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In her books and articles, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Susan Faludi never has shied away from tough, contentious issues — feminism and its backlash, the myths and truths of American masculinity, and terrorism before and after 9/11, to name a few.
But nothing prepared Faludi for the job of wrestling with two related matters that have gained increasing national focus in the new millennium: sex reassignment surgery and transgender identity.
Faludi was forced to confront both in 2004, when her father, Steven Faludi — who was born in Budapest in the late 1920s, the son of wealthy Jewish parents — transitioned into Stefánie Faludi at the age of 76. She died last year at age 87.
In her latest book, “In the Darkroom,” Faludi explores her father’s trajectory from an emotionally distant, dogmatic male figure who dominated and, on occasion, terrorized, his family to a fashion-conscious,creampuff-consuming dowager-type who hewed to old-fashioned notions of masculine and feminine behavior.
For Faludi, a respected feminist theorist who has worked against stereotypes her entire life, her father’s seemingly overnight conversion from autocratic man to submissive woman was jarring on many levels — so many, in fact, that it made Faludi want to figure out what it all meant, to her as well as to Stefánie.
“Darkroom,” which refers as much to Steven Faludi’s early life as a successful commercial photographer as it does to metaphors relating to one’s being in the dark, is an “absolute stunner of a memoir — probing, steel-nerved, moving in ways you’d never expect,” wrote New York Times daily book critic Jennifer Senior in her June 12 review.
On a nationwide promotional tour, Faludi will be speaking about the book at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29, in conversation with fellow writer Peggy Orenstein at Books Inc. in Berkeley.
Reached in Maine, where she is a visiting faculty member at Bowdoin College, Faludi said that the book is far more than an adult daughter’s coming to understand the woman inside her father. It also is not solely, or even mostly, about transgender identity, she added. Rather, it is about the very nature of identity itself.
“You do not pick one identity [and then adhere to it],” Faludi said, echoing her point in “Darkroom” that “much of the quest for identity appears to have been dedicated to … the search for that single broad stroke that explains everything.”
But, she added emphatically, “it doesn’t work that way.”
It certainly did not work that way for István Friedman, who was born in 1927 to a family that was part of Budapest’s Jewish aristocracy. István Friedman later became Steven Faludi, and then Stefánie Faludi.
As Susan Faludi recounts in “Darkroom,” her father struggled at least as much with his identities as a Jew, a Hungarian and a Holocaust survivor as he did with gender dysphoria. She observed Steven’s inner demons as she was growing up in a non-Jewish suburb of Westchester County in the 1960s, she said. She not only was put off by the external anti-Semitism she encountered among neighbors and schoolmates, but was alienated even more by Steven’s rigid adherence to hiding the family’s Jewish identity.
Her adolescent pleas to observe Jewish holidays and rituals were met by her father’s cold reply: “I’m not going to have any of that.”
“My father made sure we aggressively celebrated Christmas and Easter and sent out holiday cards with Christian images,” she said. “His eagerness to pass only reinforced my sense of grievance and, perversely, my commitment to an identity I barely understood. You could say that my Jewishness was bred by my father’s silence.”
The silence extended to Steven Faludi’s refusal to discuss with Susan and the family his experiences during World War II.
“His shutdown, I-don’t-want-to-talk-about-it” approach, she said, left her feeling “quite haunted … I walked to school and thought, ‘What if there were Nazis hunting me?’”
Faludi’s father returned to Hungary in 1989, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and reclaimed Hungarian citizenship. In 2004, when Susan began visiting, she started reacquainting herself with a parent she had barely communicated with for a quarter of a century and saw stark changes in Stefánie’s behavior.
Over time, Faludi observed, “Stefánie opened up more. She became more focused on her Jewish identity, and the trans issue dropped away … My father was wanting to go to places that had meaning for her.”
This included Rosh Hashanah services, which Faludi attended with Stefánie in an apartment that had once been owned by the family before the Holocaust.
“My father ultimately ended up saying Kaddish for her parents,” Faludi said.
While Faludi believes that part of Stefánie’s re-embracing of Judaism may have been linked to her understanding of her own imminent mortality, she also attributes it to the freedom people feel once they come out of their self-imposed darkness and into the light of their own skins.
“It was incredibly brave of her to go out into the streets” of Budapest dressed as a woman before gender reassignment surgery, Faludi said, adding that Stefánie no doubt concluded, “If I can go out into the street and survive as a woman, I can be Jewish.”
Stefánie died last year, prior to the publication of “Darkroom.” She didn’t have the opportunity to read her daughter’s book, though she was very proud of it.
“My father wanted me to tell the full story and gave me the permission to do it,” said Faludi, who noted her own transformation over the decade-long book project: from skeptical daughter to one who embraced her father for who she really was. “I miss the person my father ultimately became,” she said.
Susan Faludi in conversation with writer Peggy Orenstein at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29 at Books Inc., Berkeley. Free. www.booksinc.net