In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi
Metropolitan Books 432 pp.
When Susan Faludi tried to rebuild a relationship with her estranged father, there were some major obstacles. Steven Faludi had been driven from the family after committing an act of violence. He was now living thousands of miles away, in Budapest. And Steven was now, post-op, Stefanie.
Susan Faludi — the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter best known for her book Backlash, a feminist classic — traveled to Hungary as a daughter and a journalist. The story she came back with is extraordinary: part riveting family memoir, part revelatory Holocaust history, but most of all a profound meditation on human identity.
The Steven Faludi of Susan’s childhood was an all-American father and husband. A Hungarian immigrant, he and his wife raised Susan and her brother in a conservative New York suburb, celebrating Christmas and Easter and assiduously trying to fit in. He was a well-regarded photographer and a photo editor for Conde Nast and other prominent clients.
Steven was especially known for his skill at “dodging,” making dark areas look light, and “masking,” concealing unwanted parts of a picture. The metaphors are hard to miss — as is the image of the “darkroom” of the title, since it turns out that Steven largely spent his life in one.
In Budapest, Susan uncovers a lost world. Her father, born Istvan Friedman, was the scion of two wealthy Hungarian Jewish families, the Friedmans and the Grunbergers, raised in baronial splendor. Her father is a cordial host, but a reluctant guide to the past. Notebook in hand, Susan has to push him to talk about his youth, which was filled with elegant apartments and summer villas, in the glitteringly successful pre-war Jewish community of Budapest -- and then horribly cut short.
All roads lead, inevitably, to the darkest chapter in Hungarian history — the deportation of nearly half a million Jews to Nazi death camps. In this crime, Istvan Friedman’s childhood and his world were destroyed. When he finally shows Susan a photograph of her great grandparents’ anniversary party, he points at her relatives and provides a grim accounting: “Shot in a house. Killed in a brick factory. Died in a cattle car. Gassed in Auschwitz. Gassed. Gassed. Gassed . . .”
Amid the horror, there is a glimmer of something positive: Susan learns that during these brutal and terrifying days, her young father was a true hero. Working with Budapest’s rag-tag anti-Nazi underground, he acquired a fascist armband and, impersonating a Nazi collaborator, entered the building where his parents were being imprisoned, demanded that they come with him, and marched them off at gunpoint, saving their lives. It is a remarkable past, which her father left behind, along with his Jewish identity, when he changed his name to the classically Christian “Faludi” and became an American.
There was, of course, the more recent change in name and identity -- the emergence of "Stefi" -- and Susan learns a great deal about that one as well. She finds out that her father’s interest in presenting himself as a female was an issue when he was growing up — and she learns, in great detail, about the surgery her father underwent, late in life, in Thailand to make the transformation. Susan is a sympathetic observer, and adept in her use of pronouns. “My father stood in the doorway,” she writes, “in her favorite crimson bathrobe.”
More identities, it turns out, are in the process of being transformed. On her visits to Budapest, Susan witnesses the alarming rise of a new right-wing government, which is intent on recapturing its idea of a Hungarian national identity — one that is in large part defined against Hungary's small Jewish minority. There is, inevitably, one more identity in flux: the author’s own. Her pursuit of her father’s story is also, inevitably, one of self-discovery.
In this age of Caitlyn Jenner and the TV show “Transparent,” In the Darkroom is nothing if not timely. It is also highly significant. In everything from the skirmishes against transgender bathroom access, to Donald Trump’s campaign against immigrants, to the nationalist politics sweeping Europe, we live in an age overflowing with bitter battles over identity — with too little of Susan Faludi’s humane desire to understand.