In the Darkroom
Susan Faludi (Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women) was tidying away files for a book she’d written on the subject of masculinity when she received an email from her long-estranged father. He’d titled it “Changes”. A Jewish Hungarian immigrant to the US, he had worked as a commercial photographer and retoucher for the likes of Vanity Fair and Vogue in the pre-Photoshop age, and was now retired and living back in Hungary. As a parent he had been temperamental, dictatorial and so emotionally withdrawn that even his happy snaps of their family holidays were “taken from a distance, as if my father were on safari, tracking a fleeing herd”. He had also been violent, sweeping the dishes to the floor when Faludi’s American mother proposed taking part-time work – “No! No job!” – and slamming his daughter’s head against the floor when he mistakenly thought she was thinking of converting to Christianity, even though he considered himself more Magyar than Jew, and even celebrated Christmas. Following his separation from Faludi’s mother, and in violation of an AVO, he once broke into the house and attacked her mother’s new boyfriend with a baseball bat and knife. There was good reason for the 25-year estrangement between father and daughter, not to mention Faludi’s feminism and interest in masculinity and misogyny, all subjects she had written on.
Now, however, her father told her, he had “some interesting news”. Steven (né István) Faludi was now Stefánie Faludi. Among the photos appended to the email was one of “Stefi” in Thailand, post-op, in a light sleeveless blouse and red skirt. In another, she wore a platinum blonde wig and white-heeled sandals that showed off her polished toenails.
If there had been hints of things to come in her father’s love for Hans Christian Andersen, with his tales of “mutilation and metamorphosis, dismemberment and resurrection”, Faludi hadn’t seen it. Her father dares her: “Write my story.”
Carrying a fair amount of emotional baggage – “Did she think sex-reassignment surgery was a get-out-of-jail-free card, a quick fix to a life of regret and recrimination?” – Susan flies to Budapest. Waiting for her is a familiar-looking woman with 48C-cup breasts (“less bosom than battlement”), henna-red hair, a grey skirt, pearl earrings and white heels with matching purse – a self-described “lady” with a screensaver of herself in a maid’s uniform and an inexhaustible delight in expressions of male chivalry. “You write about the disadvantages of being a woman,” Stefi later remarks to her daughter, “but I’ve only found advantages!”
Faludi’s father wants to explain herself strictly on her own terms. (“My father… she…” is a common sentence construction in In the Darkroom.) This includes subjecting Faludi to a mind-numbing marathon parade of favourite websites including ones on make-up tips and transgender fantasy fiction, discursions on vaginal dilation rods, and even a video of the sex-change operation itself. Stefi bats away any questions that take her away from her new narrative, and resists Faludi’s attempts to revisit the places of her youth: “I look to the future, never the past.” It takes Faludi a decade of investigation, contact and often painful (and painfully funny) conversation, but eventually her father’s barriers begin to tumble.
Faludi is an intimate, diligent and ultimately compassionate witness to her father’s life, including Stefi’s not entirely successful attempt to bring together Budapest’s transsexual community over tea and cake, her friendship with her devoted friend Ilonka, a devout and married Catholic woman, and her determined adoption of an idea of femininity that Faludi finds deeply problematic. Faludi mercilessly interrogates her own reactions to all of this, finding herself thinking that no woman would sling a purse around quite like her father does. She asks: “Since when had I become the essentialist?”
Driving home after a particularly difficult afternoon out, she forgets to turn off her tape recorder and accidentally captures an agonised exchange which concludes with Stefi accusing: “Your mother destroyed my life. She destroyed my family.” “…YOU, with a knife, attacked–.” “This was a million years ago… We’re different people now.” “I’m not–.” “I’ve forgotten the whole thing. It’s like it wasn’t even me.”
In the Darkroom is a unique, deeply affecting and beautifully written book, full of warmth, intelligence and, despite its sometimes grim subject matter, humour. It makes a flawless weave of biography and autobiography with an examination of identity politics, Hungarian history, the Holocaust and the reparable bond between parent and child. At times Faludi seems a bit like a woodpecker she once observes, stubbornly tap-tap-tapping on a metal satellite dish. But in her case, persistence is rewarded: she discovers that her father is concealing a far richer past than she’d ever imagined.
Faludi – the original family name had been Friedman – discusses the complex history of Hungarian Jews, at first happily assimilated and later virulently rejected, brutalised and betrayed. If her father is as proud to pass as a Magyar as she is to pass as a woman, Faludi finds to her astonishment that as a young man he had carried off the most extraordinary act of impersonation of all: that of a young officer of the fascist Arrow Cross, leading his own estranged parents away from a detention centre at gunpoint, saying he was taking them for execution, and thus rescuing them from deportation to Hitler’s death camps.
Towards the end of their decade together, and not long before her death, Stefi comes to a kind of reconciliation with her past and her Jewish identity, as well as with Faludi. There is a scene towards the end of the book, brimming with saudade, where Faludi accompanies her father to an underground transsexual disco party. It’s a rather dispiriting affair, with everyone dancing by herself. Finally, she joins her father on the dance floor: “I held up my arm and she twirled underneath it like a pro.”
“If you believe you are whoever you pretend to be,” Stefi tells her at one point, “you’re halfway saved. But if you act funny, if you act afraid, you’re halfway to the gas chamber.” CG
HarperCollins, 432pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 11, 2016 as "Susan Faludi, In the Darkroom". Subscribe here.