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.
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.