In the Darkroom

by Susan Faludi

Hardcover, 2016




Metropolitan Books (2016), Edition: 1St Edition, 432 pages


Journalist Susan Faludi's inquiry into the meaning of identity in the modern world and in her own haunted family saga, involving her 76-year-old father--long estranged and living in Hungary--who underwent sex reassignment surgery.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Citizenjoyce
I thought at first this book was just about Faludi's dad's M-F sexual reassignment, but it ends up being so much more. This is about a man who rejects one gender for another, who is completely dedicated to the idea of family yet rejects all his actual family members, who was born a Jew yet spent years listening to and loving Christian spiritual music and right wing Christian evangelical preachers and to top it off leaves the US to reestablish himself in Hungary, the most right-wing, antisemitic country in the European Union. He performed actual acts of heroism saving members of his family during the holocaust yet considered himself 100% Hungarian and defended the hard right government, making light of its blatant antisemitism.
She shows how before WWI Jews in Hungary were in perhaps the best position they were anywhere in the world, but after WWI they became scapegoats to the point that the Hungarian government pushed the Germans to persecute Jews even more than they were doing and to deport them more and faster. What is relevant to our political situation is that the hard right politicians who took over modern Hungary were vehemently anti-immigrant, to the extent of building border fences, they placed wording in the constitution affirming that life begins at conception, they blamed Jews for all the country's problems - and the more blatant they were in their oppression of the rights of all, the more popular they became. However, in response to declining world opinion, as a public relations stunt, they declared 2014 the year of Holocaust remembrance and erected a statue commemorating Hungary's occupation by Germany. It ended up being a replica of the archangel Michael being oppressed by Nazis, and when Jews tried to counter by showing broken eye glasses and suitcases of those who were deported to concentration camps, they removed the display.
While I'm at it let me state one interesting bit of antisemitism I learned. I've always heard of blood libel, but I could never figure out why it is that Jews would want to ingest the blood of gentiles. Then I learned that there is a theory of race and sexuality that says that Germans are a very masculine race while Jews are essentially feminine. The most masculine Jewish man could be mistaken for a woman. Being so effeminate, Jews are prone to reproductive weakness, also, since the death of Christ, Jewish men have menstruated. So Jews eat or drink the blood of gentiles or smear it on their and their children's bodies in order to improve their fertility. No idea is too crazy for people to believe if they are inspired enough by hate to do so.
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LibraryThing member revliz
A moving and compassionate book.
LibraryThing member JaneReading
When Susan Faludi's father, after twenty-five years absence, invites her to get to know him now as a woman after sex change surgery, the author is in for years of work and a lot of heartache and frustration as she tries to understand this complicated, elusive person. Susan travels to Hungary many times to be with her father, who is only prepared to reveal small selected pieces of herself to her daughter. Susan struggles to discern the truth, if there is a "truth," in what her father tells her, and seeks out remote relatives and friends and acquaintances of Stephen/Stefi in her efforts to piece together a true identity. The author's research and discovery make for a fascinating story as the unthinkable upheaval of wartime Europe play out in her father's life and in Budapest, the city where Stephen grew up. I felt that I was along on this journey of discovery with Susan Faludi and she successfully conveys what a painful and challenging journey it was. I'm not sure if she satisfied her quest to unravel her father's "true" identity, but in those rare moments of connection between the two, she gives us a glimpse into a very special and rare, hard-won relationship.… (more)
LibraryThing member lauriebrown54
After the author’s parent’s split up when she was a teen, she saw little of her father. When she got an email from him when he was 76 years old, he had a surprise for her: he had had Sexual Reassignment Surgery and was now a woman- Steven Faludi was now Stefanie. She wanted her daughter to come visit her. While Susan was ready to find out more about her father’s life, she wasn’t ready to forgive her for how she’d treated her mother and herself, which was what her father was really after.

Stefi was born in Hungary under another name. Her parents were upper middle class Jews, but Germany invaded, different political factions ran the country, and they lost everything. She escaped, and as far as Susan knew, never had contact with her family again. She came to America, married, and played the suburban father of the era, building things in the basement. When the marriage fell apart, she kicked the door down and attacked the man Susan’s mother was seeing. Things didn’t get any better after that.

Susan heads for Hungary, expecting her father to ask for forgiveness for her absence from her life. That’s not what Stefi has in mind, though. First Stefi wants to share her wardrobe with Susan! But a connection is made, and Susan spends the next few years visiting her father in Hungary. At a glacial pace over the years, Stefi reveals her past. Escaping Nazis and anti-Semitic Hungarian governments through Germany, Demark, Brazil, and finally the USA, she reinvented herself with every move. She boasted about knowing how to fake things. A macho outdoorsman, a Christian, a suburban dad, a gifted photographer and artist with photo retouching. A man. Did she fully inhabit any of these roles, or were they all play acting? Did the fact that she was trapped in a male body make it impossible for her to feel completely comfortable in any of her younger roles? Would she have been a better parent and spouse if she had lived in a female body? Given the late date of her SRS, the trans part of Stefi’s story is a very small part, although it’s the part stressed on the book jacket.

While Susan learns a great deal about her father’s past, it’s not until after Stefi is dead that Susan finds out that there was still a great deal to discover. It’s a fascinating story about identity and family secrets.
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LibraryThing member ozzer
Photography serves as an apt metaphor for Susan Faludi’s examination of her enigmatic father. Steven Faludi spent much of his work life actually in the darkroom manipulating images. Likewise, his life story shows multiple incidents of dissembling. In her attempt—not always successful—to shed light on this strange man, Susan discovered that her father was indeed an artful dodger. Her exploration leads to some intriguing questions about the nature of identity. Is identity something we chose or is it thrust upon us by circumstance? Is it really possible to reinvent yourself? Is there any such thing as a fixed identity? Does this metaphor travel well to cultures, nations and religions?

Faludi had long been estranged from her 76 year-old father, who was living in Hungary when he informed her that he had a sex-change operation. This was so out of character with her childhood recollections of her scary, distant, autocratic, sometimes violent and macho father that she felt compelled to seek answers. As an accomplished investigative journalist, Faludi’s approach was to gather the facts and present them dispassionately. Her sources included the Hungarian historical record, interviews with her father, his friends and acquaintances, transgendered females, family members and his surgeon. Also she spent time in the library reading about transgender issues.

What emerges is a fascinating picture of a complex person. Steven/Stefánie came from a wealthy Jewish family living in Hungary during the Second World War. He escaped Nazi persecution demonstrating boldness, creativity and consummate skill at dissembling. This led him first to Denmark and later to Brazil, where he was instrumental in creating an important photographic archive. Later he moved to America and had what appeared to be a normal suburban family life with a wife and two children. His reasons for seeking a gender change seem dubious, but seem similar to other forms of denial (e.g., changing his Jewish name, distancing himself from his family and religion and deciding to leave America for Hungary). Stefánie is not a very likeable person. She is closed, self-involved, quick to anger and opinionated. One has to admire Susan’s patience and subtlety as she perseveres in her rapprochement.

Faludi takes a broad view with her narrative by exploring the historical record of Hungarian anti-Semitism and studying transgender subjects. She skillfully juxtaposes these issues with her father’s story, examining them under the umbrella of identity. This is a fascinating and engaging read but the identity link often seems strained and leaves much unresolved.
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LibraryThing member SamSattler
In the preface to her memoir/dual-biography, Susan Faludi says that her father was an expert at reinventing himself, a man who changed identities so often during his life that she barely knew him. Stephen Faludi, although he never admitted that he was the instigator or cause of the separation, abandoned his wife and daughter when Susan was still in her teens, and she had had little contact with him since. Neither of them had been willing to make the effort required to repair their fractured relationship, and they had, in fact, barely spoken for the past twenty-five years.

Then came the day in 2004 when Susan received an email from her father telling her that he had successfully undergone gender transformation surgery in Thailand and was now living legally in his Budapest home as Stefanie Faludi, a woman. But when Stefanie asked her daughter to "write my story," Susan realized that she would have to complete an extensive research project on her father before she could do that. And despite her father's desire to have Susan reveal her story to the world, Susan seldom found her willing to discuss her early life in any detail. Stefanie much preferred instead to focus on her physical transformation and various aspects of her new lifestyle, such as her new transgender friends, the transgender computer sites she favored, wardrobe changes, and her enjoyment of all the many advantages that women seem to her to have over men.

Susan discovered that changing one's personality is not as easy as changing one's gender. Her father had been an overly-aggressive, macho male, and she was now an overly aggressive female demanding to be treated the way she believed women deserve to be treated: with a combination of respect and equality. Stefanie's early history, however, including her exploits as a young Jewish man struggling to stay alive during World War II were largely conversationally out of bounds unless Susan caught her father in one of her infrequent nostalgic moments. And even when discussing family history and difficult past relationships with relatives, Stefanie was more likely to lie about the past than to reveal her own bad behavior.

Susan Faludi, though, refused to give up, and the result is a remarkable look at a man who spent his life searching for the person he really wanted to be. He was a man who decided to become a woman; a Jew who showed tremendous bravery during World War II but often expressed great contempt for the Jewish lifestyle; a man who physically and verbally abused his wife and daughter but blamed them for abandoning him; a man who does not seem to have enjoyed much of life but continued searching for something better until the day he died.

In the Darkroom is a daughter's study of the father she hardly knew, but it is more than that. It is as much Susan Faludi's biography as it is the story of her father. Too, it is a rather detailed and informative look at the social history of Hungary and its relationship with, and treatment of, it's Jewish population, a history that is seldom pretty - and almost always disturbing.

Faludi has written a memoir that fans of the genre should not miss.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)
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LibraryThing member KevinKLF
I picked this book to read for two reasons. One it was on an end of the year best books to read for 2016. Secondly, I wanted to read on a subject that I don't agree with. The book started slow for me because I found myself on guard for the author slipping in some kind of justification for the lifestyle without a critical review. Susan Faludi wrote in a way that I found excellent. Estranged from her father for more than 20 years, she had many reasons for not accepting him and his new lifestyle. She seems to come to some kind of resolution, although strained, at the end of the book (her father's death). It was emotional and true to many experiences I am aware of - parents dying and dementia. I read a critical review of the book and the thesis Susanhas about why the change in identity from male to female has been explored before. I remember the reviewer saying she broke no new ground in that respect. But on the one on one, personal level, the book is a great read. I'd recommend it. Once you read the book, the title is all the more a good one.… (more)
LibraryThing member banjo123
Susan Faludi was mostly estranged from her father, when, in 2004, she received an email informing her that her father had, at age 76, had gender reassignment surgery in Thailand, and was now Stefani. This was not the first name change for the former Steven Faludi, who had been born Istvan Friedman, but changed the last name to a more Hungarian and less Jewish sounding name. Susan had grown up in the US, and knew only stories about how her father had survived WWII and had come to the US. Susan Faludi had been a teen when her parents divorces, and had had only sporadic contact with her father after that.

Susan flew to Hungary, where her father was living, and spent the next ten years re-connecting with Stefani. It was not an easy process. Early in the process she ruminates:

"What was I doing here? She seemed to be the same old impenetrable, walled-off person he had always been. As far as I could tell, becoming a woman had only added a barricade, another false front to hide behind. 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," a peasant girl doing the two step in a Photoshopped dirndl."

In the beginning of the book, Stefani seems a very self-centered person, who wants to communicate with her daughter, but only on her terms, and avoiding huge swaths of conversational topics. In particualr, Stefani is conflicted about her Jewish identity and about antisemitism in Hungary. Faludi intersperses personal stories with research into transgender issues and Hungarian history. This technique is a little choppy at times, but over-all, it works. As the book evolves, the relationship between father and daughter deepens.

In one of my favorite scenes, the two dance in a Disco party in an abandoned factory in Budapest.

"My father and I circled around each other for a few minutes. Then I put out my hand and she took it. I couldn't teach her the "female steps" to a Viennese waltz, but I'd done my time in New York's limelight. I knew what to do with Michael Jackson. I led her through a few moves and soon we were swinging each other around. It occurred to me that I hadn't danced like this in ages. It occurred to me that I was having a good time.
...I looked back at my father. She was grinning and not that anxious half-grin she so often had on her face. I held up my arm and she twirled underneath like a pro."
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LibraryThing member NewsieQ
This book has to be one of the most unusual biographies/memoirs I’ve ever read. It’s the story of the author’s father, Istvan (or Steven as he was known in America) Faludi, who announces quite suddenly in 2004 that he’s undergone male-to-female reassignment surgery in Thailand. Steven was an enigmatic, distant and sometimes violent figure in his daughter’s life; now as Stefani she is a real puzzle. (It took while for me to get used to seeing female pronouns used with “my father.”). The author approaches her father as the journalist she is, deciding to learn what she can about his life and writing about it.

After moving to the United States after World War II and becoming a naturalized citizen, Steven made his living as a photo wizard, using darkroom techniques to improve and/or alter photographs for American magazines. He was also a photographer and cinematographer. After he and his wife divorced, he returned to his native Hungary and it’s in Budapest that most of the interaction between the author and her father takes place.

“If you mother says she loves you, check it out” is a well-worn adage in newspaper work. It’s a reminder that, regardless of who the source is, a dogged journalist must probe further. Journalist Susan Faludi checks out her father’s stories to see if there’s any truth in them.

To tell her father’s larger story, the author weaves in a lot of Magyar and Hungarian history, along with stories of her father’s war years as a Jewish boy trying to avoid the death camps. I have a feeling most readers won’t find Magyar history too interesting, but since that is my ancestry, I found it fascinating (if often unflattering to Hungarians).

In the Darkroom is not a quick read, but quite enjoyable; the writing is wonderful, with a dry sense of humor evident.
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LibraryThing member marshapetry
The historical parts - what her father experienced in the WWII etc... - were really interesting but, man, there was a lot of extra chit chat about totally... gossipy family tidbits - makes the book a lot of reading for the value. Weeeelllll, I suppose memoir readers will like that but history lovers may not. I'm in for the history and i still recommend the book because the historical pieces are so interesting. The author writes well so it wasn't too painful to listen to the other parts.… (more)
LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
Reading Susan Faludi's "In the Darkroom" reminded me of a good line that some critic had about Fred Leuchter, Jr. the creepy, fixated, and potentially oblivious the subject of the Errol Morris documentary "Mr. Death," "If this guy didn't exist, Errol Morris would have been forced to invent him." It probably says more about the book than the author, but it sometimes seems that every single subject and circumstance in "In the Darkroom" was specifically created so that Susan Faludi could write about it. And there's a lot of stuff in here: Faludi gets into gender and race and genocide and her comfortable suburban childhood and European history the history and theory of gender reassignment, Hungary's hard-right politics and its troubled historical memory, and German pastries. Miraculously, the life of the fromer István (and later Stéfanie) Faludi touched on all of these subjects to some extent, and thanks to her daughter's talents as a writer and reporter, it comes together beautifully. The result is a book that manages to be insightful about both historical tragedies and gender, human psychology and family drama.

"In the Darkroom" is, at least nominally, a book about identity: Faludi's father used to pride himself on the fact that being Hungarian meant that it was easy for him to "fake things" and "get away with it." As Hungarian Jews, his family walked a nervous line between acceptance and fear. He essentially purchased himself a hypermasculine identity in American suburbia in the mid twentieth century. But while I enjoyed Faludi's description of the history and academic gender theory that currently underpins thinking about transsexuals and transsexuality and found her criticisms cogent, but after finishing it I wondered if "In the Darkroom" wasn't an exploration of the long-term effects of trauma. From her mother's comfortable if emotionally deprived childhood, her terrifying experiences in wartime Budapest, to the sadness and rootlessness that followed the war, the same sort of hurt kept reverberating through István/Stefánie's life and, by proxy, his daugher's and his widely scattered descendants. On both a personal and societal level, the effects of trauma, Faludi seems to be telling us, run very deep and play out over a long time.

As good as this one is, I might have docked it half a star not because of its author but because of its subject. The author's parent is likable neither as a man or as a woman: talented but angry, emotionally distant, controlling and overbearing and occasionally violent, I suspect he (and later, of course, she) will drive off more than a few readers well before its final pages arrive. I grew tired of him myself, feeling, perhaps, the same sort of defensiveness and uneasiness that she often seems to have when she was around him. She maintains a professional journalistic silence about her opinions on his decision to alter his gender, but his likely wasn't a typical transition story, and the experience may not have affected him in exactly the ways that he wished it would. Susan, to her credit, plumbs deep into her father's experience, but almost to the end, he remains more invested in performance and image than sincerity and truth and an unpleasant, if sometimes formidable, figure. I can call "In the Darkroom" extremely recommendable book, but also found it to be a sad and frustrating reading experience.
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432 p.; 6.4 inches


080508908X / 9780805089080

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