexico. She died in Room 101, to which her friend Alan Moore quipped, "There's nothing that woman can't turn into a literary reference."