Reading 'Psychosis' in Kathy Acker's Writing: Rethinking Clinical and Critical Perspectives

Charlotte Baker

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis focuses on the portrayal and implications of ‘literary psychosis’ as represented in selected writing by experimental writer Kathy Acker. I argue that Acker’s contextual, textual, and experiential representations offer a version of psychosis that is meaningful and ‘understandable’, subsequently offering clinical insights that prompt rethinking of contemporary clinical and critical views. In this thesis, I demonstrate how reading psychosis in Acker’s work can lead to new ways of learning about and working with people which support the need for new ways of acknowledging and understanding psychosis, ways that a dominant biomedical perspective on mental health does not always sufficiently recognise. Acker, in my reading, shows the need for close attention to the context of experience, to how it is formally narrated, and to the phenomenology of experiences that might be aligned with psychosis. Acker’s writing details both the context and content of strange and unusual mental experiences and challenging emotions, while often simultaneously structurally mirroring the form of psychosis. Acker’s version of psychosis is not, however, aligned with a strictly nosological or disease-centric context. I argue that the uniqueness of each textual construction highlights the uniqueness of human experience, which is concomitantly denied through homogenising diagnostic frameworks and related treatment approaches that dominate contemporary psychiatric practice. Acker's fiction is widely recognised as being challenging, even alienating, for the reader through her destruction of linear narrative and coherent textual form, twisting of narrative time and place, and thematic concerns which emerge as sometimes violent, explicit and boundary dismantling. I argue that Acker's fiction requires new reading and understanding skills. In this thesis I draw parallels between these novel interpretative, comprehensive and responsive skills and the development of narrative competencies in clinical education and practice, which function to better support and work with people experiencing what might be formulated as ‘psychosis’.

Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Eaglestone, Robert, Supervisor
  • Armstrong, Tim, Supervisor
Award date3 Mar 2016
Publication statusUnpublished - 2016


  • Psychosis
  • Acker

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