In the Darkroom
by Susan Faludi
Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt. 417 pages
Author and Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Susan Faludi’s riveting new book, In the Darkroom, opens in 2004 with a scene that seems ripped from an edgy reality TV show. Her long-estranged father has just sent her a terse email announcing, “I’ve got some interesting news for you. I have decided that I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man that I have never been inside.” In fact, the 76-year-old father formerly known as Steven had just undergone irreversible sex reassignment surgery and been reborn as Stefanie, or more informally, Stefi. Accompanying the email were photos reintroducing Faludi to the parent she’d barely spoken to over the previous 25 years—a now older but still familiar figure, even if sporting a red skirt, frilly blouse, and painted toenails.
Faludi was floored. She was an acclaimed investigative reporter, noted for her writings about gender and feminism in such books as Backlash and Stiffed. How had she missed signs that the despotic father who’d ruled her terrified family when she’d been growing up had secretly harbored the desire to be a female? In search of answers, and with an audio recorder and a reporter’s notebook at the ready, Faludi embarks on the first of many trips to Budapest, where her father, a Hungarian-born naturalized American citizen, had returned in 1989 after the fall of the communist government. Gradually, over the next decade, Stefi reveals, piece by piece, the full trajectory of identity reinvention that she’d undergone again and again before ultimately becoming Stefi.
For many memoirists, chronicling this story by itself would’ve been enough. But Faludi’s further purpose, it quickly becomes clear, is to explore the complexity of identity in general and the psychology of transgender identity in particular. The result is a stunning work, which adds nuance and perspective to this timely subject.
Faludi expertly mixes narrative with analysis and includes interviews with psychologists and sociologists, and individuals who’ve undergone sex-reassignment surgery, some successfully and one who acknowledges ambivalence about the procedure. Underlying the narrative at every turn are questions about gender, stereotypes, and identity. What does it mean to be female, male, transgender—to society in general, to Faludi’s father, both before and after surgery, and to Faludi herself, as she gets to know the parent she learns to call Stefi? Does being the newly feminine Stefi, rather than the formerly macho Steven, make it easier, more acceptable for Stefi to expose secrets and a level of vulnerability never known to her daughter before? Is it overreaching to see Faludi’s father’s lifelong obsession with Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Ugly Duckling as a clue to a lifelong gender identity mismatch, an ugly male yearning to become a graceful female swan?
How fluid or fixed is personal identity, anyway? After all, Steven/Stefanie’s biography is the story of donning and discarding one different persona after another. The first surprise is that Faludi’s father originally went by another name altogether: Istvan Friedman, the son of well-to-do Hungarian Jewish parents. In time, he’d change his surname to Faludi, which he felt was an “authentic” Hungarian name, and—perhaps not coincidentally, given the virulent anti-Semitism of pre–World War II, Nazi-occupied Hungary in which he grew up—it didn’t sound Jewish.
But that name-change happened only after the war, which he’d managed to survive on more than one occasion by bluffing his identity as an “authentic,” non-Jewish, Hungarian. Pulling off the impersonation was necessary to avoid being stopped by police guards who could command him to undo his trousers to see if he was circumcised, a giveaway to his Jewish birth. Jewish females, by contrast, didn’t have to face that humiliation. One can’t help but wonder what impact this had on Stefi’s later decision to surgically replace male with female genitalia.
In any case, the overriding lesson gleaned from such experience was that a fluid sense of identity was an essential tool for survival. At one crucial moment, Steven even saved his parents from deportation to the death camps by boldly pretending to be a member of the fascist Arrow Cross party, with special orders to take them into his own custody. The ploy was successful, and he managed to spirit them into hiding.
Perhaps just as remarkable is the fact that throughout his growing up, these parents, for whose lives he’d risked his own, had paid almost no attention to him, their only child. Why? Faludi tracks down rumors, gathered from distant relatives, that the Friedmans hadn’t considered their son manly enough. In fact, one story had it that he’d been discovered as a young boy dressing up in his mother’s clothes. After the war, however, he rarely communicated with his parents. Perhaps, having proven himself by saving them, he no longer needed to.
More masks followed after his arrival in America, as he took on the role of a typical (or stereotypical) suburban middle-class husband and father, embodying what Faludi describes as “a paragon of the Popular Mechanics weekend man,” energetically pursuing a vast array of woodworking and electronics projects in his basement workshop. He also forged a successful professional career in an actual darkroom (hence the metaphorically rich title), specializing in what he called trick photography, becoming the indispensable master of all types of photographic manipulation for Conde Nast’s art production, concealing unwanted flaws and retouching reality to fit a different script.
This skill, too, he applied in retouching the story of his divorce from Faludi’s mother. In the midst of the proceedings, in 1976, when Faludi was 17, he violently broke into his former home, beat down the bedroom door with a baseball bat, and severely injured the man his about-to-be ex-wife was then seeing. Yet Faludi’s father had successfully argued that he was the wronged husband, whose only goal was to save his family from the intruder in his wife’s bedroom.
Witnessing her father’s rampage, as well as his legal manipulations, had helped forge Faludi’s own identity as a feminist, she writes. Little surprise that she was skeptical of how transformative her father’s new identity as a woman would prove. And her first impressions upon meeting Stefi seemed to confirm that she was encountering the same personality but in (literally) new dress. Here was the same possessive need to remain in control (Stefi keeps Faludi a virtual prisoner indoors, rarely letting her outside during much of the initial visit) and near-paranoid obsession with security (both Stefi’s car and home resemble fortresses, replete with multiple layers of complex locks).
What’s different is Stefi’s simultaneously giddy and creepy insistence that because they’re both “girls” now, it’s perfectly acceptable for Stefi to roam through the house half-undressed, never mind that she’s baring more of her new body than Faludi cares to see. Stefi sees it as a perfectly natural female form of bonding to ask Faludi to help her pick out her daily outfits and discuss makeup—again, no matter that Stefi’s utter embrace of a stereotypical female obsessed with shopping and appearance make Faludi flinch. She wonders whether her father’s concept of being female shouldn’t be made of something beyond clothing, hairstyles, and cosmetics.
Susan Stryker, an LGBT history professor and male-to-female transsexual, tells Faludi that this kind of preoccupation should be seen in context. “When you’re transitioning, it’s a kind of adolescence. And things other people dealt with when they were 12—like, ‘Does that eye shadow make me look pretty?’ or ‘What’s my look?’—they’re dealing with now. It’s almost like being a convert to a new religion.” Faludi’s research and conversations with Stryker and others further emphasize the diversity of opinion within the trans community about whether gender identity is fluid or fixed, binary or a continuum, and what, if anything, sexuality or sexual orientation has to do with transitioning.
Stefi declines to tell Faludi if her gender transition has affected her sexual orientation. But Stefi does show Faludi pages from a large computer file of erotic imagery conflating femininity with sexual bondage and humiliation. It’s unclear whether this was Steven’s fantasy, or Stefi’s, or both.
Stefi is more open about what she perceives to be the many advantages of being female, but her responses once again resound with stereotypes. As a woman, she’s treated with respect and kindness, she says. She no longer has to fend for herself, and doesn’t need to lift a finger because men will reflexively help her.
It’s only when Stefi begins to talk about her past discomfort with her body and her life lived as a man that glimmers of past torment appear. Stefi begins by holding up her arms and demanding, “‘Does this look like a man’s body? I never developed. There’s hardly any hairs on my body. . . . I had the organs, I did my job, as a man. But I didn’t fit the role. . . . I had a miserable life as a man.’”
The statement is heartbreaking. Yet given Stefi’s previous personae and self-explanations, it’s difficult not to wonder if being born a man was the single cause of her “miserable life,” or one factor in a constellation of family neglect and historical tragedy? Perhaps the larger issue transcending and encompassing all these aspects for Stefi was that of being accepted as a human being. It was only when she became Stefi, she tells Faludi, that she no longer felt the need to role-play or impersonate another.
Stefi’s story is clearly not a case history from which to generalize, but a complex portrait reminding us that there’s no universal pathway that ends in the decision to transition to a different gender. Nor will switching genders necessarily provide a perfect solution to one’s questions about gender identity, as shown in Faludi’s sensitive portrait of Mel, who had sex-reassignment surgery and transitioned to Melanie, and now alternates between both identities.
Stefanie died in 2015. Respectful of her father’s decision, throughout the book, Faludi uses feminine pronouns when referring to Stefanie, and male pronouns in passages about Steven. In writing In the Darkroom, she honored her father’s request to tell her tale. “You know more about my life than I do,” Stefi responded upon reading the completed manuscript a few months before her death.
Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and writes for The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.