In 2004, Susan Faludi received news that her estranged father had recently transitioned into a woman. He was well into his 70s when he flew to Thailand for the surgery.
Steven re-emerged as Stefánie, or “Stefi,” and she had reintroduced herself to her daughter via email, complete with photographs displaying her new look.
In an effort to become reacquainted with the parent she had grown up knowing as a domineering, macho and sometimes violent patriarch, Faludi soon embarked on a journey that would span the remainder of her father’s life.
Her new book, “In the Darkroom,” is a personal account of her investigation into her father’s many identities.
It takes her from Portland to Budapest, where she’s confronted with her family’s history of Holocaust survival and the many masks her father hid behind.
Faludi is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the feminist author of “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women,” which won the National Book Critics Award in 1991. She’s written for The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, as well as other publications.
We began our interview with a couple of questions from Street Roots vendor Tina Drake, who, like Stefi, has become estranged from the daughter she fathered years ago.
When her daughter turns 18, Tina plans to reach out to her and will be faced with explaining her own gender transition.
Tina wants to know if you have any advice about how she might best break the news.
One hopes that by the time her daughter is older, that given the somewhat encouraging trends in culture, that maybe this won’t even be a big deal. We are so much more open than even a few years ago. I look back when my father transitioned in 2004, and it was seen as this exotic phenomenon, whereas (now) there is so much more press, and generally more positive press. My recommendation — everyone’s experience is different and of course it completely depends on what she’s comfortable with, and what her daughter is comfortable with — but I think speaking openly and honestly is always the best ticket. And speaking in person, I would say. Given that my father sent me an email from overseas, I would have appreciated a phone call, but then we hadn’t been speaking for a while, so perhaps my father wanted to feel out the water first before diving in.
Tina also wanted me to ask you if you have any advice for how family members of someone seeking gender-reassignment surgery might best cope with the change in their loved one?
Keeping all lines of communication open. I can only speak for my own experience, and I have to say that my father’s transition was really the least difficult part of us reconnecting. Much harder was dealing with all the baggage between us. There are a lot — and I know a lot — of trans people whose family members have fallen away, they claim, as a result of the transition. If you can keep talking, and show that you care, and that you don’t want to be estranged, hopefully that message will finally get through. Most people, no matter how badly they react at first, want to come around and want to be close to their family. We all want family.
As you explored your father’s gender-identity transformation, were there aspects of her journey that pushed you to re-examine some of the conclusions you’ve come to in some of your previous works?
Feminism gave me tools to really grapple with what was going on. I would say, in particular, the feminism idea of intersectionality, which I’m kind of laughing at myself as I say this because it’s become such a buzzword, particularly in academia, but in fact you can, in a way, look at this whole experience as an opportunity to actually apply intersectionality. To understand my father, I had to understand much more than the gender question, because my father’s experience of her gender was in a complicated conversation with her religious identity, with her national identity, with her political identity. So that was a really helpful tool for me in thinking about my father’s experience.
At the beginning, I have to say it was a real life test of my feminism. The ironies weren’t lost on me: Here I am, this woman whose feminism was sparked initially by dealing with her father’s violent, macho behavior, who finds herself visiting her father for the first time and being treated to a kind of giddy tour of Doris Day wardrobe and makeup and all the kind of girly-girl femininity that I generally recoil from. My father and I disagreed a fair amount, I think it’s safe to say, over what constitutes womanhood, and I am not someone who believes there is any set of traits that define what it means to be a woman, but ultimately, my father moved away from that 1950s caricature of femininity and, as she became more comfortable with herself, sort of settled into something that was more in-between and more idiosyncratic to her. And I think in the end it really affirmed and deepened my strongest feminine belief, which is that gender is fluid and is on a continuum. In that way, I’m in accord with the newer generation of trans folks.
Do you think you would have reached out to your father if you weren’t planning to write a book — or did wearing the hat of a journalist give you the courage to ask the questions that you needed to ask to be able to mend your relationship with her?
It’s the latter. I wanted to be back in touch with my father. There had been so many years of alienation, and in retrospect, I think we both wanted to reach across the divide and didn’t know how to do it. When we started out, the so-called writing of the book — my father said that she wanted me to write her story — I wasn’t even thinking in book terms at that point. I just knew that was a way that we could reconnect, and gave me a certain safety, maybe, a kind of security blanket in holding my reporter’s notebook, to be able to dive back into a relationship with her. It gave me a little bit of a buffer and a distance to be able to imagine myself as the dispassionate reporter with my list of questions and tape recorder, and pen and pad, but ultimately I had to drop that because I was clearly as much a participant as an observer. And I think for my father — my father loved to be interviewed, so it was a comfortable way for us to approach each other.
You went into how your father, at first, was enthusiastically embracing some pretty antiquated gender stereotypes. That sentiment was later echoed when you talked about the trans literature you went through at Portland’s public library. It seemed that for many male-to-female transgender individuals, their inner female identity resembled a kind of chauvinistic idea of what it means to be a woman. What do you make of that? And do you think the transgender community is in need of its own feminist revolution?
I read these books and thought, wait — this does not seem like it’s disrupting the category of woman; it seems like it’s replicating the very attributes that kept women down in the first place.
Part of that is when some of those books were written, and (that they were) written by people who grew up in an era when this is how womanhood was defined, and (who) grew up with a male point of view on that — it would be interesting to go back and talk to those authors who are still alive and ask if they moved away from that.
One trans friend of mine said, “You have to keep in mind when reading these books that they are generally written very soon after the transition.” She was saying to me, “It’s sort of the experience of an adolescent that is trying to figure out what all this means, and remember when you were an adolescent? You probably were doing cringe-worthy bad impersonations of womanhood based on some Disney movie.” And that’s true; I hate to revisit that period, and I’m sure I spent way too much money on mascara and lipstick — so I think that’s another aspect of that.
I think the new generation of transgender activists is pursuing a feminist revolution. There is a major portion of the trans movement that is about not just transitioning from one gender to another, but exploding the whole category and thinking about how trans is not transporting from one sex to the other, but transcending those categories entirely.
I can’t help but point out — I don’t know to call it a coincidence or ironic, but you’ve been regarded as an expert in gender identity issues, and then here, your own father, at age 76, has the ultimate gender identity transformation. Have you pondered if there is some kind of connection between the two — if maybe growing up in a house with someone who had so many layers of identity crises kind of planted the seed of your fascination with the exploration of identity that you’ve gone into throughout your career?
We don’t know half the reasons we write what we write (laughs), and I thought I was fascinated by gender for the more — on the personal level — because my father behaved in such a scary, typical, macho way, and that feminism made sense to me because I saw the ways in which my father ruled the roost unfairly and denied my mother the opportunity to be her full self, but now, looking back, I think, well, my father wasn’t just denying my mother; my father was denying herself. And it’s funny because I was looking back at, I think this was in “Stiffed,” my book on masculinity, and noticing that I had all these references to identity, and so the brain works in all these subconscious ways and while I felt my preoccupation was with gender and sexism and misogyny, I now think it was equally about identity, the sort of confounding nature of identity because I have this father who just was wearing one mask after another my whole childhood.
There was something your father said to you that you repeated a couple of times in the book, and that was: “My daughter likes me now. She comes to see me.” What is the significance of that?
Well, it pains me, in some ways, because I think my father was saying, “Well, Susan likes me now that I’m a woman.” And that’s upsetting because that isn’t why. I think it connects with the larger desire my father had to connect with other people in general. My father said to me over and over that she just felt so isolated as a man, and she said, “Men can’t talk to each other and they would just talk shop,” or in the U.S., “they talk sports and I don’t like talking about sports.”
My father was never very into this sort of American group sports anyway. My father, by changing her gender, felt she could come out of her shell, and talk to people. But I find that very sad, because in fact, she could have done that before, and I wish — and clearly she felt she couldn’t — I wish she could have just tried that because communicating with other people should not be the province of one gender. And the truth is, I came to see my father because my father opened a door that I wanted to be opened a long time ago, and I think it was a door she wanted to have opened a long time ago; she just didn’t know how to do it.
Is there anything you want people who might be familiar with your previous works to know about this one?
I think all of my books have been about the distortion and damage done by foisting gender myths on women, on men, on the culture as a whole, and this book is very much a continuation of that theme.
It almost culminates here.
I think, while this is ultimately a personal story about a daughter’s struggle to understand her father, and her father’s struggle to understand her own identity, it’s also a book about the big battlefield that we’re on right now, which is identity. Whether it’s Brexit or Make America Great Trumpism or isis or you name it, hatred of immigrants, there is just all this crisis around the subject of identity and how one expresses identity and whether identity can be a force for emancipation; whether identity can be liberating — in the case of LGBT rights — where it’s about discovering yourself, it’s about self-awareness; or whether it’s oppressive and destructive, like all this xenophobic nationalism we’re seeing around the world now, in which identity is based on demonizing someone else and attacking them and refusing to engage in self-awareness and inspection of one’s own past. That’s a long-winded way of saying that while this is a story about one particular person, my father is this kind of identity zealot who was struggling with this big question of our age, on every front.
Susan Faludi lives in Brunswick, Maine, where she teaches gender studies at Bowdoin College.