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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

In the Darkroom

"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." So writes Susan Faludi in her book In the Darkroom, in which she comes to know her father after many years of estrangement. During that time he has moved back to the country of his birth, Hungary, and had a sex change operation.

In the Darkroom is kind of a Venn diagram, with Stefanie Faludi, as she is known, at the center. This has earned some criticism from online commenters, who I think expected a book solely about the father-daughter relationship. Instead Faludi explores many subjects, including LBGT civil rights, the history and methods of gender reassignment surgery (not for the squeamish), the history of Jews in Hungary, especially during World War II, and current Hungarian politics. Like the U.S., Hungary has experienced a return to right-wing political power, including a party that is blatantly anti-Semitic.

Faludi's father was a Jew, but seemed to be ambivalent about it. He sort of denied it as a part of himself, but during their rapprochement and her many visits, he embraces it some. There is a scene late in the book when they go to a Rosh Hashanah dinner, and her father is rankled by photocopied prayers and children not taking it seriously.

The story of her father could have been a long magazine article, and it did take me a while to get through this book, but not because of the tangents. Much of it seemed extremely detailed, though I must say we get to know her father quite well (it is strange to hear Faludi talk about her father with a feminine pronoun, but that's the new world).

"For as far back as I could remember, he had presided as imperious patriarch, overbearing and autocratic, even as he remained a cipher, cryptic to everyone around him," she writes. He tried to be the all-American family man, after escaping from Hungary during the war (he did save his parents from the death camps, though, by posing as a Nazi), living in Denmark, then Brazil. He settled in New York City and worked as a photographer and film maker (hence the title, which of course has a double meaning). The big mystery in the family is why he turned against his mother, refusing to talk or write to her for several years.

Faludi, sometime to his annoyance, grills him in interviews. He does show her his old photos, and letters he needed to get his surgery (which was performed in Thailand--far less expensive). One letter, written in Hungarian, he won't discuss. Faludi pockets it and finds out that his psychiatrist did not recommend his surgery (he needs two to get permission).

Faludi's parents divorced, and she will never forget a night in which he stormed into the house, defying a restraining order, finds a man with Faludi's mother, and stabs him a fight. She also recalls when she asks to go with a friend to a Catholic church and he is so enraged he beats her head against the floor.

Stefanie Faludi was a cantankerous woman, never sparing anyone's feelings in his comments. He had odd hobbies, such as playing NASA videos, and "After my parents’ divorce, my father became a devotee of televangelism. The Christian Broadcast Network was his lifeline, and he recorded scores of sermons by Robert Schuller, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and many more,with the exception of Jim Bakker, whom he deemed “an idiot.”

Perhaps the most interesting tangent in the book is when Faludi discusses the link of anti-Semites with homosexuality. She writes that Jewish women were thought of as desirable and beautiful, but Jewish men were seen as weak and feminine. I would think these "thinkers" would have changed their tune if they were around for the Six-Day War.

Spoiler alert, sort of: Faludi's father died in 2010. What is most poignant about the book, and lies beneath the surface of all the academic discussion, is that Faludi and her father have knitted their broken relationship, and become close. When she goes to see him after he dies (don't get sick in Hungary, the doctor can't even tell her how he died) she writes, "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."

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