When the television show “Transparent” debuted in 2014, Pulitzer Prize-winning feminist journalist Susan Faludi could not help but “binge watch.”
“It was uncanny,” Faludi said of “Transparent,” which follows the lives of a Jewish family headed by a father who is transgender. “I sat there binge-watching it thinking, ‘Wait, did somebody wire my home? How did they know? How could this happen to two people?’”
In 2004, Faludi discovered, via an email, that her 76-year-old, hypermasculine Holocaust-surviving father, from who she had been estranged for about 25 years, had moved back to his birthplace of Hungary and become a woman.
“I’ve got some interesting news for you,” the email read. “I have decided that I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man that I have never been inside.”
Steven Faludi — who had been born István Friedman — was now Stefáni following the gender reassignment surgery she had at a hospital in Thailand.
Susan Faludi chronicled her experiences in reconnecting with her father — a photographer known as an expert in altering images — in her 2016 memoir “In the Darkroom.” In exploring her father’s various shifting identities, from shunning Jewishness to changing gender, Faludi examines and challenges broader notions of identity.
Faludi will be appearing at the Carnegie Music Hall on Feb. 26 as part of the Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures Ten Evening series. The lecture is underwritten by the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.
Faludi talked with the Chronicle about her relationship with her father in all its complexity.
Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle: How did you feel when you got that email?
Susan Faludi: It was the proverbial curve ball from beyond left field. It wasn’t as if my father had left any breadcrumbs that I could trace back and say, “Uh, huh. That explains this.”
I remember my reaction later that same day. My husband I went to this concert; it just happened to be Schnittke’s “Requiem,” this very discordant grief-stricken piece. I was just sitting there, and in my mind, the jagged music felt like almost a frantic search around the mental landscape of my childhood home, and I kept thinking there must be some evidence, something I missed — and feeling so sorry and almost ashamed that I thought I had my father pegged, and I didn’t know the first thing about my father. You know, I fancy myself this observant journalist, and I completely missed the boat.
Did anyone else in your family have a clue, or did this take everybody by surprise?
It took everyone by surprise. And that was the other thing I found so tragic. My father was so secretive. And to live with this bedrock knowledge about oneself and not be able to share it broke my heart.
It’s interesting that he didn’t open up about anything, really, until he became a she.
Yes. My father saw communication in gendered terms. One of the big things that my father stressed to me after the operation, and for years afterward, was, “Oh, now that I’m a woman, I can talk with people.” Particularly, talk with other women.
She kept saying, “I couldn’t communicate as a man,” which says something about perceptions of masculinity, at least my father’s perceptions.
As a feminist, how did you feel about the way your father chose to dress — like a stereotypical woman from the 1950s with pearls — and before her transition, with all that flamboyant sexualized clothing?
That was a real challenge to my belief system. The ironies were not lost on me, that here’s the father whose physical violence in my youth sparked my feminist activism, who was now singing the praises of stilettos and feathered boas and saying women have all the advantages, and it’s so easy being a woman, you just act helpless and everyone helps you. This was clearly not my experience in being a woman. And we argued a lot about that.
But I think ultimately, my father brought me around. Our conversations ultimately reaffirmed my feminist belief that gender is varied and on a spectrum. And my father backed away from that femininity over time. Toward the very end of her life, she stopped describing herself in female or male terms exclusively and referred to herself as “trans.”
You ask in your book: “Is identity what you choose or what you can’t escape?” Do you have an answer for that?
Well, I guess my answer, like all chicken and egg questions, like all nature/nurture questions, would be both. That you can’t do either. We construct our identity partly out of what we’ve inherited, but we also at the same time are reconstructing that inheritance. And there are many aspects of ourselves that we can’t escape, no matter how many years we spend in therapy. And we do make choices, and those choices also become inescapable. So, no, I didn’t settle that.
When you were raised, your father seemed to go out of the way to shun her Jewishness, and yet you said you identified very strongly as a Jew. Was that a rebellion against your father?
I think in part, yes, it’s a reaction. The more my father denied being Jewish the more she was calling attention to that.
Also, I grew up in a very lower middle class, Irish and Italian Catholic neighborhood, and we were the first Jews to move in. And it was that period where casual anti-Semitism was still very much present. I was called a kike by kids in the neighborhood. Interestingly, we weren’t presenting as Jewish, we had the Christmas lights on our house. I don’t know how these kids figured it out, but they did.
I had a very cultural sense of being Jewish, not a religious sense, which is pretty typical of assimilated Americans of that period. But one of the things I learned by working on the book with my father was a discovery of why I did have what seemed to be this mysterious attachment to being Jewish.
It all seemed to make sense when I began to finally get my father to talk about what she had gone through in the Holocaust and meeting with my extended diaspora family while I was doing the research on the book, reconnecting with roots I sensed I had but I didn’t understand or even know — the extended members on my father’s side, because long ago she had cut them off. I came out of this experience with wonderful loving family members from Australia to Israel to Switzerland. It was a great unexpected gift of the book project.
Why do you think she didn’t want these connections to her family? Do you think it’s because she always felt this sense of alienation and being different? Did it have something to do with experiencing the Holocaust the way she did?
I think it was a lot of things, including just her personality. Even as a very small child, my father was difficult and would have eruptions of anger and cut people off. It was a very difficult childhood, where my grandparents were hardly around, and my father was raised by a series of nannies and maids. And then that all vanished in a heartbeat, and then there’s my father as a young teenager wandering around the streets during the Holocaust with a fake arm band pretending to be a member of the Hungarian Nazi party. You can see why my father would end up not trusting very many people.
She did seem to go through most of her life in a disguise, from the Nazi arm band, to the macho man.
My father had been through a series of what she called “impersonations.” What she said to me at one point was “I impersonate myself,” which is a phrase that stayed with me. Quite a curious way of describing oneself.
You were finally able to connect with your father and communicate with her after her surgery. Would you say that it was ultimately a gift that she went through with this change?
Yes. I mean, we could have connected without that. My father and I could have broken down that wall earlier. And I hold myself partly responsible too for that. In the end, it was a remarkable present. It horrifies me to think that I could have gone through the rest of my life and not reconnected with my father and not had — to the extent we had — a reconciliation, not come to a deeper understanding and empathy and ultimately love.
I’m sure it took a lot of bravery on her part to send me that email. But it also freed me from the stock script of who I thought my father was and what I thought my father’s role was in my life, which was based on these shards of understanding. It allowed me to get beyond that and to empathize with my father. Ultimately, it’s just an emotionally healthier place to be for myself. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.