In 2004, the American writer Susan Faludi, the author of “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women,” received an email from her estranged father, Steven, announcing that he had undergone sex-reassignment surgery and was no longer, according to him, “impersonating a macho aggressive man that I have never been inside.”
It wasn’t the news, Faludi reports rather drily, that came as a surprise but the characterization that was unexpected: Faludi remembers a tumultuous childhood. She says her father “seemed invested — insistently, inflexibly, and in the last year of our family life, bloodily — in being the household despot.”
Six months after being barred from the family home, her father broke in, stabbed the man her mother was seeing, was arrested and, the next afternoon, released. Though she had barely seen him for 25 years, Faludi’s memories were of someone who enjoyed his male prerogatives.
She writes, “As I confronted . . . my father’s new self, it was hard for me to purge that image of the violent man from her new persona.” Who was the parent now calling herself Stefánie?
In this evocative memoir, “In the Darkroom,” Faludi, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, traces the personal history of a man who came of age as a Jew in Nazi-occupied Hungary, unravels family secrets and explores her father’s relationships with family members she never met or, in some cases, never knew existed. She discusses her father’s needs and behavior as a transwoman in light of her own firm commitment to feminism.
These threads make for a complex story, and it’s a credit to Faludi’s many skills as a writer that she weaves them into a clear, sometimes humorous, and moving portrait.
In 10 years of visits, conversations and emails with Stefánie, Faludi struggled to figure out her occasionally maddening and often elusive father. Faludi had felt even as a child that she barely knew her father (he left when she was in her midteens). Her father took young Susan on hiking trips, biking trips and climbing trips, but she says he never “showed himself to me. He seemed to be permanently undercover, behind a wall of his own construction.” When Steven moved out after 20 years of marriage, Faludi reports that her mother said, “It’s like he never lived here.”
Hiding — his person, his identity, his self — was required for survival. Steven Faludi, born in Hungary in 1927, was a teenager when the Germans invaded his country in 1944. Stefánie’s email came from Budapest, where she was born and, Faludi learns, returned. (Faludi solves the pronoun problem by referring to her father as either “my father,” “Stefánie” or “she.” It’s apt if disconcerting even as Faludi explains that Hungarian has no gendered pronouns.)
Hungarian Jews had been deeply assimilated from the middle of the 19th century until the end of World War I, when the treaties that ended the war lopped off large portions of Hungarian territory, including its coast and seaports and, as in Germany and Austria, set off inflation. What Faludi considers a latent anti-Semitism was revived, Jews were subjected to ownership and professional restrictions and many emigrated. The Arrow Cross party, Hungary’s Fascists, terrorized and tortured Jews. During the war, two-thirds of Hungary’s Jewish population was killed.
Yet Steven, or Stefánie, survived. According to her, she never wore the required star, was able to find some help hiding, brazened her way out of threatening situations and helped her parents survive. As much as she can, Faludi visits the scenes with Stefánie and corroborates some of the stories. Yet more remains hidden. When Faludi asks Stefánie about the “foreskin problem” of wartime Budapest.
“I was never afraid of that,” she said
After the war, Stefánie escaped Eastern Europe, going first to Copenhagen and then to Rio de Janeiro and ultimately to the United States. Stefánie was a filmmaker who spent most of her career in a darkroom, developing, refining and touching up the photos of many of the great 20th-century photographers, including Richard Avedon. She worked for Condé Nast for much of her career.
Why, after the fall of communism, would she return to Hungary, and make her home there? Why would she ship all her darkroom supplies and everything from her basement woodshop workbench and recreate them in her new home in Hungary, as she did? Why would she stay, once it became clear that post-Communist Hungary saw a resurgence of Hungarian nationalism and anti-Semitism?
Family and property may have drawn Stefánie home. Although Faludi doubts it, Stefánie insisted that the Communists, not the Nazis, expropriated the family’s property. Stefánie made regular, unsuccessful offers to recover the property and refused the Hungarian government’s small compensation. Faludi also learns that Stefánie’s wealthy parents had divorced before the war, and that her father was both ignored and used as a weapon in the divorce.
But plumbing each mystery gives way to one more. Late in the war, Stefánie’s parents had moved into a “protected” house with many other Jews. The protection didn’t last, and in 1944 Stefánie, wearing gray overalls and an Arrow Cross armband, passed as a Hungarian Nazi and pretended to arrest her parents at gunpoint. The three of them lived out the rest of the war, using false papers, in a cellar on the outskirts of Pest.
Stefánie insisted the story was true but Faludi wonders, writing, “How could I begin to assess the truth of a story whose very point was to confirm the storyteller as an extremely effective liar?” Moreover, if Stefánie was willing to risk her life to save her parents, why did Stefánie refuse to see them for the rest of their lives? These questions devolve into yet another set of inquiries, as Faludi circles back again and again to the question of her father’s identity.
Faludi opens her book by saying that though she started the journey to her father as a prosecutor, a woman with a grievance, by the time he died she had become a witness: the one person who could bear to watch the elusive complexities of a man who was maddening and, if not loving then occasionally endearing. This compelling book explores a remarkable life, shaped and transformed in unexpected ways by the trying circumstances of the 20th century.
“In the Darkroom,” by Susan Faludi. Metropolitan Books. ISBN: 978 080 508 9080
Alexandra Bowie is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. She is the book critic for the Brooklyn Bugle and has been working in local politics for many years. She has a law degree from Boston University and a philosophy degree from Bryn Mawr College. Follow her on Twitter @abowie917