In the Darkroom, by Susan Faludi. Henry Holt and Company, 2016. ISBN 9780805089080.
November 2020 – I’m ordinarily skeptical of cisgender writers telling stories about trans folks. However, this book by Susan Faludi about her father who survived the Holocaust and transitioned at age 77, seemed worth reading. In the Darkroom was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2017, an award Faludi had won previously in 1991.
Faludi was largely estranged from her father after her parents divorced in 1977. She had not spoken to him at all in several years when in 2004 she received an email from her father informing her that she had transitioned. It wasn’t a complete surprise, as a relative had already warned her, but the email must still have been disorienting. Attached to the message were a series of photographs of pre-op Stefanie, and then others taken later during her stay in a Thailand hospital where she’d had the surgery. It was the kind of announcement that might have put off most people, and Faludi had more reasons than most to be put off.
While married to her mother, Faludi’s father was not a nice man, He was inscrutable and sometimes violent. Nonetheless, she still chose to establish a relationship with her after her transition. The parent-child bond is not easily relinquished, but I suspect Faludi’s journalistic need to know also compelled her to do so. “Was I afraid of how changed I’d find my father? Or of the possibility that she wouldn’t have changed at all, that he would still be there, skulking beneath the dress.”
Her father had been a photographer in the United States, but returned to Hungary – her birth country – after the fall of communism. It was probably inevitable that Faludi would be questioning her father’s authenticity as a woman the moment she met her at Budapest airport in the summer of 2004. She observes how her father had taken her pocketbook off her shoulder and hung it from a hook on the luggage cart: “My first thought, and it shames me, was: no woman would do that.” Her silent critique of her father continues in the way Faludi describes in minute detail each outfit she wore, as if to highlight its absurdity. I was a little annoyed with this initially, but her father didn’t win me over either. She held many stereotypical views on women and was astonishingly insensitive to how Faludi might feel when she saw her walking around in her favourite and not entirely closed crimson bathrobe.
Although she doesn’t say so, there must have been a small enough change in her father to allow Faludi to pursue a relationship that had broken down and appeared a few years earlier to be hopeless. As the story unfolds, we are sent on a journey through Hungarian history, and the sorry plight of Hungarian Jews during World War II, until finally her father gradually reveals her experiences and at times heroic actions during that horrible time. The book also has a section on Faludi’s own education in trans identity which, focused as it was on early memoirs by trans women who exulted in feminine stereotypes and others who proved to be not so sure of their identities, suggested to me that she was merely confirming in her own mind her doubt about the authenticity of her father’s life as a woman.
The book is a journey of growth however, both for Faludi and her father, and there lies its greatest reward. Her father never wavers from his female identity, and when he dies in a hospital that “appeared more Bedlam than beneficent”, Faludi is “oddly comforted by the knowledge that my father had died here in the female wing, surrounded by women.”
From a trans perspective, I was prone occasionally to nitpick at parts of this book, but Faludi is a good writer and an astute observer, and as I read along I developed a trust that she would tell the story with nuance. In that she succeeded.