Susan Faludi’s In the Darkroom was not what I expected. What I expected was a memoir/biography about Faludi and her father and her father’s transition to a woman at the age of 70. But I am glad it was not what I expected because it turned out to be so much more.
Faludi’s father is the driving core of the book. He was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1927 to wealthy parents who weren’t exactly the most attentive, often leaving him in the care of a nanny for days and weeks at a time. His parents and family were part of the upper-class Jewish community and owned a number of buildings including the luxury apartment building where they lived. Then WWII happened. Anti-Semitism had been bubbling under the surface of Hungarian society for a long time so when the Nazi’s invaded, it did not take much prompting from them for the country to turn on the Jews. The young Istavan actually posed as a Nazi in order to save his parents from detention and then deportation to a camp. After the war the Communists moved in and all of the family’s property was claimed by the state. The family survived the war but were left with nothing.
Istavan became a professional photographer. He and a couple friends put together a bold plan that allowed them to escape Communist Hungary to Brazil where they joined a thriving Jewish community. There, he made a name for himself as an important and influential photographer. At one point he went to New York where he met the Hungarian woman who would become Faludi’s mother. Istavan moved to New York, they married, and started a family. But the marraige eventually crumbled.
Faludi remembers her father’s temper that would sometimes turn abusive. When she was in her early teens she told her father she might want to become a Christian and he proceeded to yell and scream, push her down and beat her head on the floor. One of the last times she saw her father, he stabbed the man his not-yet-divorced wife was having an affair with. It was over twenty years before she saw her father again.
By this time her father had moved back to Hungary. She was prompted to go see him because of an announcement her father sent her that said she had had gender reassignment surgery in Thailand and was no longer Istavan but Stefanie. Faludi had to go see for herself whether her father was still the same person or if becoming Stefanie had changed everything.
Rather than focusing on transgender psychology and science and all the issues that surround it, Faludi chooses to make the book an exploration of identity on multiple levels — father, family, Hungarian, Jewish — and intertwines it with history and the present, the personal and political and cultural, implying that who we are is not a simple, straighforward thing and identity is not created in a vacuum:
But who is the person you ‘were meant to be?’ Is who you are what you make of yourself, the self you fashion into being, or is it determined by your inheritance and all its fateful forces, genetic, familial, ethnic, religious, cultural, historical? In other words: is identity what you choose, or what you can’t escape?
In the end she concludes that identity is “molten” and “malleable,” that the only true binary is life and death.
I have to mention how brilliant the title is because it turns out to have so many layers to it. The obvious one relates to the fact that her father was a photographer. In a photographic darkroom you also develop film and so this can also be stretched to relate to developing an identity. As the book progresses we also learn that Faludi’s father spent part of WWII hiding with his father in the apartment of a sympathetic doctor who had taken his family elsewhere for a vacation. They, of course, could never turn on the lights for fear of giving away their presence. And we learn that Istavan’s parents would sometimes punish him by locking him up in a dark room for hours. Then of course there are all sorts of other resonances for dark rooms and the things that might go on there.
In the Darkroom is a fantastic book. Faludi does not hide how difficult her relationship is with her father nor does she pretend that they patch everything up and things are suddenly grand. She does her best to tell her father’s story with the honesty and respect she deserves, to honor her and who she was and is to the best of her ability. Could anyone ask for more?