The sole biological daughter of Donald and Claire (née Weill) Lehman, Kathy Acker was born Karen Lehman in New York City, in 1947, although the Library of Congress gives her birth year as 1948, while The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica gave her birth year as April 18, 1948, New York, New York, U.S. and died Nov. 30, 1997, Tijuana, Mexico. Most obituaries, including The New York Times, cited her birth year as 1944. Her family was from a wealthy, assimilated, German-Jewish background that was culturally, but not religiously Jewish. Her paternal grandmother, Florence Weill, was an Austrian Jew who had inherited a small fortune from her husband's glove-making business. Acker's grandparents went into political exile from Alsace-Lorraine prior to World War I, due to the rising nationalism of pre-Nazi Germany, moving to Paris and then to the United States. According to Acker, her grandparents were "first generation French-German Jews" whose ancestors originally hailed from the Pale of Settlement. In an interview with the magazine Tattoo Jew, Acker stated that religious Judaism "means nothing to me. I don't run away from it, it just means nothing to me" and elaborated that her parents were "high-German Jews" who held cultural prejudices against Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews ("I was trained to run away from Polish Jews.").
The pregnancy was unplanned; Donald Lehman abandoned the family before Karen's birth. Her relationship with her domineering mother even into adulthood was fraught with hostility and anxiety because Acker felt unloved and unwanted. Her mother soon remarried, to Albert Alexander, whose surname Kathy was given, although the writer later described her mother's union with Alexander as a passionless marriage to an ineffectual man. Karen (later Kathy) had a half-sister, Wendy, by her mother's second marriage, but the two women were never close and long estranged. By the time of Kathy's death, she had requested that her friends not contact Wendy, as some had suggested. Acker was raised in her mother and stepfather's home in the Sutton Place neighborhood of Manhattan's prosperous Upper East Side. In 1978, Claire Alexander, Karen's mother, committed suicide. As an adult, Acker tried to track down her father, but abandoned her search after she discovered that her father had disappeared after killing a trespasser on his yacht and spending six months in a psychiatric asylum until the state excused him of murder charges.
In 1966, she married Robert Acker, and took his surname. Robert Acker was the son of lower-middle-class Polish-Jewish immigrants. Kathy's parents had held hopes that their daughter would marry a wealthy man and did not expect the marriage to last long. Although her birth name was Karen, she was known as Kathy to her friends and family. Her first work appeared in print as part of the burgeoning New York City literary underground of the mid-1970s.
During the 1970s, Acker often moved back and forth between San Diego, San Francisco, and New York. She married the composer and experimental musician Peter Gordon shortly before the end of their seven-year relationship. Later, she had relationships with the theorist, publisher, and critic Sylvère Lotringer and then with the filmmaker and film theorist Peter Wollen.
In 1996, Acker left San Francisco and moved to London to live with the writer and music critic Charles Shaar Murray.
In April 1996, Acker was diagnosed with breast cancer and she elected to have 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, on November 30, 1997, aged 50, from complications of cancer in a Tijuana alternative cancer clinic, the only alternative-treatment facility that accepted her with her advanced stage of cancer. She died in what was called "Room 101", to which her friend Alan Moore quipped, "There's nothing that woman can't turn into a literary reference". (Room 101, in the climax of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, is the basement torture chamber in which the Party attempts to subject a prisoner to his or her own worst fears.)
Acker was associated with the New York punk movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The punk aesthetic influenced her literary style.
In the 1970s, before the term "postmodernism" was popular, Acker began writing her books. These books contain features that would eventually be considered postmodernist work. Her controversial body of work borrows heavily from the experimental styles of William S. Burroughs and Marguerite Duras. Her writing strategies at times used forms of pastiche and deployed Burroughs's cut-up technique, involving cutting-up and scrambling passages and sentences into a somewhat random remix. Acker defined her writing as existing post-nouveau roman European tradition.
In her texts, she combines biographical elements, power, sex and violence. Indeed, critics often compare her writing to that of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Jean Genet. Critics have noticed links to Gertrude Stein and photographers Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine. Acker's novels also exhibit a fascination with and an indebtedness to tattoos. She dedicated Empire of the Senseless to her tattooist.
Acker published her first book, Politics, in 1972. Although the collection of poems and essays did not garner much critical or public attention, it did establish her reputation within the New York punk scene. In 1973, she published her first novel (under the pseudonym Black Tarantula), The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula: Some Lives of Murderesses. The following year, she published her second novel, I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining. Both works are reprinted in Portrait of an Eye.
In 1979, she received popular attention after winning a Pushcart Prize for her short story "New York City in 1979". She did not receive critical attention, however, until publishing Great Expectations in 1982. The opening of Great Expectations is an obvious re-writing of Charles Dickens's work of the same name. It features her usual subject matter, including a semi-autobiographical account of her mother's suicide and the appropriation of several other texts, including Pierre Guyotat's violent and sexually explicit "Eden Eden Eden". That same year, Acker published a chapbook, entitled Hello, I'm Erica Jong. She appropriated from a number of influential writers. These writers include Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Keats, William Faulkner, T.S Eliot, the Brontë sisters, the Marquis de Sade, Georges Bataille, and Arthur Rimbaud.
Acker wrote the script for the 1983 film Variety. Acker wrote a text on the photographer Marcus Leatherdale that was published in 1983, in an art catalogue for the Molotov Gallery in Vienna.
That same year, she was signed by Grove Press, one of the legendary independent publishers committed to controversial and avant-garde writing; she was one of the last writers taken on by Barney Rosset before the end of his tenure there. Most of her work was published by them, including re-issues of important earlier work. She wrote for several magazines and anthologies, including the periodicals RE/Search, Angel Exhaust, monochrom and Rapid Eye. As she neared the end of her life, her work was more well-received by the conventional press; for example, The Guardian published a number of her essays, interviews, and articles, among them was an interview with the Spice Girls.
Acker published Empire of the Senseless in 1988, and considered it a turning point in her writing. While she still borrows from other texts, including Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the appropriation is less obvious. However, one of Acker's more controversial appropriations is from William Gibson's 1984 text, Neuromancer, in which Acker equates code with the female body and its militaristic implications. In 1988, she published Literal Madness: Three Novels, which included three previously-published works: Florida deconstructs and reduces John Huston's 1948 film noirKey Largo into its base sexual politics, Kathy Goes to Haiti details a young woman's relationship and sexual exploits while on vacation, and My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini provides a fictional autobiography of the Italian filmmaker in which he solves his own murder.
Between 1990 and 1993, she published four more books: In Memoriam to Identity (1990); Hannibal Lecter, My Father (1991); Portrait of an Eye: Three Novels (1992), also composed of already-published works; and My Mother: Demonology (1992). Her last novel, Pussy, King of the Pirates, was published in 1996, which she, Rico Bell, and the rest of rock band the Mekons also reworked into an operetta, which they performed at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, in 1997.
In 2007, Amandla Publishing re-published Acker's articles that she wrote for the New Statesman from 1989 to 1991.Grove Press published two unpublished early novellas in the volume Rip-Off Red, Girl Detective and The Burning Bombing of America, and a collection of selected work, Essential Acker, edited by Amy Scholder and Dennis Cooper in 2002.
Three volumes of her non-fiction have been published and republished since her death. In 2002, New York University staged Discipline and Anarchy, a retrospective exhibition of her works, while in 2008, London's Institute of Contemporary Arts screened an evening of films influenced by Acker.
In 2013, the Acker Award was launched and named for Kathy Acker. Awarded to living and deceased members of the San Francisco or New York avant-garde art scene, the award is financed by Alan Kaufman and Clayton Patterson.
In 2017, American writer and artist Chris Kraus published After Kathy Acker: A Literary Biography, the first book-length biography of Acker's life experiences and literary strategies. American writer Douglas A. Martin published Acker. a book-length study of Acker's influences and artistic trajectory. 
In 2018, British writer Olivia Laing published Crudo, a novel which references Acker's works and life, and whose main character is a woman called Kathy, suffering double breast cancer; yet book's events are situated in August-September 2017.
Lust: A Sailor's Slight Identity (1987, available in Hannibal Lecter, My Father)
Literal Madness: Three Novels (Reprinted 1987; contains Kathy Goes to Haiti, My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini, Florida)
Young Lust (1988; contains Kathy Goes to Haiti, The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec, and Florida)
Empire of the Senseless (1988)
In Memoriam to Identity (1990)
Hannibal Lecter, My Father (1991)
Portrait of an Eye (1992, includes early novels Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula By the Black Tarantula (1973); I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining (1974); Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec (1978)
My Mother: Demonology (1994)
Pussycat Fever (with Diane Dimassa and Freddie Baer, illustrators, 1995)
Pussy, King of the Pirates (1996)
Portrait of an Eye: Three Novels (Reprinted 1998)
Eurydice in the Underworld (1998)
Essential Acker: The Selected Writings of Kathy Acker (2002)
New York City in 1979 (2018, Penguin Modern)
Kathy Acker (1971-1975) (2019, Éditions Ismael, 656 pgs.), ed. Justin Gajoux and Claire Finch, critical edition of unpublished early writings from 1971 to 1975
Some of the contents from * Kathy Acker (1971-1975) (2019, Éditions Ismael, 656 pgs.), ed. Justin Gajoux and Claire Finch, critical edition of unpublished early writings from 1971 to 1975
The Golden Woman (poem, 1969-1970)
Section from DIARY (1-2, 1971)
Portraits (7, 1971)
Portraits and Visions (summer 1971)
Diary Warmcatfur (1, 1972)
Politics (1972, full text)
For H. (1972)
Revolutionary Diary of an Anarchist (1972)
Journal Black Cats Black Jewels (summer 1972)
Gold Songs for Jimi Hendrix (1972)
Breaking Up (summer 1972)
[Letter to Berndadette Mayer] (fall 1972)
Entrance into Dwelling in Paradise (poems, fall 1972)
[Exercises] (fall 1972)
Stripper Disintergration (2-3, 1973)
Section from Diary (3, 1973)
[Letter to Bernadette Mayer] (1973)
The Beginning of the Thesmophoriazusae (7-9, 1973)
Part I of Breaking Through Memories into Desire (11, 1973)
Part II [of Breaking Through Memories...] (1, 1974)
Conversations (1, 1974)
[Letters to Alan Sondheim] (2-3, 1974)
[Letter to Bernadette Mayer] (3/3/1974)
This is not a complete list.
This symbol # indicates published in Kathy Acker (1971-1975) (2019, Éditions Ismael, 656 pgs.), ed. Justin Gajoux and Claire Finch, critical edition of unpublished early writings from 1971 to 1975
The Golden Woman (poem, 1969-1970) #
Journal Black Cats Black Jewels (summer 1972) #
Gold Songs for Jimi Hendrix (1972) #
Part I of Breaking Through Memories into Desire (11, 1973) #
Part II [of Breaking Through Memories...] (1, 1974) #
Baby don't give baby don't get (from the novel Florida)
Homage to Leroi Jones (poems, pub. 2015 by Lost and Found: The CUNY Poetics Documents Initiative, from manuscript 1972)
Lulu Unchained (drama, 1985, first performed at ICA; available in the novel Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream)
The Birth of the Poet (drama, 1981; performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1985, directed by Richard Foreman; published in Eurydice in the Underworld; also in Wordplays 5: An Anthology of New American Drama, 1987)
Requiem (drama, 1997; published in Eurydice in the Underworld)
Variety (screenplay, 1985, directed by Bette Gordon; unpublished)
Recordings, music collabs
Pussy (1994, produced by CodeX; contains two sections, O and Ange and Pussy, King of the Pirates: Her Story)
The Stabbing Hand (1995) - spoken-word guest appearance on alternate mix of song by Oxbow, included on reissues of album Let Me Be a Woman
Essays (periodicals, book reviews, movie reviews, art reviews, speeches, and other texts)
This is not a complete list.
The symbols ^^ indicate it's available at Duke University's collection of Kathy Acker's papers. The symbol # indicates the essay is included in the Kathy Acker collection Bodies of Work: Essays (London: Serpent's Tail, 1997).
Notes on Writing from the Life of Baudelaire (1979^^)
New York City 1983 (from Marcus Leatherdale: His photographs - a book in a series on people and years, with Christian Michelides, published by Wien, Molotov, 1983)
Realism for the Cause of Future Revolution (from Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, 1984#)
An Actual Institution of Art (1986^^)
Introduction to collection Young Lust (1988)
Introduction to Boxcar Bertha (1988#)
A Few Notes on Two of my Books (from Review of Contemporary Fiction, vol 9, no. 3, Fall 1989#)
Blue Valentine (1989^^)
Review of Scandal for Weiner (1989^^)
Low: Good and Evil in the Work of Nayland Blake (1990) A selection is available in the Kathy Acker collection Body of Works: Essays.
The World According to Peter Greenway (from The Village Voice, vol. 35, April 17, 1990#)
In the Underworld (1990^^)
William Burroughs' Realism (1990)
From Counter-Culture to Culture, But Here's no Culture/Fuck Ecology and the Death of Communism/The Meaning of the 80s (1990^^)
New York City 25/12/89-31/12/89 at the Edge of the New (1990^^)
Kathy Acker and British astrologer discuss Kathy Acker's astrology chart (date unknown)
This is not a complete list.
Spread Open, with artist Paul Buck. Incorporates correspondence between Kathy Acker and Buck from early 80s. Published in 2005 by Dis Voir.
I'm Very Into You. A book of Acker's email correspondence with media theorist McKenzie Wark, edited by Matias Viegener, her executor and head of the Kathy Acker Literary Trust. Pub. in 2015, by Semiotext(e).