Monday, August 8, 2016

"This anxiety of non-belonging."

by Susan Faludi
As soon as I read the New York Times' book review of Susan Faludi's In the Darkroom, I knew I wanted to read it.  I immediately put it on hold at the library, and I went to pick it up the same day my hold came in.

I have struggled a lot with my reading this year.  But this book brought back so much of that enjoyment to me.  Every day after work last week, I would finish my dinner, pour myself a glass of wine, and then settle down on my sofa for some quality reading.

I set myself the task this summer of being more outgoing, of inviting a lot of different people to do a lot of things with me, and of trying to form true friendships with new people.  It has been a lot of work (and I wouldn't say it always feels particularly rewarding), but it's also been pretty fun and kept me extremely busy.  I have a feeling the people I have gotten to know over the past few months probably think that I am far more extroverted and social than I would probably ever describe myself as being.

For whatever reason, last week, I made no plans.  I had no plans for ten days in a row.  It was the perfect time to settle down with a good, meaningful, beautiful book.  And I'm so glad that In the Darkroom was there because it is one of the most moving books I have read in a very long time.

I almost hesitate to share a summary of the book because I think it will frighten some people away, and that would be sad.  At a high level, the book is about a grown woman coming to know her father after many years of estrangement, after he has undergone a sex change operation to become a woman.  She goes to meet her father in Budapest and the story unwinds from there, from his childhood growing up in a very wealthy Jewish family to the horrors of the Holocaust and the many re-inventions he underwent before this final one - choosing to live as a woman at the age of 76.

[Apologies if I am misusing pronouns here; Faludi refers to her father as "him" before the operation and as "her" after.  I will try to do the same.]

Faludi is a staunch feminist, and as she talks to her father and others who have undergone the male-to-female operation, she is struck by their adherence to traditional (stereotypical) gender norms.  Her father says troubling things like, "Now I can communicate better, because I'm a woman... It helps that I'm a woman.  Because women don't provoke."  She reads memoirs of women who talk about their experience, and none of them sound very feminist at all.  Take this quote from Jan Morris.  As Jim Morris, she had climbed Mt. Everest.  And yet, as a woman:
"I was even more emotional now.  I cried very easily, and was ludicrously susceptible to sadness or flattery.  Finding myself rather less interested in great affairs (which are placed in a new perspective, I do assure you, by a change of sex), I acquired a new concern for small ones.  My scale of vision seemed to contract... It is, I think, a simpler vision that I now possess.  Perhaps it is nearer a child's."
It's difficult not to be offended by the comments above.  And yet, most men who want to undergo sex change operations to become women have to pass a horrible test that dates from mid-century and very much requires them to conform to stereotype.  In order to be approved for the operation, they are expected to say that they don't mind putting their careers on hold or not being the bread winner, etc.  I had no idea this was the case.  The way that all of these memoirs are written with this assumption that women are inherently different than men in their approach to the world, and that feminists are stupid to want to change things because being a woman is just such grand fun, is very hard to take.  For Faludi, whose father fetishized womanhood prior to her operation with costumes and posed photos and then became much more conservation after her operation (this happens a lot, it seems), it must have have been overwhelming.

Faludi doesn't only tackle feminism, though.  She also talks a lot about Jewish identity.  Faludi is not very religious, but she doesn't have to be.  "I was someone with only the vaguest idea of what it meant to be a Jew who was nevertheless adamant that I was one."  Her father's relationship with religion was much more up and down.  Born to affluent but negligent parents who didn't even attend his bar mitzvah, Istvan Friedman shed his Jewish identity during World War II when Hungary became extremely anti-Semitic.  The many stories he recounts over the course of this book are amazing; he saved his parents' lives and the lives of many others, often by pretending to be a Nazi.  He escaped Hungry with friends on a fantastic lie.  He moved to Brazil, changed his name to Steven Faludi, and then moved to America, got married and had a family.  It was only when Susan said she was considering becoming a Christian that he informed her, quite violently, that she was Jewish.  "I remember exactly what I said.  That they exterminated the Jews.  And how could you do this?"

There are many stories like this in Hungary.  After World War II, there was Communism.  Many people hid their religion just to get by.  Only now are people (ironically, some of them ultra-right-wing politicians who denounce Jews) coming to know their family history and religion.  Faludi shares some of these stories in a beautiful chapter in which she attends Rosh Hashanah services and dinner with her father.  Temples that were built to hold hundreds now cater to groups of twenty or fifty.

In the Darkroom is one of the most moving books I have read in a long time.  The way Faludi weaves her own story with her father's and Hungary's, and that thorny issue of identity, is beautiful.
I studied my father's face, averted as it so often had been in life.  All the years she was alive, she'd sought to settle the question of who she was.  Jew or Christian?  Hungarian or American?  Woman or man?  So many oppositions.  But as I gazed upon her still body, I thought:  there is in the universe only one true divide, one real binary, life and death.  Either you are living or you are not.  Everything else is molten, malleable.


  1. Thanks for your review, this sounds really interesting.

  2. Wait so, she didn't know her father was Jewish throughout her whole childhood? Was/is her mother Jewish? Or was that part of her heritage completely hidden from her until she went to get married and encountered this opposition from her father? Cause I can imagine that would be wildly disorienting.

    I'm glad you're getting your reading groove back, friend! I still have a lot of reservations about this book, just cause it's tricky when a cis lady tells a trans lady's story. I keep hoping a trans reviewer will post some thoughts about it so I can have that perspective going into the book.

    1. I believe both her parents are Jewish. And not through her whole childhood, but for quite a bit of it. But yes, I think it was disorienting. Her father changed his name from Friedman to Faludi to sound more Magyar than Jewish. So I am not entirely sure how much Susan knew growing up vs at that particular moment.

      I can understand your reservations, though I admit they did not really occur to me. She is not really telling her dad's story, she is telling her own story through the lens of this thing with her dad. I am not sure if that makes sense. And maybe someone else reading it wouldn't think of it that way. But I didn't really think she was taking her dad's voice at all.

  3. Your review has me intrigued, and I am off to the library after work to procure this book. Gender stereotypes are fascinating, especially once you have embraced that it is merely a social construct and nothing more.

  4. I like that last quote, really good

  5. I heard the author on the Diane Rehm show. So interesting. Here's the link if you want to hear it.

    1. Thank you so much! I read the transcript, and it is a great interview. Great audience questions, too.

  6. I love that you are trying to be more outgoing - that is such a good personal challenge. Its one I think I need to try. Sounds like you have succeeded :) Congrats! I have a copy of this one and am really looking forward to it. Sounds like it will definitely be a fascinating read. So glad you posted about it and enjoyed it so much :)

  7. This sounds fascinating. Years ago, I found her Backlash to be truly revolutionary, and it was a book that I felt like I "found" just when I needed it (as you've described this one to be for you) although I wonder, now, if it might not seem a little dated to contemporary readers who have so many terrific feminist writers to choose from. I'll definitely have a look out for this one. Thanks, Aarti! (And GL with the continued social experiments: I can totally relate!)

  8. Happy to hear that you've found the book to get you back to enjoying reading. And, to paraphrase your intro, having read your review I really want to read this book. I've just finished Sara Taylor's The Lauras which looks at life as a genderless person and says something very similar to the last sentences you've quoted. So true.

  9. You've certainly made me want to read this one!


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