Literary Review, August 2016
In the Darkroom, Susan Faludi (William Collins £16.99)
In 2004, the American author Susan Faludi received an email from her father, a retired commercial photographer. They had had little contact for the last quarter century and Steven Faludi had been living in Hungary, the country of his birth, for several years. That was not the cause, however, of the long estrangement between Faludi, a well-known feminist, and her 76-year-old parent. She records matter-of-factly in this harrowing book that her father was a violent abuser, describing how he almost killed her mother’s new boyfriend after their marriage ended in 1976.
Even before the attack, which put the victim in hospital with multiple stab wounds, Steven Faludi treated his family appallingly. When his wife suggested she might get a part-time job, he swept the dishes to the floor and slammed his fists on the table. When his daughter did something that displeased him, he dragged her out of bed and banged her head against the floor. When his wife filed for divorce, he picked up a dining chair and brought it down on her back.
Susan Faludi describes these incidents as manifestations of a rage ‘so ancient it seemed foundational’, long preceding the breakdown of her parents’ marriage. At first sight, they make what happened in 2004 all the more unexpected: in that email to his daughter, laconically entitled ‘Changes’, Steven Faludi revealed that he had undergone sex reassignment surgery and was now called Stefanie. ‘I have decided,’ she explained, ‘that I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man that I have never been inside.’
This startling event marked the beginning of a kind of reconciliation between Faludi and her father, as she refers to Stefi (her father’s preferred name) throughout the book. Over the next few years, Faludi visited Stefi many times in Budapest, getting to know her and trying to answer questions about how the two of them came to be in this strange situation. Right at the beginning, Stefi challenged Faludi to write a book about her, a task she completed shortly before her father’s death in 2015.
Naturally the book is about identity, that most current of pre-occupations, although not perhaps in the sense that Faludi’s father would have expected. The transformation of Steven into Stefanie was not the first big change in Faludi’s father’s life; his birth name was Istvan Friedman and he was known to his wealthy Jewish family in Budapest by the diminutive ‘Pista’. At the end of the Second World War Pista changed his name to Steven Faludi and settled in the US, where he built a business re-touching photos for some of the most celebrated fashion photographers of the period. He raised his family in a Catholic neighbourhood in New York State, hiding his Jewish identity behind showy celebrations of Christian festivals.
The fate of Hungary’s Jewish population is one of many tragic stories in this book. Faludi offers a history of the country’s anti-Semitism in the 20th century, which led to the deaths of 56 members of her Hungarian family in the Second World War, as well as its alarming resurgence in the 21st. In one of the book’s most startling episodes, her teenage father saves his parents, who were at risk of imminent deportation in 1944, by pretending to their guards that he was a fellow-member of the Arrow Cross, Hungary’s version of the Nazi party.
Faludi tells the story in her father’s words but points out immediately afterwards that Stefi is an unreliable narrator: ‘How could I begin to assess the truth of a story whose very point was to confirm the storyteller as an extremely effective liar?’ Her father’s subsequent reluctance to have anything but the most cursory contact with his parents suggests he had complex, hostile feelings towards them, something Faludi ascribes to her grandparents’ bitter separation before the Second World War.
The problem with the book lies in this matter of character. Much of it consists of conversations between Faludi and her father after 2004, when they are engaged in a project with very different aims: Faludi wants to understand the past, while her father is intent upon showing off her new, thoroughly feminine identity. Faludi is generous and accepting throughout, researching the history of transsexuality in an attempt to understand Stefi better, but even she baulks when her father tries to give her some unwanted bras.
It is evident from these pages that Faludi’s father adopted and abandoned identities at will, but never stopped being a narcissistic bully. The physical violence Faludi witnessed in her parents’ marriage no longer features in their resumed relationship but her father is as prone to psychological abuse – what we now know as ‘coercive control’ – as ever. That makes the book a disturbing read, not because Faludi’s father is transsexual but because she is still a deeply unpleasant human being.