IN THE DARKROOM
By Susan Faludi
417 pp. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company
In 2004, Susan Faludi, the journalist and author best known for her 1991 book “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women,” received an email from her estranged father, who had returned to his native Hungary. “I’ve got some interesting news for you,” the email said. “I have decided that I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man that I have never been inside.” Attached was a series of photographs, including one taken in the Thai hospital where her father had just undergone gender reassignment surgery. It was signed “Love from your parent, Stefánie.”
The message wasn’t entirely a shock; Faludi had heard about her father’s operation from another relative. Nevertheless, it was puzzling, because Faludi hadn’t previously had any idea that her father identified as a woman. “Despite our long alienation, I thought I understood enough of my father’s character to have had some inkling of an inclination this profound,” she writes. “I had none.”
“In the Darkroom” is Faludi’s rich, arresting and ultimately generous investigation of her father, who died in 2015. It is partly an inquiry into the meaning of gender, a subject Faludi, the famous feminist, sees very differently from Stefánie, who hewed to traditional notions of masculinity and femininity both as an overbearing patriarch and as a coquettish old woman. But in trying to understand her inscrutable father — Jewish Holocaust survivor and Leni Riefenstahl fanatic, man and woman, a sly fantasist whose tallest tales turn out to be true — Faludi transcends feminist debate. The book, which traces the decimation of her father’s prosperous, assimilated Jewish clan during World War II, his improbable survival and then reinvention in Denmark, Brazil and America, and his gender metamorphosis at 76, becomes a complex act of forgiveness. (Faludi uses male pronouns when describing her father pre-transition.)
Stefánie is obsessed with Hans Christian Andersen, and initially “In the Darkroom” has the otherworldly menace of a fairy tale. A few months after her father re-enters her life, Faludi visits her in Budapest. Stefánie lives in a chalet with an elaborate alarm system behind a gate in the Buda Hills. The thick drapes seem always to be closed. For several days she hardly leaves the house, and is resentful if her daughter tries to go out.
Inside, Stefánie’s world feels claustrophobic and sordid. She once made her living as a photo developer and retoucher, and delights in showing her daughter pictures of her own face montaged onto various female bodies. “Stefi in a pink tutu and ballet slippers, captured in mid plié,” Faludi writes. “Stefi in another maid’s outfit, this one belonging to a little girl, who was being disciplined by a stern schoolmarm in tweeds and lace-up boots.” Her father keeps stacks of printouts of online “forced feminization” fiction — stories in which men are turned into women as a means of sexual humiliation — with the protagonists’ names replaced by Stefánie’s own. She constantly lets her robe fall open, barges into her daughter’s room in lingerie, and objects to her sleeping with the door closed. “Because I want to be treated as a woman,” Stefánie says. “I want to be able to walk around without clothes and for you to treat it normally.”
These scenes are both unnerving and politically volatile. Many religious conservatives, as well as some groups of radical feminists, insist that trans women aren’t really women, but men with fetishes. That’s one of the rationales for discriminatory laws like the one in North Carolina, which mandates that trans people use bathrooms and locker rooms matching the gender on their birth certificates.
Beleaguered campaigners for trans rights, in turn, furiously reject the idea that anyone transitions to fulfill an erotic fixation. “A reigning tenet of modern transgenderism holds that gender identity and sexuality are two separate realms, not to be confused,” Faludi writes. Yet in her father’s fantasy world, she encounters what she calls “a transgender id in which becoming a woman was thoroughly sexualized, in which femininity was related in terms of bondage and humiliation and orgasm, and the transformation from one gender to another was eroticized at every step.”
What to make of this? Faludi searches the canon of transgender autobiography for a story that might offer insight into her father, but ends up frustrated. “The one plotline of I-have-always-been-a-woman was trumping all the other motivations that might reflect the crosscurrents of the human psyche,” she writes. She struggles to square the idea of innate femininity, which she’s not even sure exists, with her memories of her father, who had been violent and controlling in asserting masculine prerogatives.
As Steven Faludi, her father had refused to let his wife work. When her parents separated, Steven smashed through the front door with a baseball bat, then repeatedly stabbed a man that Faludi’s mother was seeing. During the divorce, he turned the incident into proof that Faludi’s mother was unfaithful, which freed him from paying alimony. “As I confronted, nearly four decades and nine time zones away, my father’s new self, it was hard for me to purge that image of the violent man from her new persona,” Faludi writes.
Stefánie herself has an exhibitionist streak, but is resistant to introspection. She demands that Susan watch a graphic video of her Thai surgery, but speaks of womanhood in shallow clichés, happily embracing the sort of sexist stereotypes Faludi has spent her life fighting. “Men have to help me,” she crows. “I don’t lift a finger.” She adds: “You write about the disadvantages of being a woman, but I’ve only found advantages!”
In contemporary popular culture, Faludi writes, you are supposed to take people at their word about their identity: “The womanhood of male-to-female transsexuals was asserted as an inviolable absolute.” For Faludi, however, her father’s new identity is less a truth to be accepted than an enigma to be probed. In doing so, she excavates Stefánie’s past, discovering a person fractured amid the loss and degradation of the Holocaust. Stefánie isn’t even her father’s first new name; before he was Steven Faludi he was István Friedman, only son of an aloof, self-indulgent Jewish couple in Budapest who lost everything but their lives under Nazism.
Faludi knows it’s far too pat to suggest that the psychic disturbance of the Holocaust made Stefánie trans. Nevertheless, there are oblique connections between the various ruptures in her father’s identity. At one point, her father implies that womanhood protects her from anti-Semitism: “It helps that I’m a woman. Because women don’t provoke,” she says. Her insistence that her rebirth renders the past moot seems like a desperate effort to wall off trauma. “Why would I be angry?” she says about her wartime history. “Everyone is very nice to me. I am accepted better now as a woman than I ever was as a man.”
Faludi isn’t the first to connect the trans experience to the Jewish one — it’s a major theme of the Amazon series “Transparent.” But where “Transparent” uses Nazi Germany to show how different types of oppression can mirror each other, “In the Darkroom” is after something subtler. In linking the forcible destruction of one of Stefánie’s identities to the willful jettisoning of another, Faludi seeks to understand the limits of self-reinvention. “Could a new identity not only redeem but expunge its predecessor?” she asks.
Penetrating and lucid as it is, Faludi’s book can’t answer this question. By the end, however, it seems less urgent, because Stefánie’s prickly, particular humanity comes to overshadow concern about categories. Faludi even develops some appreciation for Stefánie’s audacious ability to assume new identities, which, Faludi learns, allowed for real wartime heroism. Her father would tell her a story about dressing up as a Hungarian Nazi to rescue his parents from the fascist Arrow Cross; Faludi hadn’t entirely believed this tale, but she comes to learn that her father understated his valor. She never reconciles her conception of gender with that of her maddening parent, but she reconciles with her, which matters more.