My Father, the Shapeshifter
Even so, the liveliest exchange in the Q. and A. session, after Ms. Faludi read an excerpt about visiting the building in Budapest where her father, a Holocaust survivor, escaped being shot by the Nazis, centered on the less weighty issue of the author’s use of pronouns in the book — “he” for every reference to her father before his surgery, “she” for every one after. Acknowledging her methodology as “a copy editor’s nightmare,” Ms. Faludi said she flubbed it only once.
Such challenges aside, the book received rapturous reviews. “‘In the Darkroom’ is an absolute stunner of a memoir,” Jennifer Senior wrote in The New York Times, “probing, steel-nerved, moving in ways you’d never expect.” More recently, it was named one of the “10 Best Books of 2016” by The Times Book Review and won this year’s Kirkus Prize for nonfiction.
“They’re kinder when you write a personal book,” Ms. Faludi observed a few weeks after the party in Los Angeles. After several more promotional stops, she was back at her home in Brunswick, Me., where she is a research associate at Bowdoin College. (Her husband, the writer Russ Rymer, teaches in the English department.) On the kind of fall afternoon at which New England colleges excel, scarlet and amber leaves wafted from the oaks surrounding the house — a two-story traditional furnished largely with books and Mission-style pieces. (Having spent 20 years in California, Ms. Faludi considers Los Angeles her “psychic home.”)
At 57, she looks much as she did at 32 — russet-haired, angular, watchful — when the success of “Backlash” landed her, alongside Gloria Steinem, on the cover of Time. She wiped some Windex on the glass table on her back patio and set out lunch — quiche and tabbouleh, edamame and orzo salads from the local gourmet shop — noting that her cooking skills betrayed an ambivalence toward certain tropes of womanhood.
(“Susan is an observer,” said her friend Peggy Orenstein, the author of “Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape.” “She’s not what you would call an oversharer. But when she does talk about herself, she can be very funny in a wry, understated way.”)
In one of the stranger twists in a book full of them, Steven Faludi — a tough, even violent presence during Ms. Faludi’s childhood in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. — embraced the hoariest stereotypes of femininity when he became Stefánie Faludi. “Here’s my father, whose raw aggressions inspired my feminism,” Ms. Faludi said, picking at her edamame. “And the first time I visit him in Hungary, he’s giving me the grand tour of his Marilyn Monroe outfits and cases of makeup.”
Stefánie Faludi was nothing if not self-involved. During a later visit, she made Ms. Faludi watch a video of her sex-reassignment surgery. And the book was her idea. But Ms. Faludi’s father was also a “masker and dodger.” Over the course of many trips to Hungary, Ms. Faludi recalled, “we had this constant contest between my father’s desire to put forth a story that erased everything that came before the present and my avid interest in excavating my father’s past.”
In fact, she unearthed a series of pasts, each concealing another like a matryoshka doll. Her father, who died in May 2015 at 87, started life as Istvan Friedman, an only child born to an assimilated, well-to-do Jewish couple in Budapest. He lived a privileged existence in a regally appointed apartment in the city and a summer villa in the Buda Hills, but was largely neglected by his parents. His mother beat him after catching him trying on her undergarments, and he struggled to fit in at a school famous for its athletic teams. Istvan’s early shapeshifting skills ultimately saved his life: During the Nazi occupation of Hungary — when two-thirds of the country’s Jewish population was exterminated — he survived by passing as a gentile and rescued his parents from deportation by impersonating a fascist Arrow Cross officer.
Then there was Istvan Faludi, the “normalized” identity Ms. Faludi’s father assumed after the war. At 20, Mr. Faludi fled to Brazil, where he found work as a photographer and filmmaker for the Brazilian government. At the end of 1953, he emigrated to the United States, marrying Ms. Faludi’s mother, Marilyn Lanning, a homemaker and journalist, three years later. Enter Steven Faludi — professional film retoucher, rugged outdoorsman, “Ur-suburban dad.”
“He was always trying on different personae,” Ms. Faludi recalled. “Most of them at the time were frenetic sportsman identities — rock climber, ice climber, extreme cyclist.”
Walled-off and despotic, Mr. Faludi could also be abusive. Ms. Faludi’s parents separated when she was 16; one night the next year, her father violated a restraining order and returned to their home to attack the boyfriend of Ms. Faludi’s mother with a baseball bat and a knife. For the next two and a half decades, Ms. Faludi had little contact with him.
(As unsparing as she is with her father’s personal history, Ms. Faludi is more guarded about her own. If he was dogged by disappointment, she was a classic overachiever: After putting herself through Harvard, she wrote for publications like The Miami Herald and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for her exposé in The Wall Street Journal on the leveraged buyout of Safeway Stores. The same year, she published “Backlash,” a best seller and a National Book Critics Circle Award winner.)
In 1990, Mr. Faludi moved back to Hungary. “It was the beginning of the capitalist revolution, and I think my father had the idea he was going to be this kind of globe-trotting entrepreneur,” Ms. Faludi said. “When that didn’t work out, it was sort of the last unveiling of his attempts to be a masculine man.” He flew to Thailand to have sex-reassignment surgery in 2004. Having failed to get a letter of recommendation for the procedure, he forged one.
The elusiveness of identity is Ms. Faludi’s idée fixe. She is suspicious of efforts by her father or anyone else to reduce gender — not to mention sexual, racial or national identity — to an either/or proposition. “All the years she was alive,” she writes of her father, “she’d sought to settle the question of who she was. Jew or Christian? Hungarian or American? Woman or man? So many oppositions.”
A reporter read Ms. Faludi this passage, which continues: “There is in the universe only one true divide, one real binary ——” At this point, an oak nut fell, banging loudly off the patio table. “Whether or not you get hit on the head by an acorn,” Ms. Faludi deadpanned. “Life and death,” the lines conclude. “Either you are living or you are not. Everything else is molten, malleable.”
Throughout her narrative, Ms. Faludi connects the dots between her father’s identity crises and those of his homeland — Hungary’s embrace of fascism and communism as well as the rightist nationalism of today’s Fidesz party, which Stefánie Faludi supported despite the anti-Semitism in its ranks. She also draws parallels between Fidesz and the identity politics that drove the recent American elections: “A national identity based on finding people to demonize and attack for your afflictions — sound familiar?” (Several months ago Ms. Faludi wrote a piece for The Baffler comparing Donald Trump to Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, that now reads like a prophecy.)
Ms. Faludi has mixed feelings about the media spotlight that the transgender movement has, at least until recently, enjoyed in this country. She applauds trans activists for adopting the idea that “gender is fluid and on a spectrum.” And she binge-watched “Transparent,” commending the Amazon series for referring to the work of the pioneering sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld as well as for examining the connective tissue between Jewish identity and gender. On the other hand, she is skeptical of what she calls the “tropes of victimization, heroism and celebrity” personified by Caitlyn Jenner posing in a satin corset on the cover of Vanity Fair.
(“I think trans people are heroes,” Jennifer Boylan, the author of the memoir “She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders” and a friend of Ms. Faludi’s and Ms. Jenner’s, countered in a phone call. “I would also say that I wouldn’t want to get between anybody and the way they want to see themselves. I mean, I’m at the salon right now with my hair in tinfoil.”)
The way Ms. Faludi’s father wanted to see herself could be comically fanciful; at one point, she self-identifies as “an overdressed shiksa.” But for all the walls she erected between her various incarnations, she ultimately comes to a reckoning, of sorts, with her past. Ms. Faludi describes a visit to a small Holocaust exhibit at the Hungarian National Museum that brings her father to tears, as well as a trip to a reform synagogue where her father says a Kaddish for the parents she rejected after saving their lives.
Toward the end of her life, she questions whether her daughter is “doing what Avedon did” — creating an unforgiving parental portrait. But when Ms. Faludi offers to let her read the book manuscript, she declines. In the end, Ms. Faludi writes, she “wanted to be seen and seen whole.”
At her reading in Los Angeles, Ms. Faludi made it clear that hers was not a story that ended in “healing and closure.” But the light she shines on her father’s identity illuminates facets of her own. “I realized that so much of what I am is not self-generated,” she said, “that I am also, like my father, a product of external connections” — to her father, for one, as well as to his extended family in Eastern Europe.
“Susan’s relationship with her father was something she had put up a firewall against, and I think tearing that down was wrenching,” said Mr. Rymer, who joined Ms. Faludi on a number of her trips to Hungary. “But over the course of the book, I think her understanding of a lot of aspects of herself deepened.”
Not that there were any lightning bolts.
Ms. Faludi had hoped to take the reporter by a recent exhibition at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art titled “This Is a Portrait If I Say So: Identity in American Art, 1912 to Today.” But their own identity colloquy around the patio table went on too long. Instead, she agreed to pick a favorite piece from the show and discuss its significance to her by email.
The work she selected was “Autobiography,” a 1968 triptych by Robert Rauschenberg. In the top panel of the piece, the artist’s astrology chart overlays an X-ray of his skeleton. In the middle panel, around a childhood photograph, a spiraling text in the shape of a fingerprint chronicles events in Mr. Rauschenberg’s life. The bottom panel shows a photo of the artist performing his first dance piece, a shot of the New York skyline and a navigational chart of the waters near his hometown, Port Arthur, Tex.
“It made me think of how impossible it is to tease apart all these different tangled threads that go into the making of an ‘identity,’” Ms. Faludi wrote in her email. “How much is what we’re born with, how much is imposed on us, and how much is determined by our own actions? Which I guess brings me back to the original question of the book: Is identity what we choose to be, or is it the very thing we can’t escape?”
It is worth noting that Mr. Rauschenberg specified that the panels of “Autobiography” could be installed horizontally — reading forward — or vertically, as they were hung at Bowdoin — reading down.
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