Trans parent is complicated, Faludi learns
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It was perhaps the email of her lifetime when, in 2004, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Susan Faludi, best known for "Backlash," her book on feminism, was contacted by her father, whom she hadn't heard from or seen in years.
"Dear Susan, 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.
Attached to the message was a series of snapshots of her father, now known as Stefanie, dressed in blouses and skirts, following her gender reassignment surgery in Thailand. She had returned to her native Hungary. While not a total shock because a relative whom Stefanie had already notified had contacted Faludi, she had no inkling that her father had ever identified as a woman.
Faludi would go to Hungary and her father would ask her to write a book on her life. Published last year, "In the Darkroom," was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize in the biography category (though she didn't win). Faludi, 58, was in the Bay Area in early May when she met with the Bay Area Reporter for an interview.
"I had a whole nest of reactions all at once," Faludi, a straight ally, said of her father's bombshell email. "Part of me was hopeful that maybe this was the key to explaining everything about my father, the ticket to understanding I didn't have before, if only it were that simple. I thought I had my father pegged but I didn't know the first thing."
Her father had been abusive to her and her mother (even while separated, stabbing the man she was dating), eventually leading to a divorce, with only sporadic communication through the years. A wily Jewish Holocaust survivor whose family was decimated, her father eventually relocated to the U.S. and became a respected photographer whose specialty was manipulative techniques such as dodging (making dark areas look light) and masking (concealing unwanted parts of the picture).
Faludi quotes her father, "You don't expose what you don't want exposed," which could be her major theme as she was constantly reinventing herself, obscuring or forgetting the past.
"When my father first transitioned she was embedded in an excessive frilly girliness, a kind of delayed adolescence, to break out of that carapace of hypermasculinity, claiming she loved being a woman because men could do everything for her, but eventually she could let that all go and be the idiosyncratic character she was:" the assimilated Jew who adored the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and returning to Hungary, an anti-Semitic country that decimated her family during World War II.
"My father needled me, pushing back on sacrosanct positions in feminism, goading me by saying a woman's place is in the kitchen. He was a type of trickster and liked to provoke people," Faludi said. "My feminism gave me the tools to help me understand what was going on with my father, to put together the intersectional analysis including gender, Jewish identity, the national politics of Hungary. My father's story confirmed for me that gender is infinitely varied, and that once she surrendered the out-of-the-box Doris Day persona (complete with wigs and high heels), she became a more complicated interesting person who couldn't be defined by gender. You can't determine someone by a sex role that has been regulated by the culture."
Because her father was complicated and contradictory, and carried so much historical baggage, Faludi is loathe to make any general comments about transgender people; to say that because her father acted in such a way, that explains why trans people do something.
"In my research, Jenny Boylan has this great line: if you've met one trans person, you've met one trans person," Faludi said, referring to the trans writer. "For example, my father would be talking about his trans identity, then he would switch over to how the Jews were treated during the Holocaust, because what Jews had to do to 'pass' in the 1940s to escape imprisonment or death was connected in her mind to how to pass as a woman. This is not to say there is a causal relation, but again, it was all intertwined in her mind. I think my father thought that becoming a woman would be the solution to fix all her other problems and that was not the case. My father didn't become a different person as all the baggage was still there, all that undiagnosed anger."
Faludi stated that her father shows how contradictory people are, that people want freedom to express themselves in all their variations, yet at the same time people are terrified of standing out and just want to follow societal formulas.
"For many trans people gender identity and sexual identity are kept separate, but they were intertwined in my father," Faludi said. "In her fantasies I discovered a transgender id in which becoming a woman was thoroughly sexualized, in which femininity was related in terms of bondage, humiliation, and orgasm, as the transformation from one gender to another was eroticized at every step. She would come into my room with her robe open revealing her lingerie, objecting to my sleeping with the door closed, saying she wanted to be treated as a woman, to walk around without clothes and for me to see it as normal."
For Faludi, one of the biggest mysteries was why her father returned to Hungary right after the communists fell.
"Perhaps he was hoping the country would undergo a cultural rebirth similar to the one that occurred in between the two world wars that her parents had experienced," Faludi said. "Because Hungary wanted to become part of the European Union, it became the first country to include transgenders as part of a protected minority, but half of the parliamentary members didn't know what they were voting on. While it's officially on the books, it's nothing honored. Just look at the violent reaction to gay Pride parades year after year. ... Anyhow, my father may have returned to fit in, figuring he might be more acceptable as a woman, perhaps less Jewish-looking and more Christian-like. Or maybe it was the reverse, with my father coming back to tell them to screw off and say if you didn't like me as a Jew, well try my becoming a woman on for size. I still don't fully understand why he went back to Hungary."
For the trans people who have gotten in touch with her, they appreciate Faludi's more complicated portrayal focused on one person with her many dimensions of identity battling each other, rather than the cheerleading "I was always a woman" tale, a standard of this genre. Faludi is amazed that there has been such a growth in acceptance of transgender people in the last decade, "especially when you think about gay and women's rights and what a long slough it was, but maybe it seems like the natural next step because of the groundwork laid by these two movements."
By the time her father died in 2015, they had definitely become closer. Stefanie was proud of her daughter's accomplishments, and began to trust her expertise. She was at last willing to look at her past as well as Faludi's childhood and talk about it. Faludi struggled to come to grips with her father's reinvented self, to decode her riddle.
"She remained to the end something of a puzzle, but so is identity, which is never singular. You can't pull one thread because everything is in conversation with everything else including sexuality."