There is a striking moment early in In the Darkroom, the remarkable new 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.