Feminist's memoir of her father who became a woman

LOS ANGELES • On a warm September evening in the Hollywood Hills, guests at a book party for Susan Faludi watched as the writer took her place on a landing overlooking the patio at the home of journalist Steve Oney.

She introduced the passage she had chosen to read from her new book - a memoir titled In The Darkroom, which, it quickly became clear, explores thematic territory less readily associated with Pulitzer Prizes (one of which she has already earned) than, lately at least, with Golden Globe Awards.

"In the summer of 2004, I received an e-mail from my father with the subject line Changes," she began. "My father lived in Hungary and it was the first communication I'd received from him in many years. He said he had some interesting news for me. He had decided, at the age of 76, that he'd had enough of, quote, impersonating a macho, aggressive man. There was a series of snapshots attached to the message. The first one showed my father standing in a hospital lobby in a sleeveless blouse and red skirt. Beside him were, as he wrote in the note, 'the other post-op girls' - two patients who were also making 'the change.'"

In The Darkroom is a departure for Faludi. While previous works such as Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women and Stiffed: The Betrayal Of The American Man were essentially polemics, her memoir is deeply personal. It is also a project as high concept as a sitcom pitch: What if a famous feminist author - whose activism was spurred by her father's bullying machismo - discovered that said phallocrat had become a woman? Complications ensue. But Faludi mines her material less for easy ironies than for insights into the meaning of identity.

Even so, the liveliest exchange in the Q&A session, after Faludi read an excerpt about visiting the building in Budapest where her father, a Holocaust survivor, escaped being shot by the Nazis, centred 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. Such challenges aside, the book received rapturous reviews.

In The Darkroom.

"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". It was named one of the "10 Best Books of 2016" by The Times Book Review and won this year's Kirkus Prize for non-fiction.

"They're kinder when you write a personal book," Faludi, 57, observed a few weeks after the party in Los Angeles. She was at home in Brunswick, Maine, where she is a research associate at Bowdoin College. (Her husband, writer Russ Rymer, teaches in the English department.)

In one of the stranger twists in a book full of them, Steven Faludi - a tough, even violent presence during Susan Faludi's childhood in Yorktown Heights, New York - embraced the hoariest stereotypes of femininity when he became Stefanie Faludi. "Here's my father, whose raw aggressions inspired my feminism," Faludi said. "And the first time I visit him in Hungary, he's giving me the grand tour of his Marilyn Monroe outfits and cases of make-up."

The elusiveness of identity is Susan Faludi's idee 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."

At her reading in Los Angeles, 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 realised 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 Rymer, who joined 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."


•In The Darkroom is available for order from Books Kinokuniya at $22.34

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 03, 2017, with the headline 'Feminist's memoir of her father who became a woman'. Print Edition | Subscribe