Book Review: “In the Darkroom” by Susan Faludi
| Reviewed by Patricia Furnish |
Susan Faludi thought she was searching for answers from her father. She had specific questions about specific events related to her own childhood, her parents’ divorce, her father’s choices and her father’s secrets. Faludi combines her finely honed skills as a journalist and polemicist to uncover the *definitive* truth about her father, Steven, later changed to Stefánie. Instead of the definitives of the facts, she locates the narratives and counternarratives of his life as seen through his own scattered ephemera of photos, passports, letters, deeds, and medical papers—some of them forged, some authentic, but in languages she doesn’t know. She tracks down extended family and friends of her father who survived the Holocaust and has crafted a nuanced narrative that is at once complex and engaging.
Faludi had stumbled upon an unreliable narrator who once made his living for many years retouching photos. He was the human embodiment of Photoshop before it existed. Once it did, he became obsolete, replaced by technology. Like his daughter, he, too, had honed his skills. His talents, however, lay in forgery and deception. Such skills saved his and others’ lives during the Nazi occupation of Hungary and subsequent Holocaust.
The father-daughter relationship is a strained one. They spent over two decades estranged and rarely speaking. Faludi is prompted to attempt a rapprochement when Stefánie contacts her via email and announces he is now she, the result of sex-reassignment surgery at age 76. Additionally, she wants her daughter to tell her life story. It’s a story that Stefánie unspools reluctantly. She constantly edits, elides, dismisses, and stonewalls. Faludi, the daughter, finds herself regressing into the impatient and injured daughter. Perhaps surprisingly, the sex change is one of the least complicating issues.
This memoir-biography-history serves as an exploration of identity in its many facets. The reader is treated to skillfully woven explications of Jewish history, transsexual history and personal history.
One may draw comfort in the binary opposites of woman-man, wife-husband, child-parent. But Susan Faludi is too discerning and intellectually subtle to cling to her childish ways. As a feminist, she rejected traditional gender roles and patriarchal assumptions decades ago. But Stefánie forces a reconsideration of the author’s assumptions about gender. Identity itself is a malleable entity; it is fraught and fragmented, prone to realignment. Faludi discovers that the same is true about her understanding of her father and their relationship.