Twelve years ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Susan Faludi received an email from Hungary with the subject line, “Changes.” It was from her estranged 76-year-old father, writing to say that he had recently undergone sex reassignment surgery. Steven Faludi, a photographer who had spent a lifetime creating and altering images, had remade himself as a woman. Though he was still the author’s father, he wanted to be known as Stefánie – or “she.”
So begins “In the Darkroom,” a rich and fascinating memoir that contemplates gender in the broader framework of identity and that last week won the Kirkus Prize for nonfiction. Faludi’s tale of two fathers – the abusive alpha male she grew up with and the ultra-feminine persona she met later in life – sets the stage for a uniquely modern drama. Fully a decade before Caitlyn Jenner and Amazon’s “Transparent” made headlines, the author was grappling with transgender issues on her virtual doorstep. The cultural landscape could not have been more different.
“Now it’s almost, ‘Oh, so your father’s a woman – who cares?’ Whereas, in 2004, it was ‘What? What are you talking about?’ It’s been a dramatic and very positive change,” she says.
Faludi, who teaches in the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program at Bowdoin College, spoke recently from her home in Brunswick about journalism and identity, Maybelline and stilettos. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: If your book had been a work of fiction, nobody would have believed it! There are so many layers of complication.
A: This is why I’ve always stuck to journalism. I could not think up half of the curve balls that reporting sends my way. My father’s story threw me more than its share of curious twists and turns.
Q: How hard was it to research and write this book, given that you’re one of the main characters?
A: Being a journalist helped me navigate this story. It gave me a buffer, almost a security blanket, for diving back into the relationship with my father, which had been so difficult and fraught. It also gave me a wider lens. I went over to Hungary the first time with a stack of reporter’s notebooks, and my questions and my micro-cassette recorders. But ultimately I had to drop the pretense of being the dispassionate observer because I was as much a participant as witness to this story.
Q: Your father compartmentalized her life into two large eras – before and after surgery – and drew a clear line between the two.
A: It’s complicated because, on the one hand, my father’s desire to be a woman dates to very early childhood. But on the other hand, the question of how my father perceived womanhood was all wrapped up in how she felt about the life beforehand. Part of the story had to do with seeking a kind of absolution, wanting to start over. In that regard, there are certain parallels to somebody who goes through a religious conversion – the desire we all have to hit the restart button.
Q: Your father talked about being “a complete woman now.” What exactly did she mean?
A: There was a lot to wrap my brain around. It was a real-life test for my feminism. I mean, here’s my father who sparked my feminism with his macho, violent behavior, who is suddenly giving me a guided tour of the frills and flounces of her Doris Day wardrobe! My father said to me, “You write only about the disadvantages of being a woman, but I see only advantages. Being a woman is a racket; you get coddled all the time.”
God knows, we argued. That certainly wasn’t my experience, and it wasn’t actually my father’s experience as a woman.
Q: You were expecting to find a changed person, but your father was the same – just a woman.
A: I’d say that, over time, as my father sort of settled into herself, she let go of that caricatured persona, that cliched girly-girlness, and became more undefinable. She also became older, so the idea of wearing stiletto heels was less realistic.
I think her most over-the-top, hyper-feminine period was actually right at the beginning, or even pre-op. Once she had the operation, she could put a lot of that aside.
Q: I wonder if that makes perfect sense in terms of acclimating.
A: A trans friend said to me, “You have to keep in mind that transitioning at a later age is like going through a delayed adolescence.” I had to admit that my own adolescence was rife with enraptured trips to the cosmetics aisle. I, too, had my Maybelline period.
When I first went over to Hungary, there was much showing of outfits, makeup, photographs, down to the very challenging moment when my father insisted that I even watch video of the operation. She was just sort of busting out after hiding behind this hyper-masculine facade.
Q: Reading the book, one gets to the most fundamental question under all of this: What is identity more broadly?
A: Exactly. And my father was kind of an identity Zelig whose life was a series of era-defining identity crises, and not just on the gender front. For much of my father’s life, her identity was paradoxically about hiding, and assimilation and passing as whatever identity she felt that society expected of her. My father’s whole life was devoted to concealment and, as she put it, “getting away with things.” And I think that story goes way back. Its deepest root was my father having to pass as Christian during the Holocaust.
Q: When you take the story as a whole, what is your assessment of your father’s character?
A: Growing up, I had a rather low opinion of him, after my father was violent toward his children and especially his wife, my mother – and I took my mother’s side. That was the beginning of my feminism. But over the years, after we reconnected, I began to see another side of my father.
My father ultimately invited me back into her life, and invited me to write her story because she wanted to lay down this lifelong hiddenness – to finally give up being undercover, fitting in. It was a great privilege for me to be on that journey, and to be the witness and chronicler.
Q: You said that you were writing the book about your father and for your father. Was the intent that the book would be a mirror of sorts?
A: Not a mirror exactly, but the book project became part of the process by which my father finally dealt with her past and came out into the world. So, while we started out with my father’s preoccupation with how to pass as a woman, by the last couple of years, my father was much more focused on dealing with what it meant to grow up Jewish in Hungary, under the Holocaust. I like to think that the book enabled that.
Q: When you first visited your father after her surgery in 2004, did you know this would lead to a book?
A: You know how writers work. Some days you think, “This is clearly a book,” and other days you wonder, “What was I thinking?” I wasn’t sure if I’d go over there, see my father, and we’d be so thrown back into the unpleasantness of my childhood that I’d just run screaming from the room and that would be the end of it. I really didn’t know.
Q: When did you realize that it was, in fact, a book?
A: Well, I knew it could be a very profound book, particularly as I saw not just my father’s identity quest with gender, but Hungary’s search for its identity on a national scale. What held me back were my personal qualms about unfurling it for all to see. I’m not a natural memoirist. All of my life I’ve written about public and political issues. For all my feminist bona fides, the personal, for me, has mainly stayed personal.
Q: Would you ever want to write something this personal again?
A: Ultimately, it was deeply gratifying, and I don’t think I could have grappled with the larger identity questions without grappling with my father’s story. It’s opened a whole new way of writing for me. Actually, I think it will be difficult to go back to “Just the facts, ma’am.”
Q: If you could set the record straight about any issue in the book, what would that be?
A: I hoped that the book would be read not just as a personal story, but as a meditation on the complicated and perilous nature of how we define identity. I see the way identity is distorting politics here and around the globe. I see a direct line between what my father was struggling with and Brexit, and the rise of neo-Fascism in Eastern Europe, and ISIS and Make-America-Great-Again Trumpism. Everywhere you turn, identity is the great battlefield.
Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News.