Published in the Sunday Times
In the Darkroom
Susan Faludi (HarperCollins R360)
***** (5 stars)
Susan Faludi had not seen her father for a quarter of a century when, in 2004, she flew from America to see him in Budapest. The person who greeted her was wearing “a red cabled sweater, grey flannel skirt, white heels and a pair of pearl stud earrings … Her breasts – 48C she would later inform me – poked into mine.” At the age of 76 her father had undergone sex reassignment surgery. Steven Faludi, born István Friedman, was now known as Stefánie.
Susan Faludi is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, an authority on feminism and gender whose books Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man and Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women assay the increasingly fluid notions of gender. Now all of her academic understanding would be tested by bearing witness to her father’s life.
In The Darkroom is an astounding story of family, memory, guilt, nationality; of the lacunae that gape in our lives, and the secrets that get sealed over. Of how we perceive, and are perceived, how we create and how we erase. It is, essentially, a study of identity: personal, national and ethnic.
Steven Faludi might have been a Hungarian immigrant but to his family he was the all-American dad. He was a photographer specialising in pre-Photoshop retouching, a man who caught the commuter train every morning from their house in the New York suburbs, who spent his weekends in his workshop and who insisted their secular Jewish family celebrated Christmas and Easter to fit in with the Catholic neighbourhood. He was also a despot, forbidding his wife to work, dragging his daughter on mountaineering trips and cycling marathons.
Over the years his machismo turned violent, and his wife divorced him when Susan was in her teens. One night he broke into the family home and set about his ex-wife’s new boyfriend with a baseball bat and stabbed him with a Swiss army knife. He then convinced a judge he was the wronged party and had his child support payments reduced. This sparked not only the decades-long rift between daughter and father, but Faludi’s deep-rooted feminism, too.
“My father’s insistence on controlling his wife and children played a big part in my attraction to the burgeoning women’s movement of the time,” she writes in an email.
Cut to 2004 when Faludi receives a message from her father: “Dear Susan, I’ve got some interesting news for you. I have decided that I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man that I have never been inside.” Attached to the email were photographs of her, after surgery in Thailand, in wigs and ruffles, skirts and heels. It was signed “Love from your parent, Stefánie.”
And then he asked – and Faludi from here on refers to her father as “she” – her to write her story. So began a decade of investigation, as Faludi visited her father in Budapest and exchanged letters with her, painstakingly tracking her history. She was a maddening subject: elusive and obscuring. “I think in many ways her holding back was part of a ploy to keep me coming back for more.” What was particularly galling for Faludi was her parent’s overt, girly femininity, a coquettish, simpering version of womanhood. She flounced about in frilly aprons and negligees, asked her daughter to help her with her zip, delighted in men holding open doors for her.
“We argued a good deal about that,” she writes, “but my father’s fascination with Doris Day girliness faded over time … it may be that she initially felt that she could only break out of extreme masculinity with the cudgel of extreme femininity.”
Gradually she learned how her father, a master manipulator of images in the laboratory, had manipulated his own identity all his life. And gradually she – and we – learn what a truly damaged person he was.
It emerged that István Friedman had been born into a wealthy Jewish family in Budapest. His parents were cultured and glamorous and travelled a great deal, but they cared little for their only child, who was raised by nannies. He was a teenager when the Nazis overran Hungary and he hid on the streets, half starving, tearing off chunks of frozen horse carcasses to survive. His parents were taken away to await transport to the death camps – some 565 000 Hungarian Jews perished in the war – but he managed to rescue them by impersonating a Fascist soldier. They escaped to Israel but he cut ties with them – one of the myriad anomalies of his life. He eventually made his way to New York, changed his name to the “pure” Hungarian Faludi and enjoyed a respected career. He then inexplicably returned to Hungary after his divorce to live in sight of everything his family had lost: the apartments, the villa, the museums and opera houses they had frequented.
As much as this is a personal story, In the Darkroom is also an absorbing history of a deeply troubled and brutalised nation, and Faludi warns against the current political situation there. “A desperate desire to assert a national identity in Hungary has unleashed a resurgent and virulent anti-Semitism, xenophobia and authoritarianism.”
She says it is a mystery why her father returned to Hungary after a life and successful career in the US. “I think she was searching for a place where she felt she belonged, that felt like “home” to her.”
And as to why she chose to become a woman: “Part of it, I suspect, was a desire to be absolved from past sins. Another part was a yearning to be taken care of, treated as special – and maybe even to be loved.”
Stefánie died in 2014 but she chose not to read the book. “I don’t know that she would have loved every word of it – it’s hard for anyone to see themselves through the eyes of others. But I do think, ultimately, my father would have appreciated my portrayal. She wanted, more than anything, to be perceived.”
Read the extended interview with Susan Faludi, in which she discusses Donald Trump and the rise of the political strongman, the problems of the trans-rights movement and the complex notion of identity, below
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As a very young woman, I was led to feminism by two famous works: Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.
Becoming a journalist meant imagining myself in that role when the archetype was a swaggering male reporter. Like a lot of female journalists of my generation, I early on turned to Joan Didion’s essays, and her collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, was a touchstone.
Later, I became a devotee of Janet Malcolm’s work, especially The Silent Woman (about Sylvia Plath and the genre of biography).
Most recently, the world of Hungarian literature has opened up to me and changed my view of the world—and helped me to understand my father. I’m a great admirer of journalist/novelist Gyula Krudy, and love especially his very last collection of short stories, Life Is a Dream (although I have to say his depictions of women are not particularly feminist …).
I was deeply affected by Janos Nyiri’s Battlefields and Playgrounds, a coming of age story of a young Hungarian Jewish boy during the Holocaust, which has not got 1/10th of the acclaim it deserves.
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The extended interview, in which Faludi discusses Donald Trump, the trans-rights movement and notions of identity
Michele Magwood: One of the most significant aspects of the story is that your father was a master at manipulating photographic images, which extended to him manipulating his own identity. Do you feel you ultimately came to know the “true” person?
Susan Faludi: I don’t believe that we can ever get to the core of someone else – or ourselves – and I’m not sure there even is such a thing as a “true” self. Who we are is multiple and layered and varies by the day and the situation. But I do feel that I came closer to understanding my father better by understanding her history and context-familial, religious, national, sexual-all of which helped me to understand her attitudes and behaviors and desires.
When discussing his WW2 novel Where My Heart Used To Beat I asked Sebastian Faulks why there are ever more fiction and non-fiction books about the war and the Holocaust. He said that it is only this next generation, the children, who are able to process the historical facts and the personal stories. Those who lived it could not express it or have the distance to analyse it. Would you agree?
I think it’s very difficult to describe a storm when you’re in the middle of it. The children of Holocaust survivors are more motivated to dig up the past and we have the safety of distance. We want to understand our parents-and need to, to understand ourselves. For so many victims of the Holocaust, it’s just too excruciating to open that door again-understandably they prefer to seal off the horrors; they are valiantly trying not to allow that unimaginable suffering to afflict the rest of what remains of their lives.
Why do you think your father wanted to become a woman? He had “passed” as so many other personae – as a Christian, as an all-American dad for example – do you think he wanted to cleanse or obliterate himself in some essential way? Or was he simply searching for kindness?
My father’s desire to become a woman was undeniable and persistent, and it went way back to earliest childhood. But at the same time, I think there were many submerged dynamics and motivations that went into my father’s decision to act on that desire when she did. Part of it, I suspect, was a desire to be absolved from past sins. Another part was a yearning to be taken care of, treated as special-and maybe even to be loved. My father wasn’t always conscious of her reasons, though she did repeatedly say to me that she had felt rendered almost mute as a man. “Now I can communicate with anyone!” she told me. I think the release from the isolation and loneliness she felt within the carapace of hyper-masculinity was a major draw of becoming a woman.
As an authority on feminism and gender did it gall you that your father chose a passive, “weaker sex” personality as a woman? Do you believe he understood what it was to be a woman and was he glad to be rid of that other person?
I was, indeed, often galled by my father’s preference for a 1950s frilly femininity. Playing the housewife and no-nothing “dumb broad” – as my father liked to call it – was just the kind of “womanliness” I’d rebelled against when I embraced feminism as a teenager. And we argued a good deal about that. But my father’s fascination with Doris Day girliness faded over time. She gave up the caricatures and settled into a presentation that was more ambiguous – and reflected more her character than a stereotype of a gender. It may be that she initially felt that she could only break out of extreme masculinity with the cudgel of extreme femininity. By the end of her life, though, she began to refer herself often as simply “trans”.
Would you say it was your father’s overt machismo while you were growing up that shaped your feminism?
SF: My father’s insistence on controlling his wife and children played a big part in my attraction to the burgeoning women’s movement of the time. But it was also the surrounding culture and institutions. The fact that the police and courts regarded my father’s domestic violence as a trivial infraction was another moment of feminist awakening for me. As was my witnessing what so many women in my neighborhood went through as they challenged their husbands, broke out of the domestic circle, returned to work.
Your father was, frankly, maddening. She asked you to tell her story and then held back, saying everything was “old history”. How did you break through?
Sheer bullheaded persistence! But also, she wanted me to perceive her. I think in many ways her holding back was part of a ploy to keep me coming back for more. I wondered sometimes if she feared that if I got all the information I wanted, I might go away. Which is heartbreaking, because actually if she had been more forthcoming, I’d have wanted to spend more time together, not less.
The more her personal history is revealed, the more sympathy we feel for your father and the person he became. Do you wish your mother had known more, would it have helped to deal with him when you were younger to know how truly damaged he was?
When my father was a young husband, he was so closed down that I don’t think anyone could have gotten inside his head.
How was your father’s transition viewed by your mother and brother?
My father asked me to write her story; my mother and brother did not. I showed both of them the manuscript and incorporated their suggestions and insights. But they are both private people, and I want to honor their privacy. Their stories are theirs to tell.
The core of the story is around issues of identity. Could you briefly share your thoughts on whether identity is inherited or constructed, or both?
Well, that’s one of those big chicken-or-the-egg questions, like nature vs. nurture. It is, of course, both, and impossible to unravel. We construct our identity from what we’ve inherited, even as we are reconstructing what we’ve inherited. I don’t believe identity is stand-alone; who we are is very much who we are in connection with other people, with the collective history and circumstances and conditions we share. I don’t see identity as singular – or stable.
One of the pleasures of the book is the sense the reader gets of your own discovery of family, a deepening of your Jewish roots. Are you greatly changed by the experience?
One of the greatest and unexpected gifts from this project was the revelation of this whole extended family I never knew I had. They so warmly took me into their homes and hearts, and I’m so grateful for their generosity and affection. I feel very lucky to know them. The other way it changed me, I think, is that it released me from the caricature I was carrying around about my father. As children, we so often see only our parents’ power over us, not their frailties and vulnerabilities. Through working on this project, I came to see my father not as a symbol but as fully human.
It’s difficult to comprehend why your father moved back to Hungary after a successful career and living in the US for so long, and to live in Budapest amongst what the family had lost. Do you think he was trying to heal his trauma in some way?
It’s an abiding mystery why my father returned to Hungary – and one my father’s fellow Jewish expats bemoaned endlessly. I think she was searching for a place where she felt she belonged, that felt like “home” to her, even though that home had been so brutal to my father as a child and so devastating to our family. Often, though, I wonder: Did my father return to Hungary to fit in, to “pass” at last as a “100% Hungarian,” or to finally thumb her nose at Hungarianism by flaunting her new trans identity in a country that was extremely hostile to LGBT people? It’s one of many questions about my father that I’ll probably never settle.
I found the history of Hungary – and its place in WW2 – fascinating, its place in Europe now even more so. Are you concerned with the current politics of the country and the dread rise of nationalism?
I’m deeply troubled by the current political scene in Hungary. And it’s a real cautionary tale about what happens when the identity quest goes awry. A desperate desire to assert a national identity in Hungary has unleashed a resurgent and virulent anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and authoritarianism. Instead of dealing with the real and difficult problems the country faces – and reckoning with its dark past – the Hungarian government has played shamefully on the electorate’s craving for a fantasized national identity and for a strongman to take care of them, a strongman who supposedly embodies that identity. But then, that’s a phenomenon we’re seeing all over the world, most notably right now in the US, where Donald Trump has entranced his followers with the same stew of anti-immigrant hatred, scapegoating, and hollow promises to “Make America Great Again.”
When you began researching the book in 2004 the subject of transsexuality was more marginal than it is now, post-Caitlyn Jenner. What are your thoughts on the prominence of the subject in the national discourse now?
Yes, when I started on this book, transsexuality was not on anyone’s agenda – it was seen as fringe at best. It’s remarkable, and heartening, how quickly a trans-rights movement have moved to the mainstream and to increasing acceptance. That said, we have a long way to go – witness the mass shootings at the gay nightclub in Orlando. And around the world, LGBT rights are facing attack in the name of national identity. This is what happens when two concepts of identity collide, one liberating, one oppressive, the first about self-discovery, the other about establishing your worth by attacking the “other.”
Your father wasn’t able to read the book before she died. Do you think she would have been pleased with it?
I don’t know that my father would have loved every word of it. It’s hard for anyone to see themselves through the eyes of others. But I do think, ultimately, my father would have appreciated my portrayal. She wanted, more than anything, to be perceived. And I think she chose me to do that because she knew I wouldn’t sanitize her story. She often bragged to others that “my daughter doesn’t pull any punches in her reporting!” When I had finished the manuscript, I called and told her it was ready, and she chose not to read it. She just said she was very excited that it was going to be published. In a funny way, she may have decided to let me present her as honestly as I could, without her interference, a remarkable and brave present she gave me, and, I hope, herself.
Follow Michele Magwood @michelemagwood