Tracing Gender and Identity, in Budapest and Beyond

Book review: In the Darkroom, by Susan Faludi

Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, author, and feminist Susan Faludi received an email out of the blue in 2004, from her father whom she’s been estranged from for 27 years. He informed her that he’d undergone sex reassignment surgery, and was now known as Stefánie. Shocked and intrigued, Susan rekindled the relationship, traveling to Budapest, her father’s hometown where he’d since relocated, to learn more about what prompted this change.

She needs to understand what makes her father tick, how she’s changed since Susan’s turbulent childhood, and why she’s made this difficult transition late in life (in her 70s).  The book is an effort to tease out and find who she is underneath the facades and incarnations she’s presented as her personas throughout the years. And not only to know who she is as she defines herself, but why those other selves weren’t reality and what purpose they served at the time, in the confines of social, national and religious identities. It’s a very multi-layered exploration, but it all comes together beautifully.

What emerges is an exquisitely written account not only of Stefanie and her relationship with her daughter Susan, but of everything around them that’s shaped Stefanie and her family, her decisions, her life. The book is one big exploration of identity, how it relates to gender and religion and location, and how the society in which one lives can affect and form perception of oneself. It’s a huge undertaking, and written so elegantly and intelligently that I was constantly in awe.

Inextricable from Stefanie’s life history is that of Hungary itself. As Istvan, his birth name and identity, Stefanie survived the persecution of the Hungarian Jews at the hands of both the Nazis and the Arrow Cross, Hungary’s notoriously vicious fascist party. It’s a strange choice that Stefanie has made to relocate to Hungary, one of Europe’s most notoriously intolerant and homophobic countries, saddled with decades’ worth of troubling politics. But Stefanie is unbothered, at least most of the time. She repeats that she’s able to adapt to any situation in ten minutes, and seems happy to be close to her roots, even as the troubled history of her parents and their relationship to her emerges.

“He had to come back here, after more than four decades, to his birthplace-only to have an irreversible surgery that denied a basic fact of that birth. In the first instance, he seemed to be heeding the call of an old identity that, no matter how hard he’d run, he’d failed to leave behind. In the second, she’d devised a new one, of her own choice or discovery.”

Being Jewish and being Hungarian are integral parts of Stefanie’s identity, and Faludi ties together these aspects while pointing out paradoxes everywhere. These seem to have plagued Stefanie throughout her whole life, and they frustrate Susan too, as the inherent journalist in her tries to always find reasons why, clear explanations that Stefanie pointedly avoids providing.

Faludi’s father reinvents not only herself but sometimes her own history, obstinately refusing to clarify certain details of her meandering, expansive biography. She’s Hungarian, Jewish, American, a father, a scorned ex-husband, expatriate who’s lived in Denmark, Brazil and New York, now returned to her homeland and creating a new world for herself there. Faludi investigates and challenges everything, pushing the boundaries of her parent’s white lies and unwillingness to actively remember, and interviews other family members, her father’s small circle of friends and acquaintances in the trans community, even the surgeon and the doctor who supplies estrogen.

So we learn the truth about Stefanie, nee Steven, nee Istvan, as much as Faludi can dig up, at least. And we learn about trans identity, the researchers and professors who are devoted to exploring and understanding and educating. The family story is fascinating; from its beginnings and her father’s ending in Budapest and everything in between, encompassing many of the pivotal events of contemporary history and the norms and expectations of life in multiple countries through the last half century.

Faludi comes to terms more with this man who was an enigma much of her life, and a volatile figure from what she remembers of their life before their estrangement in her upstate New York childhood home. He wasn’t at home in the skin he was born with, and so like a snake it had to be shed. The details of the life it’s lived through and all those affected around it feel like things that shouldn’t be forgotten or buried in history, as Stefanie herself tries to do.

I feel it’s worth noting that I avoided this book last year because I thought it sounded overrated, and because I wasn’t immediately captivated by the topic of gender identity and its related subject matter. Don’t make the mistake I did, this sweet, funny, sad, heartbreaking and hopeful memory deserves every accolade it’s gotten.

“But who is the person you ‘were meant to be’? Is who you are what you of yourself, the self you fashion into being, or is it determined by your inheritance and all it’s fateful forces, genetic, familial, ethnic, religious, cultural, historical? In other words: is identity what you choose, or what you can’t escape?”

In the Darkroom
by Susan Faludi
published June 14, 2016 by Metropolitan/Henry Holt (US) William Morrow (UK)
I received a copy courtesy of the UK publisher for review.

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