Book Review: Susan Faludi’s ‘In the Darkroom’

During her first visits to Budapest, Faludi is practically held hostage by her father inside his house.  Stefánie rejects all reasons to venture outside or to respond to Faludi’s questions about the past, which she insists, “don’t matter anymore.” Instead, Stefánie monopolizes the conversation with meandering soliloquies about Hungary’s mythological history, details of her sex-change surgery and the superiority of Viennese pastry. Stefánie’s comfort zone is to park herself in front of her computer and view trans websites.

A former photo re-toucher for Conde Nast in New York City, Stefánie maintains a darkroom in her Budapest home, which duplicates her former Manhattan studio. Previously in demand by top American photographers, like Richard Avedon, for the ability to manipulate images, Stefánie is now equally proficient in manipulating images of herself attired in various wigs and costumes. She thrills whenever a man says, “kezét csókolom,” a common Hungarian greeting meaning I kiss your hand.

Faludi links her father’s pathological revisionism to that of Hungary itself, which she describes as a mongrel of a country, in economic freefall, desperate to return to an imaginary glorious past and erase its murderous anti-Semitism. The similarities between Hungary’s current intolerant, nationalistic fervor and our own country’s isolationist, populist leanings are chilling.

Eventually, over time, Stefánie softens. She takes Faludi to the family’s former mansion, part of which has been converted, ironically, into a synagogue. Although Faludi has led a purely secular life and her father has gone to great lengths to distance himself from his Jewish roots, they attend Rosh Hashanah services.  Faludi notes that many of the people in attendance are new to Judaism, the religion of their ancestors that had been repressed under the Soviet regime. When the Torah is carried down the aisle, Stefánie tells Faludi to touch her shawl to the scroll and kiss it. Stefánie proceeds to say Kaddish for her parents.

The reader need not have a father who was controlling, abusive, Jewish or transsexual to identify with Faludi’s quest. All of us who came of age during the women’s liberation movement have had reason to question the previous generation’s choices regarding gender roles, politics and sexuality. What Faludi has given us in her memoir, is a guided tour of one woman’s investigation into the darkest corners of her relationship with her father.

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  • Helen Graber October 24, 2016 at 7:25 am

    Susan Faludi’s book looks fascinating ! I have been looking for a new book and will put it in my kindle. Thanks for the review