Writer and cultural critic Susan Faludi, author of the 1991 feminist classic “Backlash,” had been estranged from her father for decades when she received an email with what the sender described as “interesting news.” Steve Faludi was no more; after sexual reassignment surgery, her father was now a woman named Stefánie.
“In the Darkroom” (Metropolitan Books, 417 pp., $32) is Faludi’s account of their reconnection, a decadelong conversation about her father’s life and many identities: a Hungarian Jew who survived the Holocaust to become a suburban American father who put up a Christmas tree each year; a photographer admired for prowess in pre-Photoshop retouching tricks; an angry and sometimes violent man who chose, in his late 70s, to become a woman. Faludi’s father died 10 years after the email announcing her new life.
Faludi spoke with Newsday by telephone; an edited version of our conversation follows.
How surprised were you to receive the email from your father, telling you that she was now a woman?
It was indeed a bolt from the blue. It was not anything that would have been on my list of top 10 or even top 100 likely changes in my father’s life.
Your work has dealt with issues of feminism and politics for years. Had you thought much, before this, about the social and political implications of the trans movement?
Not a lot. In my book on masculinity, “Stiffed,” I have a section where I’m talking about the beginning of the gay rights movement and that the Stonewall uprising was really led by people who back then called themselves drag queens or transvestites — they weren’t even using the term transgender. It’s interesting to go back and look at that, to realize the very moment I was writing that, in the late ’90s, my father must have been thinking about whether to have sex reassignment surgery.
You seem, if not skeptical, then at least willing to raise issues about how complicated the issue of transgender identity is. Would you say your father’s story is sort of cautionary in that way?
I don’t know if I would say cautionary, because my father ultimately was happy with her change and did not regret it. I think what disturbed me was not so much the sex change itself as the fact that my father, at least initially, seemed to be using it as a quick fix for everything else going on in her life. And the larger point I come to in the book is that this is a danger inherent in identity in general, whether on the individual level or the national level, in the case of Hungary.
I would say Hungary is the real cautionary tale of the book, because that really was an identity search run amok — a country trying to recreate itself overnight from a communist to a capitalist state, that seemed to want to substitute identity for a real reckoning with the very difficult, intractable social and economic problems the populace was facing, without any real coming to terms, or even the barest inspection of a very dark past.
You write about painful topics, but there’s a lot of humor in the character of your father — she’s such a grand, performative person, but also very guarded. How did she feel about being the center of your book?
She didn’t really want to read it. But she constantly was talking to people about how this book was coming out. She was telling nurses in the hospital about it. My guess is that what mattered to my father was being perceived and it didn’t matter as much how, but I think she wanted to be recognized, memorialized and for whatever reasons she chose her daughter to write that.
You describe a difficult childhood with your father, including a time after your parents separated when Steve broke into the family home and stabbed your mother’s new boyfriend. Were you able to forgive your father?
I think we came to understand each other in a much deeper way, over the course of our decade-plus working on this project. I came to understand much more deeply the dynamics that led to her frightening rage — and to forgive that, without at all exonerating the behavior. I’m still very much on my mother’s side on the question of domestic violence.
The estrangement might easily have continued, and she would have died without your having this decadelong connection and conversation. Are you grateful for it?
I’m very grateful I had these years. In a funny way our common ground of grappling with gender is what brought us together.