‘In the Darkroom’ by Susan Faludi

faludi

2016, 417p

As it happens I found myself reading, almost end-to-end, two memoirs written by daughters about their fathers.  Both fathers experienced World War II and both daughters, in their own ways, were affected at second-generation remove, by their fathers’ responses to the war.  Much as I enjoyed Magda Szubanski’s book, Reckoning,  I did find myself thinking once I started Susan Faludi’s book “now this woman can write!”  As authors, they’re not really comparable. Szubanski writes from the heart, where Faludi writes from the head, and Faludi’s skill in crafting her story is that of the polemicist as well as the story-teller.

Faludi’s father only really came back into her life in 2004 after decades of estrangement. As she says in her opening paragraph:

In the summer of 2004 I set out to investigate someone I scarcely knew, my father,  The project began with a grievance, the grievance of a daughter whose parent had absconded from her life.  I was in pursuit of a scofflaw, an artful dodger who had skipped out on so many things- obligation, affection, culpability, contrition. I was preparing an indictment, amassing discovery for a trial.  But somewhere along the line, the prosecutor became a witness. (p.1)

In the summer of 2004 she received an email from her father telling her that “I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man that I have never been inside” and that he had had gender reassignment surgery. Now, instead of Stefan (or, when he was in America, Steven) he was now Stefanie. It was the first email she had received from her father in years. He had left the family while she was a teenager in 1977, and had returned to his birthplace Hungary after the fall of communism in 1989. “You said you were going to write my life story, and you never did” he taunted her. “It could be like Hans Christian Andersen,” he later told her, “When Andersen wrote a fairy tale, everything he put in it was real, but he surrounded it with fantasy.” (p. 21, p.1).

Faludi has not indulged the fantasy, but she has surrounded her father’s story with an extended reflection on identity: personal, gendered, racial and national. She is well placed as a feminist theorist to analyze the permutations of gender in her father’s  hyper-feminized Stefanie identity, and there is a rather creepy hint that her father was flaunting and almost flirting with his daughter. Her father is Jewish but during WWII, he refused to identify as such, and slipped across racial boundaries to pose as an Arrow Cross partisan, thereby rescuing his parents as his final act of filial responsibility to parents he resented and then rejected. She reflects on her father’s assertion of a latent female identity, and draws parallels with the recent reassertion of Magyar identity at a national level since the fall of Communism.  These observations and questions are framed at a theoretical level, and although the book does not have notes or footnotes, they draw on the writings and interviews with theorists, historians and medical and psychological practitioners, as well as other people who have undergone gender reassignment.

She describes her father as a ‘shape shifter’ and it is not lost on her that, as a photographer employed to touch-up photographs in pre-Photoshop days of the mid-twentieth century, her father has always played with ‘erasure and exposure'(p.35).  He shows her photographs where he has photoshopped his own features onto women’s bodies; he tells half-truths and he affects a vacuous neutrality as he distances himself from his own history.  I am reminded of the loss experienced by people who were close to the pre-operative person undergoing gender reassignment, as in the recent film and book The Danish Girl that I have reviewed previously.

As she points out Magyar (the Hungarian language) does not have gendered pronouns, and her father had always mixed them up in English. Faludi follows the practice of referring  to her father each time she mention him first as ‘my father’ and then ‘she’. It’s a bit disorienting at first, but it keeps you, like Faludi herself, constantly aware of this duality.

When reviewing Szubanski’s book, I mentioned my own sense of guilty complicity in the author’s minute scrutiny of her parent.  I didn’t feel the same way in this book.  Perhaps the historical, political, psychological and sociological theorizing with which Faludi laces the book removes it from the emotional to the intellectual realm, or perhaps it’s that Stefanie has clearly co-operated with, and even goaded, her daughter to write it.  In her preface, Faludi braced herself for her father’s response to the news that she had completed her first draft, assuming that

My father, who had made a career in commercial photography out of altering images and devoted a lifetime to self-alteration, would hate, I assumed, being depicted warts and all.

His response?

“I’m glad. You know more about my life than I do”.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: Book review in newspaper

My rating: 9/10

 

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2 responses to “‘In the Darkroom’ by Susan Faludi

  1. That last line. I suppose he/she means that as an interested outsider the daughter, Faludi was able to see his life as a cohesive whole, whereas the father only saw the bit she was in at the time. (Perhaps English would be better without gendered pronouns).

    • Yes, I think you’re right about the daughter’s perspective over the whole life. I find it hard to imagine a language without gendered pronouns (and I’m so glad that we don’t have gendered nouns, now that I’m struggling with them in Spanish!)

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