The feminist and her troubled transgender dad
Biography: In The Darkroom, Susan Faludi, HarperCollins, tpbk, 432 pages, €22.50
Susan Faludi has written an astonishing book about her estranged father's decision to become a woman.
In early 2004, Susan Faludi, author of the feminist manifesto Backlash, received an email from her father, Steven, revealing that "he" was now a "she", having undergone gender reassignment surgery in Thailand. The news didn't come as a total surprise. Faludi had heard rumours that the father to whom she'd barely spoken in 25 years had been exploring this option, but it was definitely a shock in one other sense.
"I'd always known my father to assert the male prerogative. He had seemed invested - insistently, inflexibly, and, in the last year of our family life, bloodily - in being the household despot. 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."
Now, suddenly, here he was announcing his pristine identity as a woman called Stefanie, declaring: "I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man that I have never been inside."
Soon Faludi is headed to Budapest, where her Hungarian-born father had decamped after his erratic, violent behaviour led to divorce from Faludi's mother, to investigate this cipher further, intending, she admits, to draw up a charge sheet against him. "I wasn't sure I was ready to release him to a new identity; she hadn't explained the old one."
This mindful switch between pronouns becomes a feature of the book. Faludi carefully uses "she" and "her", even while wracked with doubt about her father's new persona, not least when, in the middle of a disagreement, that old prerogative reasserts itself: "I am still your father."
This father figure, what's more, was always an adept liar and fraudster whose lifelong credo has been "getting away with it". A professional photographer by trade, her father was skilled at manipulating images, and Stefanie makes herself no easier to know than Steven, declaring herself to be uninterested in the past, only the future.
Is this, the author wonders, just her father's latest guise behind which to hide the true self? If so, it's not one she finds particularly edifying.
Stefanie declares herself to be a "typical woman" who "loves gossip" and wants girlie chats with her daughter about shoes and make-up. Having spent decades deliberately avoiding cliches of femininity, Faludi recoils from the actions of a father who now wishes to reinforce, rather than challenge, these received ideas. More cuttingly still, Stefi acts as if it is she who has things to teach Susan about how to be a woman. "You write about the disadvantages of being a woman, but I've only found advantages." How infuriating it must have been to hear those words.
Faludi wants to understand her father, but finds that "every road into the interior was blocked by a cardboard cut-out of florid femininity". The author takes refuge in the literature, and talks to doctors, psychologists, and other trans people, but much of what she learns heightens her disquiet. "The woman they had always known they were seemed to be the exact sort of girl I'd always thought of as false," she observes, adding that "genital surgeries and hormone treatments evidently produced not only a new physiology but a new and girlish personality - or rather, an old, old stereotype" of women as weak, passive, emotionally unstable, superficial, interested only in make up, baking, cooing over babies, pleasing men. Far from enabling her to understand her father, her investigations "were having the opposite effect".
What's more, a disturbing edge of sexual fetishism always seemed to be lurking just below the surface. She notes that it's one of the basic tenets of transgenderism that identity and sexuality are different things, but Faludi finds them constantly conflated.
"The transformation from one gender to another was eroticised at every step." The screensaver on her father's computer is of Stefanie dressed as a French maid, with blonde curls like Susan's as a child, reaching down to adjust a stocking, while the 'How To' manuals advise those who think of themselves as women to "practise submission with sex toys in front of a mirror". The idea of submission was never likely to appeal to such a committed feminist. Her father also keeps barging into her room without warning in revealing negligees.
At this point, the reader is still less than halfway through this blistering, raw, absorbingly written story, and it seems as if promising avenues of exploration are opening up. As Faludi says, the trend since Freud has been to accept that the real psychological origins for a person's behaviour are complex, often hidden deeply from plain sight, but a fear of giving offence to those who identify as transgender has meant that there is no equivalent examination of the range of reasons why a human being might feel they are in the "wrong" body. Accepting their own self-diagnosis without question might avoid confrontation with those for whom transgenderism is a matter of faith, but it does so at the expense of intellectual honesty. What if they're actually "seeking womanhood to reclaim (their) innocence, be exonerated from the sins of (a) a male past", or "craving the moral stature that comes from being oppressed"? Or simply wanting to be a woman to "feel special, celebrated, loved"?
She wants those in the transgender community to ask those questions, but finds that they never do, and dogmatically refuse to. Disappointingly, nor does Faludi in the end, as she veers off instead into extended discussions on Jewish and Hungarian culture and history, as Faludi seeks to discover what role those forces may have played in her father's story. This part of the book is very much a demonstration of the "intersectionality" that now dominates so-called third-wave feminism, as she asks: "Is identity what you choose, or what you can't escape?"
Predictably, she finds it to be a combination of both; but these chapters start to feel like diversions from the real question of how she feels about her father, and the earlier possibility of an unfettered, radical debate about what it means to be transgender, and how we think and talk about it, is ultimately diluted into a simple fairy tale of acceptance.
It culminates in a shocking scene when her father finally talks about the time when, outraged by her desire to attend a Christian summer camp with a friend, he burst into the teenage Faludi's bedroom and repeatedly bashed her head against the floor, shouting: "I created you. And I can destroy you." She asks if he remembers what he said.
"I remember exactly what I said," her father replies. "That they exterminated the Jews, and how could you do this?" Faludi concludes: "I didn't correct her. Whatever the actual words, I understood this is what they meant to her." She reaches over, squeezes her father's hand, and says: "It's okay."
The scene is presented as a touching moment of bonding and forgiveness, but it's genuinely horrifying. Faludi has written with admirable empathy before about the challenges to masculinity in Stiffed: The Betrayal Of The American Man, but she's also spent a lifetime as a feminist refusing to let men wriggle out of responsibility for these explosions of brute male force. Here, she essentially accepts one of the habitual bully's oldest excuses - that he only did it because he loved, and wanted to protect, her; moreover, he did it in reaction to something she had said or done wrong. In other words, she'd provoked it, even though it was commensurate with a long-standing pattern of violent control and manipulation. Her father hadn't even said sorry.
None of this detracts from an astonishing, unique book that should be essential reading for anyone wanting to explore transsexuality's place in contemporary culture, and the eternally unfathomable mystery of families. But it's hard not to conclude that Steven and Stefanie were "getting away with it" one last time.