MAY 20, 2017
TOWARD THE END of Susan Faludi’s memoir, In the Darkroom (2016), Faludi asks her father what a “true identity” means to her. Her father, who in her 70s, has recently undergone sexual reassignment surgery, has recently “unveiled” Stefánie Faludi to select family and friends. “Identity is […] it’s what society accepts for you,” Stefánie muses. “You have to behave in a way that people accept, otherwise you have enemies. That’s what I do—and I have no problems.” Stefánie’s assimilationist view is — to put it mildly — surprising, coming from a Holocaust survivor for whom identity was a life or death matter. And, as Susan Faludi describes, as her father, Stefi, now lives in a Hungary facing a nationalist rise and hostility toward the Hungarian LGBTQ community, trans acceptance is no less a matter of the right to life. Her father’s apathy toward the politics of her identities, past and present, invites Faludi to ask what is effectively the organizing question of In the Darkroom: “is identity what you choose, or what you can’t escape?” These poles — identity as a choice, identity as something one can leave behind — sit at the center of this expansive account of a daughter trying to understand a father she, in her own admission, found impossible to pin down.
Such a description neatly fits Faludi’s book into a familiar genre: the narrative of rediscovery between trans men or women and their cisgendered loved ones. There are a few such examples, the most obvious being Transparent, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, the drama surrounding the Kardashian’s alternating silence and support for Caitlyn Jenner, or in Laverne Cox’s dramatization of a trans prison inmate’s relation to her family in Orange is the New Black. In this genealogy, Faludi’s book is an important contribution to the public visibility of trans people and the project of building understanding and sympathy across a broader public.
But to describe In the Darkroom as a meditation on cisgendered attitudes toward trans lives would minimize the manifold ways in which identity, as both a possibility and a threat, structures Stefánie Faludi’s life. Rather than being the center of the memoir itself, Stefánie’s transition offers an unexpected occasion to get to know a person who Faludi finds ultimately cryptic and “Houdini-like” — moving between masculine and feminine, Jewish and Christian, Hungarian and American, family savior and family outsider, survivor and abuser. More than trying to understand her father’s recent transition, Susan Faludi’s journey into her father’s past attempts to resolve the violent father she remembered from her youth and the distant past he erased with a woman she had never known.
Set largely in contemporary Hungary, Faludi and her father reconnect after a quarter-century estrangement and begin to piece back together the lives they shared as father and daughter (I use the terms and gender pronouns of the book itself). Faludi begins her “witness” to her father’s life with a message out of nowhere announcing that her father has been “reborn” and has given up “impersonating a macho aggressive man that [she has] never been inside.” Subsequently, Faludi embarks on a series of unexpected journeys into family, Hungarian, Jewish, and sexual history that show the imbrication of multiple forms of identification in Stefi’s life. Along the way, she reconstructs a history of her father that had been muted or concealed even from her daughter. What emerges is Faludi’s portrait of a parent whose many reinventions take her from a troubled youth in Budapest, to her survival and escape from the Nazis and the Arrow Cross (the Hungarian fascist organization) during the Holocaust, a celebrated career as a photographer in the sexually and racially diverse climate of postwar Brazil, and her eventual marriage and divorce from Susan Faludi’s biological mother in New York. Faludi takes the opportunity to trace how these diverse pathways through identities, through war, through nationality, and through understanding of heritage illuminates this unexpected transition.
One of the most consistent conflicts of the memoir regards Faludi herself and the divergence between her understanding of feminism and that of her father. As her earlier book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1991) documents, Faludi has a lifelong commitment to feminist politics. Her convictions, as she admits, developed from her father’s sometimes violent masculinity. The father Faludi had known was impossibly male; she describes him as a “household despot,” an “imperious patriarch” who advances “phallocratic views,” as a “rugged outdoorsman” who is a “cipher, cryptic to everyone around him.” It is this sense of the cryptic that rivets in the memoir — as Faludi attempts to reconcile the father she remembered with a glamorous, traditionally feminine septuagenarian woman, comfortable in her body to the point of fetishizing it and fetishizing the role of the type of woman István Faludi had never outwardly been before. “Men can’t get in touch with there [sic] femininity,” Stefánie writes to her daughter after this unexpected change. “You [Susan] write about the disadvantages of being a woman, but I’ve only found advantages!” In response, Faludi “wondered at the way [her] father’s new identity was in a dance with the old, her break from the past enlisted in an ongoing renegotiation with his history” (Faludi’s pronoun).
To understand these contradictions, Faludi’s memoir takes substantial detours — sometimes overly and distractingly long — into two histories that structure her father’s life. One covers the history of Jews in Hungary, tracing their movement from outcasts to full citizens in the late 19th century. As Faludi notes, the process of Jewish inclusion in the Hungarian state was predicated on a requisite assimilation that required Jews to “naturalize” to Hungarian standards. As Faludi shows, that inclusive rhetoric came crashing down with the rise of Nazism and the concomitant emergence of Hungarian fascism, which resulted in one of the major mass slaughters of Jews in the later years of the Holocaust. The second detour walks through the history of 20th-century sexology. From Magnus Hirschfeld — a German sexologist whose Institute of Sexual Research was burned down by Nazis in the lead up to World War II, an event also depicted in Transparent — to the psychiatric models through which transgenderism was diagnosed and through which procedures authorizing sexual reassignment surgery were developed. Faludi notes how certain narratives used by psychiatrists proliferated: ones in which the patient must describe the conditions of their feeling in order to obtain surgery, including having a deep, but nonsexual feeling of being a different gender and a different gender embodiment. In this context, Faludi tries to illuminate the varying contradictions of her father, not the least of which is the fact that she was “reminded at every turn that she was a Jew, who was nevertheless adamant that her identity lay elsewhere.” Finding that elsewhere, in Faludi’s telling, requires an understanding of the palimpsestic history of sexual and gender identification and pathologization, and of Jewish and Hungarian history alike.
What is remarkable about Faludi’s memoir is her self-awareness about her own frustration with the father of her past and the woman of her present. Neither seems to provide access to a fugitive truth the daughter senses in her father, the feeling that some truth still went unspoken. “As far as I could tell, becoming a woman had only added a barricade, another false front to hide behind,” she explains. “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.’” The road of rediscovery is torturous in places: a deep skepticism of her father’s gender politics leads Faludi to question her father’s enthusiasm with her body. When meeting her father for the first time since their estrangement, she observes: “Barely off the plane, I was already rendering censorious judgment […] Since when had I become the essentialist?” The strictures of their personal history and the unfamiliarity of their newly gendered relation intersect at these points. That self-scrutiny is what makes the book successful, allowing Faludi to take and to recount Stefánie’s claims seriously, generously, and eventually, with care. Unlike an op-ed published a few years ago in the Los Angeles Times that likened the transition of a daughter to a loss, a death, Faludi’s memoir is a celebration of resilience and survival in which she rediscovers her father in all her complexity through the history that Faludi had not known.
Ours is a moment in which trans voices have an unprecedented public visibility, even as trans men and women face an alarming rise in violence and hate crimes. In this context, as Laverne Cox explains, it is vital to remember that there is not one trans story — each trans person has an experience to contribute and those experiences deserve support. Most importantly, as Cox emphasizes, no one “deserves to be victim of violence.” If you are uncomfortable [with trans people],” Cox advises, “then you need to look at yourself.” In the Darkroom models that self-scrutiny. It shows the possibility of Judith Butler’s claim that “one should be free to determine the course of one’s gendered life.” Yet, the memoir also pays keen attention to the scope and scale of violence that endangers trans lives, especially at a moment when revanchist regimes threaten the basic right to live a life as one chooses in the United States, Hungary, and elsewhere. The radical act of choosing one’s own gendered life leads to Butler’s powerful invocation of the need for “a political and joyous alternative to the […] gender policing that [is] tyrannical and destructive.” Faludi’s is a story of what it means to escape policing in its many forms, to craft an identification with space for happiness, growth, and understanding — and most importantly, for living life on one’s own terms.
At the close of In the Darkroom, Faludi and her father gain a new closeness, a new proximity to their history and to each other, as they live in the present. At a trans ball on the outskirts of Budapest, they share an intimate moment of understanding. Watching Stefi dance alone on an open floor, Faludi joins her:
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. […] 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 it like a pro.
By the end of In the Darkroom, the most radical thing is the space that a daughter and her trans father occupy despite and because of the pain they shared and caused one another. What is cryptic and different becomes familiar and intimate, a shared dance. What for Faludi had been a challenging look at her father and herself becomes a duet that, because of its discord, makes a space for joy.
Will Clark is a doctoral candidate in the English Department at UCLA. He is completing a dissertation that examines the literary representation of citizenship and sexuality from the Civil War to the Great Depression. His interests include queer theory, the US novel, and US legal and political history.