PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING feminist writer Susan Faludi had been estranged from her difficult and domineering father for a quarter of a century when he reached out to her. Via email, he announced that he’d undergone gender confirmation surgery in Thailand and was now a woman named Stefánie living in his (now her) native Hungary—a country whose attitudes toward LGBT people, Jews, and refugees immediately bring to mind Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat.
In her recent memoir, In the Darkroom, Faludi sets out to understand the enigma of the person who was István and later becomes Stefánie. Her theme, broadly, is identity, but what makes this book utterly absorbing and emotionally compelling is its incisive examination of all the stories and histories in which Faludi locates her father: the perplexing and troubling Hungarian nationalism, the legacy of World War I and atrocities of World War II, his Judaism, antisemitism in Europe, recent transgender history, and transgender memoirs and literature. Amid all of this, In the Darkroom is also about a daughter seeking to know and love her father.
Faludi’s journalistic instincts are what she falls back on, “seeking safety in a familiar role,” and initially her relentless attempts to get her father to open up amount to what she calls a “cat and mouse” game. Stefánie asks Faludi to write about her, but then shuts Faludi out with characteristic bullish behavior. Faludi flies to Budapest, where she feels trapped in her father’s house. Subjected to home movies of high school reunions and slideshows of Stefánie photoshopped into various outfits, Faludi is a captive witness to her father’s strange exhibitionism. Further, Faludi finds herself bridling at her father’s embodiment of regressive clichés like feminine helplessness and purity. She remarks, “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.” Faludi uses her reporter’s notebooks and questions to get past her father’s walls, but Stéfanie is a master of disguise.
Faludi is sensitive to the uncanny coincidences of the factual and the figurative, and she explores these intelligently. The darkroom of the title refers to her father’s work as a photographer—he was in demand for his photo manipulation skills, dodging and burning in the darkroom before the days of Photoshop. The title also references the inaccessibility of her father’s mind. Another more protracted and complicated set of intersections involves her father’s experience in the war. A friend of Faludi’s father tells her, “I have the feeling you want to find a connection between your father and the Holocaust. But I don’t think the Holocaust can make someone—” he trails off. Faludi answers, “Otto, I’m not saying the Holocaust explains my father’s sex change.”
She does examine how her father survived the war by passing as a non-Jew, even saving his family by impersonating a Nazi. She considers how, even with the forged papers he had, if an officer demanded he pull down his pants, his circumcised penis would have been his undoing. Later, when he has the operation, his lack of foreskin makes the vaginoplasty more complicated because there is not enough skin for a skin graft. What does this all amount to? Is there a connection? What does it mean? Faludi can’t answer, only ask. Her sensitivity to these connections and her doggedness in exploring the questions about her father’s harrowing past don’t solve the mystery, but they do forge a genuine relationship between father and daughter, and the way Faludi represents this development is skillful and moving.
In The Darkroom
by Susan Faludi