"From the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling author of Backlash, comes In the Darkroom, an astonishing confrontation with the enigma of her father and the larger riddle of identity consuming our age. 'In the summer of 2004 I set out to investigate someone I scarcely knew, my father. The project began with a grievance, the grievance of a daughter whose parent had absconded from her life. I was in pursuit of a scofflaw, an artful dodger who had skipped out on so many things -- obligation, affection, culpability, contrition. I was preparing an indictment, amassing discovery for a trial. But somewhere along the line, the prosecutor became a witness.' So begins Susan Faludi's extraordinary inquiry into the meaning of identity in the modern world and in her own haunted family saga. When the feminist writer learned that her 76-year-old father -- long estranged and living in Hungary -- had undergone sex reassignment surgery, that investigation would turn personal and urgent. How was this new parent who claimed to be 'a complete woman now' connected to the silent, explosive, and ultimately violent father she had known, the photographer who'd built his career on the alteration of images? Faludi chases that mystery into the recesses of her suburban childhood and her father's many previous incarnations: American dad, Alpine mountaineer, swashbuckling adventurer in the Amazon outback, Jewish fugitive in Holocaust Budapest. When the author travels to Hungary to reunite with her father, she drops into a labyrinth of dark histories and dangerous politics in a country hell-bent on repressing its past and constructing a fanciful -- and virulent -- nationhood. The search for identity that has transfixed our century was proving as treacherous for nations as for individuals. Faludi's struggle to come to grips with her father's reinvented self takes her across borders -- historical, political, religious, sexual -- to bring her face to face with the question of the age: Is identity something you 'choose, ' or is it the very thing you can't escape? "-- ""In the summer of 2004 I set out to investigate someone I scarcely knew, my father. The project began with a grievance, the grievance of a daughter whose parent had absconded from her life. I was in pursuit of a scofflaw, an artful dodger who had skipped out on so many things--obligation, affection, culpability, contrition. I was preparing an indictment, amassing discovery for a trial. But somewhere along the line, the prosecutor became a witness." So begins Susan Faludi's extraordinary inquiry into the meaning of identity in the modern world and in her own haunted family saga. When the feminist writer learned that her 76-year-old father--long estranged and living in Hungary--had undergone sex reassignment surgery, that investigation would turn personal and urgent. How was this new parent who claimed to be "a complete woman now" connected to the silent, explosive, and ultimately violent father she had known? Faludi chases that mystery into the recesses of her suburban childhood and her father's many previous incarnations: American dad, Alpine mountaineer, swashbuckling adventurer in the Amazon outback, Jewish fugitive in Holocaust Budapest. When the author travels to Hungary to reunite with her father, she drops into a labyrinth of dark histories and dangerous politics in a country hell-bent on repressing its past and constructing a fanciful--and virulent--nationhood. The search for identity that has transfixed our century was proving as treacherous for nations as for individuals. Faludi's struggle to come to grips with her father's reinvented self takes her across borders--historical, political, religious, sexual--to bring her face to face with the question of the age: Is identity something you "choose," or is it the very thing you can't escape?"--
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.
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.
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)
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."
"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.
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.