With the media ascendance of Caitlyn Jenner, the film “The Danish Girl,” the Amazon series “Transparent,” and the recent North Carolina bathroom brouhaha, we are experiencing a transgender moment. After years of hiding, silence, and shame, transsexuals and their identity crises are coming to seem ubiquitous, if not yet humdrum.
An expert in the intersections between culture and gender, Susan Faludi proves an apt observer of this phenomenon. The award-winning author of “Backlash,” “The Terror Dream,” and “Stiffed” could hardly have hoped for a more receptive environment for her memoir, “In the Darkroom.”
The transsexual here is Faludi’s father, a sometimes violent, mostly unknowable man from whom she was estranged for a quarter century. Divorced from Faludi’s mother and living in his native Hungary, he is a master of photographic manipulation and a frustrated filmmaker — one whose personal secrets took many years to see the light. Metaphors abound; Faludi’s father is also a prodigious admirer of fairy tales, with their stories of transformation.
There is much to admire in Faludi’s memoir, whose zigzagging narrative encompasses tales of the Holocaust, a discussion of Hungary’s embattled legacy of “self-pity and brutality,” and an interrogation of the links between culture and gender identity.
At its center, though, is a particularly irritating antihero — a lout who is also a logorrhiac bore. Instead of the trope of transsexual as society’s victim, Faludi gives us a solipsistic victimizer whose troubles are, at least in part, self-inflicted. In lieu of being moved by his struggles, we are appalled by his boorishness — a testament to Faludi’s candor and lack of sentimentality, but also an impediment to involvement.
Still, the inevitable arc is toward a hard-earned empathy. Faludi does her best to contextualize her father’s issues, noting his childhood abandonment by his parents and the difficulties of being an assimilated Hungarian Jew betrayed by both biology and history. Against this backdrop, she describes a gradual, imperfect reconciliation.
Its vehicle is research for the memoir itself. Faludi’s visits to her father in Hungary are as much reporting trips as reunions. “In the Darkroom,” like many memoirs, takes the form of a double quest story, with both father and daughter searching for his true identity.
We begin, in 2004, with the author’s frustration. Faludi describes herself as being “in pursuit of a scofflaw, an artful dodger who had skipped out on so many things — obligation, affection, culpability, contrition.” As she attempts to track “my father’s many selves to their secret recesses,” she finds him “a refractory subject.”
The effort is triggered by an e-mail (“the first communication I’d received from my ‘parent’ in years’’) announcing that he has “had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man that I have never been inside.” After gender-reconstruction surgery in Thailand, Steven has become Stefánie, with the snapshots to prove it.
The transition comes as a shock. During Faludi’s childhood, her father had been a “household despot” with “phallocratic views” who nevertheless remained “a cipher, cryptic to everyone around him.” He remained, years later, “a simultaneously inscrutable and volatile presence, a black box and a detonator, distant and intrusive by turns.”
The separation of Faludi’s parents decades before had culminated in a bloodbath. Violating a restraining order, Steven broke into his former home and beat and stabbed his wife’s boyfriend, sending him to the hospital. It was Susan who called 911.
This incident contrasts mightily with a much earlier break-in. As a teenager in occupied Hungary, Steven donned the armband of the fascistic, anti-Semitic Hungarian Arrow Cross and heroically escorted his parents out of a building where Jews were imprisoned, saving their lives.
With these scenes as narrative poles, Faludi traces her father’s story, raising intriguing questions along the way about gender roles, the relationship between past and present, Jewish identity, and transsexualism. She concludes that “in the universe there is only one true divide . . . life and death . . . Everything else is molten, malleable.’’
Faludi also charts her own transformation, from prosecutor to witness. In the end, she enables us to feel the briefest twinge of sorrow at her father’s death — and, more important, a sense of “the daily texture of complicated ordinary lives.”
IN THE DARKROOM
By Susan Faludi
Metropolitan, 417 pp., $32
Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, is a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.