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11 July 2016

Identity papers: gender and Jewishness in Susan Faludi’s memoir of her father

In the Darkroom charts the author's relationship with her transgender parent.

By Helen Lewis

In 2004, after many years of estrangement, the feminist author Susan Faludi’s father wrote her an email. “I have decided that I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man that I have never been inside,” it read. Henceforth, Steven Faludi would be Stefánie.

It was an unexpected transformation. Steven’s impersonation of a “macho aggressive man” extended to stabbing his wife’s new lover in the stomach with a penknife and banging his teenage daughter’s head on the floor. Steven was deeply invested in the idea of being a paterfamilias. Newly emerged at 76, would Stefánie be different?

In the Darkroom follows Faludi’s attempt to reconnect with her father, who moved back to Hungary from the US after divorcing her mother. It is also a book about identity and the questions that it raises: who gets to decide who we are? And is there a true self, or just a series of performances?

Stefánie Faludi was born István Friedman in 1927 into a wealthy Jewish family which thought, erroneously, that it had assimilated completely into Hungarian society. But Hungary, like Germany, was unhappy with the terms of its post-First World War settlement and the country found it easy to blame Jews – perceived as rich, industrious, powerful, “other” – for its humbled state.

By the time István was a teenager, to be a “true Magyar” was, by definition, to be not Jewish. During the war, young men had their trousers pulled down in the street: circumcision was evidence enough to deliver a death sentence. István survived by hiding in Budapest, at one point disguising himself with an armband belonging to the fascist Arrow Cross Party to rescue his parents from detention. (This prompts a priceless line from one of Stefánie’s transgender friends: “So, you were a trans-Nazi?”) Much of the Friedman family perished in death camps. After the war, István’s parents ended up in Israel and he settled in the US. Like many emigrants, he changed his name. Becoming a photo retoucher, he picked Faludi, as it was a “good authentic Hungarian name”.

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Susan Faludi weaves together these strands of her father’s identity – Jewishness, nationality, gender – with energy, wit and nuance. Her father’s story resists the easy narratives so often applied to transgender memoirs: the butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, the rebirth, the person who can “at last be myself”. For most people, most of the time, identity isn’t that simple. The friend whom Stefánie stayed with while she recuperated from her operation in Thailand was then known as Melanie, formerly Mel. By the time Susan tracks down Melanie, she is Mel again: to marry a Thai girlfriend and keep a job, it was easier to be legally male.

Faludi also confronts the sexual component to her father’s reinvention. Stefánie has a taste for “sissy” erotica, in which a man is humiliated by having to wear women’s clothes; she visits websites such as Fantasy Femmes and Just Between Us Special Girls. The idea that some male-to-female transsexuals might be driven, even in part, by sexual urges is now considered offensive and Faludi – the author of the feminist classic Backlash – is well aware of the debates about what constitutes a “real” woman.

As with the other delicate subjects in the book, she approaches this obliquely. Without making the link explicit, she sketches the difficulties of creating an LGBT community in an increasingly right-wing, nationalistic country such as Hungary, where the 2008 Budapest Pride parade was attacked by neo-Nazis and politicians often condemn “deviants” and “pederasts”. No wonder the narrative of “born in the wrong body” is
preferable to anything that suggests a sexual component. The book also challenges the Western perception that a minority identity must go hand in hand with progressive politics: Stefánie’s attempt to create a trans support group flounders when the other members boast of their love of Mein Kampf.

Comparisons of Stefánie Faludi’s two reinventions – first as an all-American father and then as a repatriated Hungarian grande dame – could have been crass. Yet the points are never laboured. “Which has been easier for you,” Faludi asks her father, “to be accepted as a woman after being born a man, or to be accepted as a Magyar after being born a Jew?” Her father picks “woman”, explaining that this is what is now on her birth certificate. Later, Faludi finds the old official family documents, all of which mention one fact about the Friedmans: Jew. Some identities can be escaped, or self-fashioned; others appear indelible, imposed.

It is rare to read anything about anti-Semitism or transgender issues that works so hard to forgo polemic in favour of understanding. Stefánie never apologises for attacking her teenage daughter or her ex-wife’s lover. She is a frustrating interview subject, expansive on favoured themes (such as the lavish Budapest apartments confiscated from the Friedman family) and reticent on certain areas to do with the past. She seems determined to close her eyes to the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Hungary.

Stefánie’s identity is full of what Faludi calls “the daily texture of complicated ordinary lives”. She gets to choose her gender, but Jewishness has been thrust upon her. Yet she does not want to renounce it entirely – when Steven attacked his teenage daughter, it was because she was flirting with Christianity. Faludi has paid her late father a fine tribute by bringing her to life in such a compelling, truthful story. Who was István, Steven and Stefánie? She was them all, in the time and place she was them. 

In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi is published by William Collins (432pp, £16.99)

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This article appears in the 06 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit bunglers