June 16, 2016

"Identity becomes treacherous... when it’s used as a substitute for self-awareness."

Susan Faludi: My Father, The Woman

We’re really feeling the fault lines of human identity in 2016: the vexed questions of who we are, who we aren’t, and who we’d like to be. The “angry white male” is back—and voting. Some kids on campus are so rigidly identified—by race, sex, or orientation—that they’ve lost the ability to speak to each other. Single-sex bathrooms are suddenly a political battlefield.

In her captivating new book, In The Darkroom, the eminent feminist and reporter Susan Faludi has lots of lessons for this moment. She learned them in the company of her father who—estranged from her and aged 76—emailed his daughter with a bombshell: he now identified as a woman after reassignment surgery in Thailand.

FaludiDadpadded

Steven Faludi left many selves behind him. Born István Friedman, the son of a wealthy Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary, he shed his religion, his family, and his home after the tribulations of the Holocaust. He resurfaced in Brazil as a “swashbuckling” bachelor filmmaker, then again in New York as a domineering, sometimes violent, all-American suburban dad.

In her memories of her childhood, Susan Faludi reveals what “patriarchy” feels like at the level of everyday life—her thin-skinned father belittled and spoke over her and her mother, forced her to wear traditional Hungarian peasant dresses, and even attacked her after she attended a church meeting. Steven, then passing as Christian, didn’t want his daughter to abandon her Judaism:

As I was drifting off to sleep that night, my door flew open. My father stormed in. “I created you,” he shouted as he yanked me out of bed. He grabbed me by the neck and began knocking my head against the floor. His torrent of wrath was largely incoherent, but his point was clear— that he wouldn’t have a Catholic child. “I created you,” he repeated as my head hit the boards. “And I can destroy you.” Thus did one daughter come to know that her father was a Jew.

In the Faludis’ world, matters of personal identification were confused, obscure, and still deathly important.

When Steven, now Stefi, asked her daughter to write her story, she may have been hoping for a fairy tale of last-minute self-actualization. And in her research, Susan realized that many trans memoirs play out that way—in what she calls “sugar-and-spice accounts”:

The before and after states I read often seemed cast in hell and heaven terms… The memories that predate operation are often cast as belonging to someone else, a person who no longer exists.

But Susan’s memory of her father—the man she watched break into the house after a separation to beat and stab her mother’s lover with a bat and a Swiss army knife—wasn’t easily eclipsed by the new woman she met in the hills outside Budapest. It took a long period of self-disclosure before the two arrived at compassion, care, and love. 

It’s an uneasy question about the identity voyages we’re watching today—how does a new label, even a new body, relate to the same old self?

Steven Faludi had worked as a photo retoucher for Condé Nast, airbrushing away imperfections. (Susan remembers his narration: “See, she no longer has that unsightly mole! Look, no more wrinkles!”) After her transition, Stefi Faludi modeled herself single-mindedly on a ‘50s housewife—a kind of perfect reversal of the long “macho, aggressive” period.

And yet Susan is pleased that in the last two years of life, her father finally relaxed into her own skin—identifying not as a woman, but as “a trans.” That’s “trans,” less as in category “transition” than in the “transcendence” of identity categories themselves. It sounds like how Susan Stryker, a pioneer in this thinking, describes the trans identity: “something more and something other.” “It’s a phrase I really love,” Susan says.

You can support Open Source by purchasing Susan Faludi’s new book, In the Darkroom, on Indiebound or Amazon.

 

Guest List
Susan Faludi
feminist, journalist, and author of Backlash and In the Darkroom.

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  • A father can’t be a woman and a mother can’t be a man.

    • Jen

      I beg to differ. My mom was both mother and father to me.

    • nwthinker

      Not in your world anyway.

  • To be compelled to reify the dynamic conflict of the internal becoming external and the
    external becoming internal, without an oblique view to it all, is confusing – at least to a
    cis male.

    It seems her father took to heart the Buddhist goal of becoming less and less in the eyes of man with its resultant agency issues. By agency I mean the act of taking an idea out into the world. In this example, the act is merely trying to be comfortable in one’s own skin. It appears to be the act of taking an idea into the inner world – an act of indifference toward the outer world.

    Hence, Faludi questioning what is underneath the Photoshopped layer; the values and
    meaning.

  • Potter

    You can tell by the great smile on her photo with her father above that Susan Faludi has accepted her father with great thoughtfulness, empathy and equanimity–but most of all love. I thought it interesting that she kept referring to her father as “she” while Chris kept saying “he”. And that is apt because sexuality can be ( or is) very fluid with some and indeterminate. I don’t think a man changing his physiognomy to become a woman, changing his name and trying on makeup and women’s fashion makes one entirely a woman. But that is my feeling– as well about vice versa. But the wonderful thing today is that we are coming to accept sexual ambiguity thanks in part maybe to many “out there” who have attracted our attention, the famous too, like David Bowie and Prince and many many others. Those two come to mind as they recently passed. Years ago (telling my age) I do remember Christine Jorgensen, how unusual she was but also how likable or lovable. She was a spectacle, but I remember not having negative feelings. I can’t say the same thing for Jenner, capitalizing on the change.

    I wish that this did not become the main focus of a life either; there are other things, but I guess it does when one’s sexuality is an issue and it’s an emotional and psychic struggle. Thus a movement helps.

    Thank you so much both.

  • Dutch

    So in other words, Steven Faludi is a man who suffered from many outstanding mental and social problems, and apparently still did until his death last year (those parts in the book about him in his new female form always letting his robe fall open in front of her, barging into her room wearing only lingerie and even insisting on walking around in front of her naked says a lot about what he thinks a woman is – not to mention his library of “forced feminization fiction” where he inserted his own name into the stories).

    Instead of coming to terms with the outrageous things he did throughout his life, he just decided to say, “hey that macho jerk wasn’t me because I was really a little lady all along.” Ridiculous.