Sunday Times, 19 June 2016
On July 7, 2004, Susan Faludi received an email from her 76-year-old father, Steven. They had barely spoken in 25 years; he had been a controlling and occasionally violent father. When she was 16, her parents had separated and Steven had ended up back in his native Hungary. But, before he sent the email, he had been on a trip to Thailand.
“I have decided,” he said in the email, “that I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man that I have never been inside.” A Thai surgeon had turned Steven into Stefánie.
Faludi had also to confront the fact that she, a leading feminist and distinguished, Pulitzer prizewinning journalist who writes about gender identities, had missed the huge story of her own father.
“I didn’t know the first thing about my father,” she tells me. “I didn’t know who he was at all. It was not so much that I had been deluded, it was that I had missed an essential aspect. I knew he’d been uncomfortable in his own skin, that there was something beneath the surface, but as a child you’re involved with your own problems and there was just this weird person in our family.”
Were there any signs? Sort of.
“In my childhood he wore many masks and he was pretty confusing to be around, but it was a sort of general confusion about belonging and he didn’t focus on an agenda per se … mostly he was angry and controlling.”
And so she wrote In the Darkroom. It is her first autobiographical, non-political, non-polemical book. Her previous works include Stiffed, in which she argued that the masculinity of ordinary men in America was being destroyed by economic and social forces, and The Terror Dream, which made the case that 9/11 had led to the rise of a misogynist masculinity. She didn’t know if she even had the tools to write about her father.
“My father drove a Trojan horse into my political and professional domain,” she says. “I didn’t feel I could move forward honestly in my own thinking about gender without admitting to my own experience.”
It soon became clear that “my political analysis was not going to get me very far. It became clear in working on the book that I was not going to arrive at some explanation or diagnosis. This book would require me to live in uncertainty.”
As a result, it took 11 years from receiving her father’s email to the book’s completion.
“I tried to put the book down, to put the project aside and try and do something else … then I’d feel it calling me back. In retrospect I see I couldn’t deal with anything else without dealing with this, it was the big elephant in the room.”
The problem was not just that her father had become Stefánie, but that she remained the multimasked trickster he had always been (like Faludi I am letting the pronouns change gender, he becomes she after the operation). She was proud that her daughter was writing a book about her, but wanted control of what was revealed. What she enthusiastically revealed were intimate details. Stefánie showed Susan a video of the operation and introduced her to the “dilation rods” she had to insert to preserve the opening of her new vagina.
“Sometimes she was desperate to be revealed … but at the same time she was so opaque about what really happened. I’d ask, ‘Why did you hate your mother so much?’ and suddenly she would fall dead silent.”
The book finds Faludi constantly thwarted in her efforts to understand until, finally, father and daughter find a degree of peace with each other. Just in time — 87-year-old Stefánie died, stricken by dementia, in 2014.
She’d been excited about the book. Then Faludi finally told her it was finished, but, strangely, she never asked to see it. Perhaps, she muses, she never intended to read it.
“One way of reading that is that it was a gift to me. She knew I had complicated feelings and maybe she was just giving me permission to write honestly.”
Out of all these complexities, the book becomes a political and cultural history. Stefánie’s story becomes a fourfold identity crisis — being a Jew in prewar but already anti-semitic Hungary, then under the Nazis, then the communists, who wished to extirpate every religious allegiance, and, finally, in 1950s America.
“As both European Jew and American dad,” Faludi writes, “my father’s manhood had been doubted, distorted and besmirched.”
Steven became a shape-shifter, often a heroic one, as when he camouflaged himself as a Christian and wore a fascist armband to rescue his own family and others from certain death at the hands of the Nazis. Under the communists he sneaked out of Hungary, pretending to be making a film in Denmark.
In America, most confusingly of all, he became the epitome of the suburban 1950s male, with an obedient wife and a son and a daughter who must obey. As they were also surrounded by Catholics, he also, once again, affected Christianity — until Susan went too far by going to see a priest. He stormed into her room, grabbed her by the neck and banged her head on the floor. He wouldn’t have a Catholic child — “I created you, I can destroy you,” he cried.
“Thus did one daughter come to know that her father was a Jew,” she writes.
America was in the grip of its own national identity crisis. “As I came of age in postwar America,” Faludi writes, “the search for identity was assuming Holy Grail status, particularly for middle-class Americans seeking purchase in the new suburban sprawl.”
The crisis specifically struck at the idea of manhood. In 1958, Look magazine ran an article — it later became a book — headed The Decline of the American Male.
Steven’s response was to become an uber male, an aggressive, if inconsistent, provider for and defender of the family. He was a photographer and a great picture fixer in the darkroom — hence the title of Faludi’s book. He was so good at it, he worked for the best, including Richard Avedon. It was an obvious role for a naturally deceptive man.
His final attempt at the role of familial defender came after his separation from Faludi’s mother. His wife had a lover and, one night, Steven broke into the house and attacked him with a baseball bat and a Swiss army knife. He stabbed the lover but, somehow, he was not prosecuted.
In the ensuing years, Susan Faludi became famous. Her first book, Backlash: the Undeclared War Against American Women, published in 1991, was the primary text for new-wave feminism. In interviews and publicity she told the world that her parents were separated and her father had returned to Hungary. She could, it seemed, set the agenda at will. But then, with that email in 2004, it became clear that instead the agenda was going to set her.
She rented a flat in Budapest with her husband — Russ Rymer, another writer — to be close to Stefánie. Faludi was scared to see her walking about in her women’s clothes in the streets of a very socially conservative country.
“When I first saw people glowering at her — mostly women — my worry was that she was going to be attacked. This is not a culture that welcomes experimenting with gender expression with open arms. But, as my father got older, she just looked like an indeterminate older women.”
They wandered around Budapest, seeking the physical memorials of Stefánie’s pre-op life and visiting the past in museums. In the process they resolved a problem that has recently been bothering state legislatures in parts of America: should trans women be allowed into women’s lavatories?
“We’d go to the ladies’ bathrooms together, it was no big deal. There were times when I wished she wouldn’t come into the bathrooms with me, because she had a tendency to talk and talk and talk, and I just wanted five minutes alone.”
Stefánie’s first female incarnation presented Faludi with a new challenge. The trans cases she read about, like her father, all involved the adoption of hyper-girly identities — frilly or super-tarty — exactly the styles feminists had been determined to repudiate.
“I don’t like clichéd femininity in biological women any more than I do in trans women. The very conservative depictions often make a lot of modern trans people cringe … I think there’s a real problem embracing conservative stereotypes when you try to launch a movement that is radical and is supposedly devoted to overturning those stereotypes.”
In the event, Stefánie became less girly as time passed, reverting to “tweeds and tennis shoes” and abandoning wigs and make-up.
If that issue was resolved, however, few others were. The heart of the matter was identity. As Stefánie, she insisted that the day of her operation was a new birthday and everything that came before was to be, in some of her moods, disregarded.
“She wanted,” says Faludi, “to turn her past into a series of freeze-frames and I wanted to restore the whole movie. She wanted to say, ‘OK, I became a woman, and by becoming a woman I have shed my history … So much of this struggle between us was over whether identity was something you just declared or whether your identity is made up of a really complicated stew of everything that has come before and that you have inherited, and all the regrets and things that can never be pushed aside. I think, ultimately, my father came to an understanding of that herself in her final years.”
This, as I point out, is a problem for Faludi. She has always believed that gender is fluid, that sexual identity cannot be captured by the simple binary of male and female, that we all live somewhere on a spectrum of possibilities and that, crucially, we can choose where we stand on that spectrum. Biology, in short, is not destiny. This is a potent idea in much feminist thinking and it is now commonly embraced by the young. The normalisation of gay relationships has been accompanied by a relaxed acceptance that gay and straight are not teams you join, but points on a spectrum.
However, neither her father’s story nor the questions Faludi is seeking to answer fit neatly into this theory. The very fact that she is seeking to find out why it all happened indicates that the “complicated stew” had as much — or more — to do with it than a simple matter of Steven’s choice.
“I guess I mean I question the categories of what it means to be a woman. I don’t fit a lot of them myself. I’m not big on labels in general and I’m not big on dualities.”
It’s not an answer, but as she admits, there are no answers in this story. What is clear is that her father has come to represent a challenge, even a threat, to her politics.
The further complication is that there is a mystery about why Steven did it at all. It was not sexual: neither before nor after was he attracted to men, and, by normal criteria, he didn’t qualify for surgery. He went to Thailand because it was easier, but even there he had to use all his trickstering to get the surgeon to agree. He may have been proud of what he had done, this penultimate chameleon transformation, but it doesn’t sound as though it gave him peace.
The final astounding thing about this story is its sudden topicality. In 2014, Time magazine wrote of a “transgender tipping point” and, when the Kardashian spin-off Bruce Jenner became cover-trans Caitlyn, President Obama even tweeted a tribute to her courage. Faludi is more coolly analytical.
“I don’t think Jenner has a lot to tell us about how ordinary people live their lives,” she says. “Most transgender people, like most people, are not living the glitz-and-glam life. It’s hard to make her a representative of the transgender experience — she’s somebody who is like a 1% of a 1% in this Hollywood bubble.
I just don’t link the fact that she is transgender and my father was transgender. I can’t find any connective tissue between these two storylines.”
She is baffled about why the trans issue has suddenly become front-page news.
“It’s a big question. I think there’s a lot roiling about in the culture about gender that is unresolved. Then there’s the general preoccupation with identity. But I don’t think you can reduce it to a simple explanation.”
That is, in fact, the primary message of this book — there is never a simple explanation for anything. Faludi now seems stalled by a message that simply will not translate into political polemics, but remains locked in the baffling details of ordinary lives, ordinary compromises. She is wondering what she will write next or, just as important, how she will write next. Meanwhile, like everybody else, she sits at home in Maine and worries about Trump.
“It’s almost as if he was conjured up as a psychogram or all the culture’s hysteria over having a powerful woman in office. I mean, what’s the likelihood of having the most viable female candidate running against the most retrograde misogynist, who thinks all women are either babes to be schtupped or witches to be tossed into the cauldron?”
She worries he will become president because Bernie Sanders’s young supporters will simply not back Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate. “That would be a disaster.”
Who knows what will happen? About politics, life and identity, who knows anything? Even about the simple fact of Stefánie’s death, nobody seemed to know anything. At the hospital where she died, her grieving, confused daughter asked the nurse what was the cause of death.
“Could be anything,” she replied.