I recently tried to summarize Susan Faludi’s impressive new memoir, In the Darkroom, for a friend, just as I’m about to summarize it for you. “It sounds like a novel,” she replied. “A bad novel.” It does. Sometimes, reality delivers up not just a remarkable story, but a remarkable story containing a set of parallel motifs that seem too absurdly perfect to be credible. If you read this stuff in a work of fiction, you’d smack the book closed and grumble, “Enough, already!”
Here’s what happened to Faludi, the author of Backlash and one of the most influential feminist journalists of her generation. In the summer of 2004, she received an email from her 76-year-old father. This in itself was worth noting as the two had barely spoken in decades: Faludi’s mother had filed for divorce when Susan was 16; her father had responded with what Faludi describes as “a season of escalating violence.” One night, in violation of a restraining order, he broke down the door of their suburban home and stormed in with a baseball bat, attacking the man his wife had just begun dating. He stabbed his rival multiple times with a Swiss Army knife, spattering the house with blood and putting the other man in the hospital. Later, he managed to convince a judge that he was the wronged party and got his child support payments reduced to $50 per week.
During the intervening quarter century, Faludi’s father moved back to his homeland of Hungary. Although not definitively estranged, father and daughter exchanged little more than a few emails over those years. The message that arrived in Susan’s inbox in 2004 changed all that. “I have decided that I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man that I have never been inside,” it read. Susan’s father had recently returned from a trip to Thailand, where she had received sex reassignment surgery. The email was short on words but rich in photographs of Susan’s transformed parent, Stefánie Faludi.
A couple of months later, Susan hopped a plane to Budapest and began a long, tortured collaboration with her father that has finally resulted in In the Darkroom. (Stefánie died in 2015.) Faludi describes the process as “a game of cat and mouse, a game the mouse generally won.” Stefánie wants Susan to tell her story, but like most people, she wants it told her way. Susan Faludi is a formidable reporter, an old hand at beguiling secrets out of sources and digging up incriminating facts. Among other things, Backlash conclusively debunked a ballyhooed Harvard-Yale study claiming that single, college-educated women over 40 had a better chance of being killed in a terrorist attack than of getting married. But this time, the self-described “girl reporter” meets her match. She tries to get her father to talk about her experiences as a once-rich Jewish boy reduced to living on the streets of Budapest during World War II. That overture gets shut down with a dismissive wave of Stefánie’s hand. Susan drags Stefánie to the Hungarian Jewish Museum, where her ultra-patriotic father glances at a display of virulently anti-Semitic Hungarian propaganda and sniffs, “This is of no interest.”
Susan Faludi believes her father’s late-life transformation bore some relation to a lifelong affinity for disguises, reinvention, and forgery. “My father’s abiding self,” she writes, “remained very much resistant and elusive, especially and reliably when it came to matters of history, personal or public.” During the war, as family legend had it, Stefánie (then István Friedman) freed his parents from a perilous situation by wearing a pilfered armband and posing as a member of the Hungarian fascist party. Living by his wits and working for the resistance, he regularly evaded a regime that was among the most zealous perpetrators of the Holocaust. He dressed as a mechanic and carried fake identity papers, but the most persuasive mask is an internal one. “No one sees me as a Jew,” Stefánie boasts to her daughter of her ability to carry off such dissembling, “because I don’t see me as a Jew.”
Emigrating to America, István changed his name to Steven Faludi, married Susan’s mother, and assumed the highly conventional role of a midcentury American husband, father, and breadwinner. In the years before digital photography and Photoshop, he worked as one of the pre-eminent retouchers, a darkroom wizard who perfected glamorous images for Condé Nast magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair, fine-tuning the work of such masters as Richard Avedon, Francesco Scavullo, Irving Penn, and Bert Stern. He was, Susan writes, “particularly skilled at ‘dodging,’ making dark areas look light, and ‘masking,’ concealing unwanted parts of the picture.” You can’t make this stuff up! Or rather, you can, but no one would believe it. To top it off, Hungarian, Stefánie’s native tongue, just happens to be a language without gendered pronouns; “Hungarians,” Faludi writes, “are notorious for mixing up the sexes in English.”
During Susan’s childhood, Steven Faludi forcefully asserted his “male prerogative,” forbidding his wife to work and devoting his weekends to projects in his basement workshop. Susan writes that although she never suspected her father of being at odds with his apparent gender, she sensed he was not entirely present: “I sometimes regarded him as a spy, intent on blending into our domestic circle, prepared to do whatever it took to evade detection. For all his aggressive domination, he remained somehow invisible.” Later, once Susan begins visiting Stefánie, she is more willing to talk about herself, but only within limits. Like Steven, Stefánie lectures endlessly about topics Susan regards as superficial—opera, mountaineering, “her favorite hagiographies of Hungarian martyrs,” resource and beauty websites for trans women, retouched photos of herself in pinup outfits, and above all, two Budapest buildings owned by her family before the war, property she’d tried to reclaim for decades in vain.
Most of In the Darkroom, and the best of it, consists of the epic battle, and eventually the epic rapprochement, between Susan and Stefánie—an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. On Susan’s first visit, Stefánie doesn’t want to leave her house, perched on a hill overlooking a lost Friedman family manse. Susan begs to be taken on a tour of the places her father lived in and knew as a boy, prompting Stefánie to scold, “It doesn’t pay to live in the past,” and lose her temper spectacularly when Susan persists. Meanwhile, Stefánie keeps trying to show Susan things she doesn’t want to see, asking her daughter to leave her bedroom door open at night “because I want to be treated as a woman. I want to be able to walk around without clothes and for you to treat it normally.” To which Susan retorts, “Women don’t ‘normally’ walk around naked.”
Eventually, Stefánie grows out of this exhibitionism but her idea of what ordinary life consists of for most women remains absurdly skewed. “Men have to help me,” she tells Susan. “It’s one of the great advantages to being a woman. You write about the disadvantages of being a woman, but I’ve only found advantages!” Susan doesn’t appear to have much trouble adjusting to the news about Stefánie’s gender but balks at what she views as a retrograde, “binary” conception of gender advanced by her father. “Change your clothes all you want,” Susan thinks to herself during one particularly vexing exchange, “you’re still the same person.” She traces this attitude among some trans individuals back to a physician, Harry Benjamin, known as “the father of transsexualism” for his pioneering surgical work in the 1950s and The Transsexual Phenomenon, published in 1966. Benjamin founded a set of protocols dictating that any male-to-female patient hoping to qualify for surgery must, as Susan puts it, “embody all the clichés of postwar femininity,” the same oppressive standards feminists like Susan would resolve to overturn.
But what most interests Susan is the larger, ever-shifting puzzle of her father’s identity. As she digs deeper, unearthing Stefánie’s past one crumb at a time, Hungary veers toward an increasingly bigoted authoritarianism disturbingly reminiscent of the years leading up to World War II. Susan’s father, when she isn’t shrugging off the rise of right-wing Hungarian nationalism, pines for the cosmopolitan days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when the country’s Jews enjoyed what felt like an extraordinary degree of acceptance and integration. Hungary lost both territory and ethnic diversity in the treaty that followed World War I, and the disaffected majority turned on the Jewish minority (as well as the Roma), blaming them for everything that had gone wrong. In the newly mutilated Hungary, one could either be Magyar (ethnic Hungarian), or one could be a Jew and therefore decidedly not Hungarian. That’s “one way to read the collapse of the Golden Age,” Susan writes: “it’s what happens when a fluid system becomes binary.”
By the time Susan visits her back in Hungary, Stefánie has once more embraced the most sentimental version of Hungarian identity and glossed over the enthusiasm with which the Magyars had participated in Hitler’s Final Solution. (Adolf Eichmann singled them out for commendation on this point.) The anti-Semitic propaganda used to justify that genocide often characterized Jewish men as degenerate, weak, and feminized. When Stefánie complains to Susan about the rabbis who refused to order Susan’s mother to abandon divorce proceedings, she repeats their demurrals in a high-pitched “mincing” voice. “Here,” Susan thinks, reeling, “was a Jewish man-turned-woman making fun of Jewish men for not being manly enough.” At the same time, as impossible as her father is, Susan comes to recognize and feel compassion for the bewildering and titanic forces, inside and out, that batter Stefánie’s psyche.
Susan never truly can sort out her father’s slippery identity. Given her skepticism about the notion of any fixed identity—the “Holy Grail” of contemporary American life, as she puts it—this makes for a happy ending to a book whose complexity fascinates. The two women reach an understanding of sorts when they discover that a Reform synagogue (the first one in Hungary) has set up shop in an apartment building once owned by Stefánie’s father. In another of those coincidences that would be laughable in a novel, it turns out that the synagogue occupies the very same flat where István and his father had hidden from the Nazis during the summer of 1944. Father and daughter celebrate Rosh Hashanah with this community, one that welcomes sexual minorities and whose members include many novices, people who learned of their Jewish heritage only after the fall of the Soviet Union from parents who had, until then, deemed it safer to keep that fact to themselves. “I always felt there was something different about me,” one of them, a woman, tells Susan, “but I didn’t know what it was.” And who ever really does?
In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi. Metropolitan Books.
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