Reviewed by Sue Bond
In the summer of 2004 I set out to investigate someone I scarcely knew, my father. The project began with a grievance, the grievance of a daughter whose parent had absconded from her life. I was in pursuit of a scofflaw, an artful dodger who had skipped out on so many things—obligation, affection, culpability, contrition. I was preparing an indictment, amassing discovery for a trial. But somewhere along the line, the prosecutor became a witness. (1)
Susan Faludi has written a memoir about her relationship with her father, a complex and complicated man who she had not seen much of in the previous twenty-five years. He informed her in an email in 2004, when he was seventy-seven, that he had undergone gender reassignment surgery and was now Stefánie not Steve (formerly István Friedman, or Pista to his family, before changing his names). Later he asked her to write his story and suggested it be like Hans Christian Andersen: ‘When Andersen wrote a fairy tale, everything he put in it was real, but he surrounded it with fantasy’ (1). Faludi does not surround her father’s story with fantasy but rather shows the reader how important identity was to him, and how he adapted it to survive. She attempts, and I believe succeeds, in revealing a man who was ‘distant and intrusive by turns’ (14) and showing how neither he nor their relationship was simple or unambiguous.
Faludi is a journalist and the author of the well known book Backlash: the undeclared war against American women (1991), as well as Stiffed: the betrayal of the American man (1999) and The Terror Dream: fear and fantasy in post-9/11 America (2007). In 1991 she won the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism for her Wall Street Journal investigative work ‘The Reckoning: Safeway LBO Yields Vast Profits but Exacts a Heavy Human Toll’ (May 16, 1990).
After receiving the email from her father, she goes to stay with him in his home in Budapest, Hungary, the country of his birth. Over the course of the memoir we learn of her father’s background, both with his parents, and as a husband and father. He survived the Holocaust by hiding and sometimes pretending to be a member of the fascist Arrow Cross, and saved his parents from extermination, only to refuse contact with them for many years afterwards. He emigrated to the United States after remarkable experiences elsewhere, about which the author was previously unaware, and entered into marriage and fatherhood with a zeal bordering on tyranny, determined to fulfill the full masculine stereotype and bully the rest of his family to fit into their roles as wife, daughter, son. He became a master of photographic development and manipulation techniques, ‘masking and unmasking’ (36), seemingly more comfortable behind a camera. Until, that is, he realised he was straitjacketed as a man and became his true self, a woman, and stepped in front of the camera, creating countless images of herself as Stefánie.
Faludi’s mother divorced from her husband in 1977, much to the fury of Faludi’s father, who fought to keep the family together. His own parents’ marriage ended in divorce, with him taking the side of his father and excoriating his mother; the pattern repeated, he excoriated Faludi’s mother for wanting the divorce from him, seemingly unaware, or unwilling to admit, that his wife was unhappy and the family also.
Faludi covers a great deal of material in this book, giving the reader a background in the history of the Jews in Hungary, the vicious anti-semitism, and the rise again of far right politics recently. She also provides a literature review of memoirs by transgender people, focusing on male-to-female transition. Identity features strongly, both with respect to Faludi’s father, to transgender people generally, and to Hungary itself. The author quotes Eric Erickson on identity and his statement that ‘totalism could set in when the search for identity becomes an insistence on a “category-to-be-made-absolute”, displacing psychological complexity and self-awareness’ (326). There is a fascinating dual description and discussion of her father’s identity search and that of his country, with the dangers of totalism/totalitarianism highlighted. The difficulties of being a transgender person in Hungary, as it turns rightward politically with all that entails, are not ignored; her father is cautious about attending a Gay Pride March because there could be violence. She seems fiercely Hungarian and proud of her heritage, and dismissive of the authoritarian changes in her country, much to the concern of her daughter.
The pain of the fate of her Jewish relatives, and the Jewish people generally, is something Faludi’s father seems to suppress, until a visit to the Hungarian National Museum in 2014. There is an exhibition for Holocaust Remembrance Year and a photograph of a family, unrelated as far as they knew but with the same surname of Friedman, releases ‘the most heartfelt passion for her people’s fate—and her own—that I’d ever heard her express’ (397):
“Let the people in Hungary look at them!” my father burst out. “They turned their back. They said, ‘Waaall, it’s none of our business.’ They never looked at who was taken. These people were just like them. They spoke the same language. They were your neighbours. They were your friends. And you let them die! These were the ones you allowed to die! Let them look, so they can go home and not sleep in peace.” (397)
The trajectory of the relationship between father and daughter is not straightforward. Her father’s behaviour, as she describes it, is often infuriating and insensitive, especially to Faludi, and I found myself reacting viscerally as I read of her breathtaking intrusion into her fertility, for example. She shows us that her father’s personality remains much the same in many respects, despite the change in gender. Faludi writes at the end that they arrived at an ‘understanding, even a closeness’ (407) before her father became ill and died in 2015.
Stefánie Faludi was a conflicted person, someone who seems to have been displaced for most of her life, whether in a country, a family, a culture, or her own body. Susan Faludi’s memoir is outstanding, beautifully written, finely structured, psychologically complex and astute, and indicative of her inquiring mind and open heart.
by Susan Faludi
417pp; $AU32.99 paperback