At the age of 76, Istvan/Steven Friedman/Faludi underwent gender-reassignment surgery and became Stefanie, or for her daughter, the noted American feminist thinker Susan Faludi, just “Stefi.” Steve Faludi had been estranged from his daughter for many years. Faludi had heard the rumor that her father had become a woman from other relatives before receiving an email from her in 2004. “I’ve got some interesting news for you. I have decided that I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man that I have never been inside,” her father wrote. This was the same person who, years before, had tried to bludgeon his wife’s lover with a baseball bat and stab him with a knife, and who once threatened to murder Susan herself.
Stefanie didn’t simply become a woman, but morphed into a Hungarian or perhaps Austro-Hungarian lady. At the beginning of the 21st century, 90 years after the collapse of the empire, Stefanie is living in a small villa in the hills above Budapest, fortified and sealed off from the outside world, wearing traditional embroidered Hungarian skirts, her furniture covered with lace pieces, sipping tea from delicate porcelain cups. She refuses to go into the city or to visit the apartment buildings that the family owned before World War II. In fact, she refuses to interact with the world, with the exception of brief meetings with a Catholic woman friend or attending depressing gatherings of the tiny trans community in Budapest. Stefanie adores the beautiful, legendary Empress Elisabeth (“Sisi”) of Austria, whose assassination in 1898 jolted the empire, and the Danish fairy-tale author Hans Christian Andersen.
Istvan/Steven was a professional photographer and maker of photographic prints. His specialties were photomontages and photographic manipulations. Stefanie cuts out photos of young girls from magazines and, using Photoshop, substitutes her own head for those in the original images. With maternal pride, and once father and daughter have resumed regular communications and meetings, she shows herself to her daughter. Here is Stefanie at age 9 in a pink tutu and ballet shoes executing a plié; here she is being spanked on her bottom by a scowling teacher; and in this shot she’s dressed as a young servant woman.
In her photo studio, Stefanie is creating the girlhood she never had. When Susan visits her in assisted-living apartment in Budapest, she asks that the daughter leave her bedroom door open at night, “Because I want to be treated as a woman,” Stefanie says. “I want to be able to walk around without clothes and for you to treat it normally.”
Susan tries to understand her father and to bridge the vast gap between the tender Stefanie of the present and the very violent father she endured as a girl, until he left. The father who refused to pay child support for her and who returned from the United States to his native Hungary to live, disappearing completely from her life for 40 years; the father who regaled her throughout her childhood with fantastic stories about himself, about his heroism in the war years, the daring acts of rescue he took part in, the scientific research expeditions to the Amazon and airplane flights through valleys and canyons in exotic locations.
Faludi’s 2016 work, a sensitive, complex book – at times a tragicomic fairy tale, at times a shocking Holocaust story – chronicles the decade during which both Susan and Stefanie try to understand who Stefanie is. Displaying emotional generosity, Susan Faludi not only succeeds in forgiving her father but also in humanizing her.
Istvan Friedman was born into an affluent, secular Jewish family in Budapest, to parents who were already arguing during their honeymoon, and who used him as a pawn in their personal power struggle. His father hid Istvan in his mother’s bedroom so that the child could later report to him on her love affairs, his mother sent him packing to relatives, and neither of them bothered to turn up for his bar mitzvah. Despite all this, Istvan saved them from being deported to Auschwitz by the Nazis, and as a member of the Zionist group Betar, hid them during the period of the liquidation of Hungarian Jewry, while he himself posed as a volunteer in the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian fascist-Nazi party, which played an active role in the annihilation of Budapest’s Jews. Shortly afterward, he left for Denmark, this time in the guise of a Hungarian Communist Party activist, then went on to Brazil posing as a Danish film producer, before making his way to the United States. Friedman changed his name to Faludi, “an old Magyar name meaning ‘of the village.’”
In 2004, Stefanie still reveres Istvan, Hungary’s first king and its national Catholic saint, and enjoys attending mass and visiting cathedrals to see statues of him and experience national pride. She also detests Jews: They are vulgar, loud, crude “alte kockers,” whereas she is not only an authentic Hungarian peasant woman but also a flamboyantly dressed shiksa who votes for the conservative, nationalist peasants’ party.
It’s not easy to love Stefanie. She’s stubborn, domineering and opinionated. During her daughter’s first visits, she forbids her to go out and forces her to admire the silk undergarments she buys for herself, her embroidered polka skirts, her trim figure and her total femininity. Stefanie insists that she is both beautiful and adept at baking; a woman must not demonstrate independence outside the kitchen, she says.
Pearl earrings, high heels
Stefanie’s story is fascinating in its own right, but doubly so because her daughter, Susan, 58, who won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism (for her Wall Street Journal article about the aftermath of the leveraged buyout of Safeway stores), also wrote two of the most important feminist books, both of which became best sellers, of recent decades.
In “Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1991, Faludi analyzes the reasons for male hostility toward the initial success of American feminism in the 1970s. This reaction was due largely to the hope of preventing women’s integration into the labor market in the 1980s, she argues. She also warned future generations of women not to take their forerunners’ achievements for granted: Everything that had been accomplished could always be taken back, she predicted (and the current political battle in the United States is threatening to make that warning come true).
In her 1999 book “Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man,” Faludi noted that the vast majority of American men are themselves victims of changes in the workplace. They were educated to be the sole providers in the family unit, which was the source of their pride. But the labor market no longer allows them to be the only breadwinner. Like their partners, they too are victims of a conservative gender ideology that is not in step with the times but preserves a conceptual differentiation between the sexes that flies in the face of economic reality.
Not surprisingly, then, Faludi is shocked by both her father’s ideas and behavior. Stefanie insists that men must kiss a woman’s hand when they meet, does not leave the house without pearl earrings, and wears high heels even when climbing Castle Hill in Budapest. It is even easier to dislike Stefanie than when she was still Steve, who abandoned not only his daughter but also his elderly parents, who immigrated from Hungary to Israel. Until just before she died, Istvan’s mother wrote him letters begging him to reply, or at least let her know that he was still alive. All the letters were ignored. Nevertheless, Faludi tries to love and understand Stefanie, seeking to discover who the real Stefanie is and what’s concealed beneath the polka dresses and the makeup.
During a decade of meetings between them, Stefanie gradually removes the layers of psychological makeup and defensiveness that envelop her. She “remembers” that, actually, she knows a little Yiddish, that she learned Hebrew in childhood and attended synagogue regularly. For her whole life, she’s been disguising herself and changing identities. So it was when he saved his family and himself, when he fled Hungary and managed to obtain himself visas for Denmark, Brazil and the United States; and so it was when he returned to Hungary, too. Slips of the tongue show that the gender change was only part of a larger, more complex sequence of changes.
“I can sit down with anyone now, and he kisses my hand,” says Stefanie. “It strengthened me for life that I did these things back then. That I could live as not myself but as a non-Jewish person. And that I could get away with it. So now I can do this other thing because if you are convinced you are this other person, everybody else will be convinced.”
The erasure of the Jewish identity is intimately bound up with the erasure of the male identity. People “see you as some sort of monster. They don’t know what you do. You’re vermin. They gas you,” she blurts out in one conversation. The Holocaust experience thus appears to be embedded in both her soul and her body. “I am a woman – with a birth certificate that says I’m a woman. So I must be a woman,” Stefanie asserts, while simulataneously questioning her own identity.
That declaration is thought-provoking, as it doesn’t refer to physical changes but to a bureaucratic, state-sanctioned process. She also refuses to say that she has a “real,” “interior” identity, and that the operation she underwent was only the “adjustment” of physical identity to psychic identity. She herself draws a comparison between switching her identity from Jewish to Hungarian-non-Jewish, and switching her identity from man to woman.
But as father and daughter spend more time together, Susan Faludi observes that “becoming a woman had only added a barricade, another false front to hide behind” on the way to the “real” Istvan/Stefanie. Who is this peasant woman who wants to be empress and peasant simultaneously? Who abhors Jews and yet spices her remarks with Yiddish? Who goes to a synagogue to see Fromental Halevy’s opera “The Jewess” – which is about a Jewish girl who refuses to convert to Christianity (even though she is actually a Christian by birth) – not in order to watch the opera, but to unleash racist remarks at the Jewish audience? Who is outraged by male violence but whose bureau drawers are filled with pornographic tales about girls being raped? Who buys a biography of Hans Christian Andersen for Susan and signs it “The Swan”? Who tells impossible tall tales, all of which, her daughter discovers later, turn out to be true?
Susan Faludi’s father does not subscribe to early-21st century American political correctness, and the author, too, avoids politicizing her father’s image and writing in terms of current norms. Feminist scholars and transgender activists insist that gender identity and sexual identity are two separate personality realms. But Stefanie is the embodiment of a transgender fantasy in which a feminine identity is simultaneously totally sexual, in which change of sex entails fantasies of sexual violence, humiliation and sexuality of and with girls. And Susan Faludi, too, like her father, declines to argue that Istvan/Steven/Stefanie always possessed a true interior femininity, which in the wake of the surgery could at last express itself in the public space as well. It wasn’t surgery that matched exterior to interior; it was surgery that added a layer of identities and concealment to a complex personality.
It’s not surprising, perhaps, that when Stefanie was afflicted with dementia, all her personality traits fell apart rapidly. In her last days, people from Arrow Cross and present-day Hungarian police officers pursued her together, physicians refused to believe that she was a woman, and everyone understood that she was a Jew. One morning she fled when the head of the medical team in her Budapest mental hospital supposedly opened the gas canisters. On another day she fantasized boarding a plane to Tel Aviv, only to find herself once more in the same room, in the same shabby and wretched psychiatric institution, surrounded (in her imagination) by shelves packed with books by Hans Christian Andersen.
Faludi failed in her attempt to decipher the character of her father/Stefanie. The father figure is perhaps not meant to be decipherable – the father is a darkroom. But the daughter has written one of the most fascinating and most complex books in recent years about the question, “What is identity?”
"In the Darkroom," by Susan Faludi, Picador, 480 pages, $18 (paperback)
Moshe Sluhovsky is chair of both the department of history and the Institute of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.