The Barnes & Noble Review
There is a striking moment early in In the Darkroom, the remarkable memoir by the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Susan Faludi. First, some context: the author, whose parents divorced when she was a teenager, has barely spoken to her father in twenty-five years when, in 2004, she receives an e-mail informing her that Steven, at age seventy-six, has had sex reassignment surgery and is now Stefánie. "I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man that I have never been inside," Stefánie explains.
Faludi is best known for the 1991 bestselling feminist classic Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, and In the Darkroom makes clear that her feminism emerged in large part as a reaction to growing up with the domineering Steven, whose malevolent bullying, by the end of her parents' marriage, had escalated into violence. Not long after receiving her father's shocking news (Faludi had no hint that such a profound change was coming), she visits Stefánie in Budapest, her father's birthplace, to which he had returned fifteen years earlier. There she finds the "overbearing and autocratic" patriarch of her memory replaced by a self-identified "lady" clad in high heels and pearl earrings and crowing about how men now help her with everything. "I don't lift a finger," she tells her celebrated feminist daughter. "It's one of the great advantages of being a woman. You write about the disadvantages of being a woman, but I've only found advantages!"
That loaded remark hints at how fraught it will be for Faludi and Stefánie to reinvent their relationship, a project that is both personal and professional as Stefánie promptly asks Faludi (or dares her, in the author's view) to write her life story. To be sure, there are charged gender dynamics: Stefánie, at times an almost menacing figure, seems to take pleasure in making her daughter uncomfortable by undressing in front of her, saying, "Oh, come now. We're all women here." Yet gender becomes merely one axis of analysis that Faludi explores; as she attempts and often fails to understand her inscrutable father, the book becomes a rumination on larger questions of identity. "Is who you are what you make of yourself, the self you fashion into being," Faludi wonders, "or is it determined by your inheritance and all its fateful forces, genetic, familial, ethnic, religious, cultural, historical? In other words: is identity what you choose, or what you can't escape?"
Stefánie's "fateful forces" are particularly complex. He was born István Friedman in 1927 to wealthy but almost criminally inattentive Jewish parents, with a childhood that was sad and lonely until it became far worse, a terrifying struggle to survive the Nazi occupation. He lived through World War II, after which he left Hungary, Judaism, and István Friedman behind, renaming himself Steven Faludi. Once he made his way to the United States, according to his daughter, he "was eager to present himself as a model of postwar American manhood, with wife and children as supporting cast." (A convertible and a house in the New York City suburbs, complete with a basement full of tools, rounded out the picture.) Faludi, who delves into Hungary's long and dark history of anti-Semitism, links this initial transformation to the Hungarian tradition, amply evident in anti- Semitic literature, of feminizing Jewish men. Because Steven, seemingly incapable of self-reflection, later experienced his divorce as abandonment by his family, from his perspective he was denied his proper place both in Hungary and in his suburban home. "As both European Jew and American Dad, my father's manhood had been doubted, distorted, and besmirched," Faludi writes.
Faludi seems to be searching for motives beyond gender identity for her father's transition; the degree to which this goes against conventional wisdom about the transgender experience is demonstrated by the fact that even an elderly high school classmate of her father's warns her, in the author's words, "not to conflate religion and gender." When she asks whether her father always felt himself to be a woman, however, the elusive Stefánie offers no satisfying response. "As far as I could tell, becoming a woman had only added a barricade, another false front to hide behind," Faludi laments. "Every road to the interior was blocked by a cardboard-cutout of florid femininity, a happy housewife who couldn't wait to get 'back to the kitchen.' " Before it was the kitchen, it was the darkroom: the book's title derives from Steven's profession as a photographer who, in a time before Photoshop, specialized in retouching images for fashion magazines like Vogue and Glamour. He excelled at techniques known as "dodging," lightening dark areas, and "masking," hiding unwanted parts of a photo. By the end of In the Darkroom, it is genuinely moving that Faludi has achieved a hard-won closeness with her difficult parent. Still, so many of her questions, large and small, remain unanswered. Stefánie, who died last year, was dodging and masking to the end.
Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York, Newsweek.com, Details, and Spin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.
Reviewer: Barbara Spindel
From the Publisher
“This book is a masterpiece.”
“In the Darkroom is an absolute stunner of a memoirprobing, steel-nerved, moving in ways you’d never expect. Ms. Faludi is determined both to demystify the father of her youth‘a simultaneously inscrutable and volatile presence, a black box and a detonator’and to re-examine the very notion and nature of identity.”
The New York Times (daily review)
“Penetrating and lucid . . . In the Darkroom is Faludi’s rich, arresting, and ultimately generous investigation of her father.”
The New York Times Book Review (front page)
“A searching investigation of identity barely disguised as a sometimes funny and sometimes very painful family saga. . . .Faludi is a mercilessly droll and careful writer. The emotional incontinence and narcissism that pass for insight and power in memoirs these days is not for her. . . .All the same, I cried quite often as I read her book, and at [one] point, I had to go off and stare at some flowers for a while. . . . An out-and-out masterpiece of its kind.”
The Guardian (UK)
“Faludi's remarkable, moving and courageous book is extremely fair-minded all the way through.”
The Guardian, (U.S. edition)
“It’s a gripping and honest personal journeybolstered by reams of researchthat ultimately transcends family and addresses much bigger questions of identity and reinvention.”
“Many great writers eventually turn to biography, but rarely does it so directly crash into their lifelong intellectual pursuits. . . . very few can dissect a prevailing cultural norm as well as Faludi can.”
The Washington Post
“In this riveting book about a very complicated subject, Ms. Faludi . . . does a remarkable job tracking down the truth about her father, a person of multiple and contradictory identities . . . Ms. Faludi unfolds her father’s story like the plot of a detective novel.”
The Wall Street Journal
“Moving . . . In the Darkroom is Faludi’s emotionally harrowing quest to understand her dad
. . . Faludi presents her father’s surgery in the context of a complicated, lifelong, protean search for identity.”
“Faludi’s eloquent, timely, and sweeping-yet-intimate new book . . . is a mash-up of genres and themes about family secrets, masculinity and femininity, feminism, violence, the Holocaust, taking revenge. Knitting it all together are questions of identity: Who?or what?makes us who and what we are? How immutable is the end result?”
“In the Darkroom is an intensely personal journey for Faludi, and despite the intimate subject matter, she never loses her reportorial edge. . . . Through [her father’s] experiences, Faludi explores the larger questions of transgender politics and sexual identity in a nation whose past has detrimentally shaped its present. In the process, the hard-nosed reporter and feminist is forced to reevaluate the identity she has built as retaliation against an abusive and domineering father.”
“Wow. Susan Faludi's new book is so good. Like a really dry martini. Pow!”
The Observer (UK)
“Astonishing, unique . . . should be essential reading.”
The Irish Independent
“A classic autobiographical quest. . .Especially pertinent reading in these, our own dark times, when questions of identity keep coming to the fore, as matters of life and death.”
NPR, Fresh Air (Maureen Corrigan)
“Ultimately this book is an act of love . . . a fascinating chronicle of a decade spent trying to understand a parent who had always been inscrutable.”
The Economist (UK)
“Susan Faludi weaves together these strands of her father’s identity – Jewishness, nationality, gender – with energy, wit and nuance. . . . It is rare to read anything about anti-Semitism or transgender issues that works so hard to forgo polemic in favour of understanding. . . . Faludi has paid her late father a fine tribute by bringing her to life in such a compelling, truthful story.”
New Statesman (UK)
“Impressive. . .Sometimes reality delivers up not just a remarkable story, but a remarkable story containing a set of parallel motifs that seem too absurdly perfect to be credible. . .the epic battle, and eventually the epic rapprochement, between Susan and [her father] Stefánie?an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. . . .As impossible as her father is, Susan comes to recognize and feel compassion for the bewildering and titanic forces, inside and out, that batter Stefánie’s psyche.”
“A wrought and multi-layered memoir . . . Powerful and absorbing.”
Publishers Weekly (starred)
“Moving and penetrating . . . A gripping exploration of sexual, national, and ethnic identity.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“Extraordinary: part riveting family memoir, part revelatory Holocaust history, but most of all a profound meditation on human identity. . . . In the Darkroom is nothing if not timely. It is also highly significant. . . .We live in an age overflowing with bitter battles over identity?with too little of Susan Faludi’s humane desire to understand.”
National Book Review
“A record of Stefanie Faludi's extraordinary life, and an unsettling interrogation of that modern obsession, identity. . . .Few have asked these questions with such riveting precision.”
The Spectator (UK)
“In the Darkroom is a unique, deeply affecting and beautifully written book, full of warmth, intelligence and. . .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.”
The Saturday Paper (Australia)