Susan Faludi: getting to know my father, the woman

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After decades of estrangement from her ultra-competitive parent, an email arrived: she was a woman. Could they rebuild their relationship?

One afternoon, working at home in Portland, Oregon, I took a breaking to check my email and found a new message 😛 TAGEND

To: Susan C Faludi

Date: 7/7/ 2004

Subject: Changes.

It was from my father. Dear Susan, it began, Ive got some interesting news for you. I have decided that I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive human that I have never been inside.

Attached was a series of snapshots. In the first, my 76 -year-old father is standing in a hospital hall in a sheer, sleeveless chemise and red skirt. The caption read: I seem tired after the surgery. In another, taken before the surgery, my father is perched amid a copse of trees, modelling a henna wig with bangs and a pale ruffled blouse. The caption read, Stefnie in Vienna garden. The email was signed, Love from your mother, Stefnie.

My father and I had barely spoken in a quarter-century. As small children, I had resented and, afterward, dreaded him, and when I was a teenager he had left the family or, rather, been forced to leave by the police after a season of escalating violence. Despite our long alienation, I thought I understood enough of his character to have had some inkling of an tendency this profound. I had none.

As a child, in the suburban township of Yorktown Heights, an hours drive north of Manhattan, I had always known my father to assert the male prerogative. He had seemed invested insistently, inflexibly in being the household despot. We eat what he wanted to eat, travelled where he wanted to go, wore what he wanted us to wear. There was no escape.

Early one August morning when I was 14, I was lacing my sneakers in the front hallway, preparing for a operate( Id joined the junior varsity girls track team ), when I sensed a subtle atmospheric change, like the drop in barometric pressure as a cold front approaches, which signalled to my aggrieved adolescent mind the arrival of my father. His pale, thin frame emerged from the gloom at the bend of the stairs. He was wearing jogging shorts and tennis sneakers. I am operating also, he said, his thick Hungarian accent stretching out the first syllable: aaaalso . It was an insistence , not an offer. I pushed through the screen door, my father shadowing my heels. The air was fat with humidity. Tar bubbles blistered the blacktop.

By the lake, we picked up a narrow footpath. We ran without speaking, single file. Minutes into the ascent, he picked up his pace. So did I. He pulled ahead, then I did. We both gasped for breath. My stomach was heaving and my vision had blurred. My parent transgressed into a furious step. I tried to match it. It was, after all, the early 1970 s; I Am Woman( Hear Me Roar ) played on the mental soundtrack of my morning jogs. But neither my ardour for womens lib nor my youth nor all my train could compete with his determination.

Something about my father became palpable in that moment, but what? Was I witnessing raw aggression or a performance of it? Was he competing with his daughter or outracing person, or something, else? These werent questions Id have formulated that morning. At the time, I was trying not to upchuck. But I recollect the believe, troubling to my budding feminism, that flickered through my intellect: its easier to be a woman.

And with it, I let my legs slacken. My fathers back receded down the road.

***

In September 2004, two months after receiving my fathers email, I boarded a plane to Hungary. In my luggage were a tape recorder, a jumbo pack of AA batteries, two dozen microcassettes, a stack of reporters notebooks and a single-spaced 10 -page list of questions. She had asked me to write her story.

I was setting out to investigate person I scarcely knew. I was largely ignorant of the life my father had led since my mothers divorce in 1977, when hed moved to a loft in Manhattan that doubled as his commercial photographers studio, and subsequently to return to Hungary. Since then, I had find him only occasionally, once at a graduation, again at a family wedding, and once when he was passing through the west coast.

In the arrivals hall at Budapest Ferihegy international airport, I reluctantly scanned the faces. Perhaps she wouldnt is right there. Perhaps I could turn around and fly home. Salutations in two genders were gridlocked on my tongue. I wasnt sure I was ready to release him to a new identity; she hadnt explained the old one. I can manage a change in pronoun, I believed, but paternity? Whoever she was now, she was, as she had said to me on the phone, still your father.

I spotted a familiar profile with a high forehead and narrow shoulders. Her hair seemed thicker than I recollected his, and lighter in colouring, a henna-red. She was wearing a red cabled sweater, grey cloth skirt, white heels and a pair of pearl stud earrings.

Waaall, my father said, as I came to a stop in front of her. We exchanged an awkward hug. Her breasts 48 C, she would afterward inform me poked into mine. Rigid, they seemed less bosom than battlement, and I wondered at my own inflexibility. Barely off the plane, I was already rendering judgment. As if there werent plenty of real women walking around with silicone in their breasts. Since when had I become the essentialist?

She led the way to the car park. I trailed behind, watching uncomfortably the people watching us. The dissonance between white heels and male-pattern baldness was describing notification. Some double-chinned matrons gave my father the up-and-down. One stopped in her tracks and mumbled something. I didnt understand the words, but I got the intent. When her gaze shifted to me, I glared back. Fuck off, you old biddy, I thought.

Susan

Susan Faludi in her fathers automobile in New York City, early 1960 s. Photograph: Courtesy of Susan Faludi

Growing up, I learned very little about the paternal side of their own families. I knew a few fundamentals. I knew my fathers birth name, Istvn Friedman. He had adopted Faludi after the second world war, then Steven or Steve, as he favor after hed moved to the US in 1953.

I knew he was born and raised Jewish in Budapest, and was a child of privilege. My grandparents lived off inherited wealth and used to go every night to the theater, concerts, galas at the opera. A series of nannies and maids raised their only child. My grandfather owned a villa in Buda, where the Friedmans spent the summer, and two luxurious apartment buildings in Pest, where they occupied the largest division; my father referred to it as the royal apartment.

I knew, too, that my father was a teenager during the course of its Nazi occupation. But in all the years we lived under the same roof, he spoke of merely a few instances from wartime Hungary. In one, it is winter and dead bodies litter the street. My parent assures the frozen carcass of a horse and hacks off pieces to feed. In another, my father is on a boulevard in Pest when a human in uniform orders him into a hotel. Jews are being shot in the cellar. My parent survives by hiding in the stairwell. In a third, my father saves his mothers. How ? Id ask, hungry for details. Shrug.

Waaall. I had an armband. And ? And I saaaved them.

As my fathers campervan climbed the roads from the airport, I thought, here I am in the city that was the forge of my fathers youth, the anvil on which his character was struck. Now it was the stage set of her prodigal return. This proximity gave me a strange sensation. All my life Id had the man without the context. Now I had the context, but with a hitch. The human was gone.

A house loomed into view, a three-storey concrete bunker with a peaked roof and stuccoed walls. A security fence ringed the perimeter, with a locked and alarmed gate. My parent yanked on the brake and scrambled down from the pilots seat. We stood in the drive while she deactivated various security alarms, which she reactivated immediately following we got inside.

I was shown to my room and left to unpack. Ten minutes later, there was a summons from the adjoining bedroom. Susaaan, come here!

She was standing before a dressing table with a mirror framed in vanity illuminates. I recognised it: the makeup table that used to sit in my fathers photo studio in Manhattan. She held an outfit in each hand, a yellow sundress and a navy blue frock with a sailor-suit collar. Which should I wear?

I told I didnt know. And supposed, petulantly: change your clothes all you want, youre still the same person.

Its hot out Ill wear the sundress. She started peeling off her top. I backed toward the door.

Where are you going?

To unpack.

Oh, come now, she said, half in, half out of her blouse. Were all women here.

She pulled the top over her head and gestured towards the closet. Help me pick out the shoes.

I stood in the threshold, one foot in, one foot out.

My father gave me a familiar half-grin. Come closer, I wont bite!

***

One evening in the early winter of 1976, an event occurred that would mark my childhood for ever. I was in my room , nodding over a volume, when I was jolted awake by a loud accident. Someone was breaking in, and then pounding up the stairs with blood-curdling howls. It was my father, violating a restraining order. I heard timber splintering, a doorway giving way before a baseball bat. Then hollers, a thudding noise. Call the police! my mother screamed as she fled past my room.

The paramedics carried out on a stretcher the man my mother had recently begun assuring. His shirt was soaked in blood and he had gone into shock. My father had attacked him with the at-bat, then with the Swiss army knife he always carried. The stabbings, in the stomach, were multiple. It took the doctors the better part of the night to stanch the bleed. Get the blood out of the house took longer. It was everywhere: on floors, walls, stairs, the front corridor. The living room looked like a scene out of Carrie, which, as it occurred, had just premiered that autumn. When the house went on the market a year later, my mother and I were still trying to scrubbing stains from the carpet.

In the subsequent divorce trial, my father claimed to be a wronged spouse who had entered the house to save his family from a intruder. The magistrate awarded a request to pay no alimony and simply $50( 35) a week for the purposes of two children.

As I tackled, nearly three decades and nine period zones away, my fathers new self, it was hard for me to purge that image of the violent man from her new persona. Was I supposed to believe the one identity had been erased by the other?

Susan

Susan Faludi and her father cycling in the Alps, 1972. Photograph: Politenes of Susan Faludi

If someone were to ask me to declare my identity, Id say that, along with such ordinaries as nationality and profession, I am a woman and I am a Jew. Yet when I appear deeper, I begin to doubt the grounds on which I can construct the claim. I am a woman who has managed to bypass most of the rites of traditional femininity. I never had children; I didnt yearn for maternity. I am an indifferent cook, rarely garden, never sew.

I am a Jew who knows next to nothing of Jewish statute, ritual, prayers. I never attended Hebrew school; I wasnt batmitzvahed. We never belonged to the one synagogue in Yorktown Heights, which, anyway, was so loosey-goosey Reform it might as well have been Unitarian. My mother is Jewish only on her parents side, a lack of matrilineage that renders me gentile to all but the most liberal wing of the rabbinate.

So if my allegiance to these identities isnt fused in observance and ritual, what is its source? I am a Jew who grew up in a neighbourhood inhabited with antisemites. I am a woman whose girlhood was steeped in the sexist stereotypes of early 1960 s America. My sense of who I am seems to derive from a quality of resistance, a refusal to back down. If its threatened, Ill assert it.

If I am someone with merely the vaguest idea of what it means to be a Jew, who is nevertheless adamant that she is one, my father was the reverse. She was someone who had been reminded at every turn that she was a Jew, who was nevertheless adamant that her identity lay elsewhere.

***

When I lured my father out of her house in the Buda hills( never an easy task ), she gravitated to the generic shopping centres and retail outlets. I visited her numerous periods over the next 10 years, and we strolled together only once through Budapests Jewish one-quarter, site of the infamous and murderous wartime ghetto, and then only on the way to her favourite wiener schnitzel restaurant.

It was September 2004. On the style back, and at my insisting, we stepped into the Hungarian Jewish Museum. My fathers mood, already sour at this detour, curdled when we reached the Holocaust room. Alongside deportation rosters and a nation-by-nation breakdown of the death toll( Hungary: 565,000 Jews perished) was a large photograph of the Hungarian regent, Mikls Horthy, a man my father revered, though hed overseen the deporting of nearly a half million Jews to Auschwitz in the spring and summer of 1944. Horthy was shaking hands with Hitler.

My request that my father translate the text on some second world war street posters grotesque caricatures of rich Jewish humen with jug ears and giant hooked snouts, their spouses in diamonds and furs elicited her customary wave. This is of no interest, she said. She was ready to go.

Just before the exit, she jolted to a halt. In front of her was a photograph, a grainy black-and-white image of a muddied yard in which a group of men in fedoras and raincoats stood behind a small wooden table. It was the grounds of the Jewish Maros Street hospital where, on 11 January 1945, all but one of its 93 patients, nurses and doctors were murdered. In front of the table were three rows of bodies, exhumed from a mass tomb by the Soviets a few weeks after the liberation of Budapest.

I was there, my father said softly. The Soviet soldiers had invited a freshly organised youth cinema club to witness the exhumation. My parent was one of its charter members.

So many of the pictures of my fathers life were missing, lost in the rubble or wilfully purged from her recollection. Here on the wall was a moment she couldnt expunge. The smell, she said, creating her hand to her face. You could not get it out of your nose.

Susaaan! My father was standing at the foot of the stairs. Susaaan! I had retreated to my room with a book. Susaaan! Come here! I want you to see this.

She was waiting for me in the hallway. Reluctantly, I followed her into the living room. Sit there, she told, waving the remote toward a chair. She settled into another and hit the play button. On the Tv screen, an operating theatre seemed. The camera wheeled around, then zoomed in on a bloody midsection. A surgery was under way. Hers.

I dont want to see this.

Its well done, my father said. I sent a copy to my endocrinologist, and he found it very interesting.

I still dont want to see it.

But I sat there watching anyway. All I could think of was a cooking reveal, Julia Child in surgical scrub: slice the fish lengthwise. Fillet with a well-sharpened paring knife. Set aside the scalp for afterward. At least Julia would have been armed with a stiff drink.

After a few minutes, I studied the floor.

Youre not watching!

I raised my head, keeping my eyelids at half mast, which didnt block the soundtrack, a tinkly medley that repeated every 10 seconds. Its Thai pop, my father said. They put it on there for me.

The hospital personnel had agreed to record the breast implants and penectomy. They merely did the highlights, my father told. The cinema clicked off. I got up and left the room.

***

In the autumn of 2014, my father and I climbed the broad steps of the Hungarian National Museum. For two hours we navigated the vast maze of the museums second floor, where the official history of Hungary unfolded in 20 marbled rooms. The museum preserved Hungarys characteristic evasion of its role in the war and the destruction of Hungarian Jewry. The memorabilia relating to Jewish obliteration pointed largely to German culpability: a photo of Eichmann striking a Jewish man, SS regalia, a dummy of a Gestapo officer on a very real BMW motorbike.

We descended to the cellar. In the corridor leading to the restroom, a placard catch my fathers eye. It read, Survivors. We stepped in and detected a small, windowless room housing a temporary exhibit. On the walls were a series of portraits of Holocaust survivors and their descendants, mounted for Hungarys Holocaust Memorial Year, a belated and begrudging attempt by the government to apologise for its role.

My father gazed around the room in confusion, Alice fallen down the rabbit hole. She strolled over to the first portrait and, without my prompting, began to translate the accompanying text. It was an account from a survivor born a year later than my father. Dina Friedman and their own families had been deported to Auschwitz at the end of May 1944, along with the 5,000 Jews who lived in the north-eastern town of Nyregyhza. There we lost our parents and our humanity was stolen from us, my father read, and her voice echoed through the nearly empty room. It never occurred to us to return to Hungary. It was a long testimony. After a few minutes, a guard came over and suggested that my father buy the text in the gift store instead of reading it aloud. My father dedicated her a cutting appear and carried on. Her eyes were burning.

We made a slow circuit of the room. My father came to a halt in front of a photograph of the descendants of Dina Friedman in Israel: 16 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren were collected around an aged couple in a clearing in the Jerusalem forest. Let the people in Hungary look at them! my father burst out. They turned their back. They told, Waaall, its none of our business. They never looked at who was taken. These people were just like them. They were your neighbours. They were your friends. And you let them die! She said shed considered enough.

We strolled half a block before she spoke again. But to have that exhibit in the National Museum! Fantastic. Its very praiseworthy. After a few cases more paces, as if in response to another voice in her head, Waaall, but its in the cellar. She gave a rueful snort. If they had a guests volume, I would write in it, Thank you! Thank you for putting the Jews in the cellar!

Susan

Susan Faludis father as a young professional photographer, just after the second world war. Photo: Courtesy of Susan Faludi

I love this place, my father proclaimed. Its aaauthentic Hungarian. She, my husband and I were waiting for a table at the Fish-Farm Inn, where my father liked to order the halszl, a traditional spicy fish soup larded with enough paprika to burn out your brain on the first sip. My parent especially loved the old-school waiters, elderly gents with formal manners, greeting her with courtly gallantry and pulling out her chair, addressing her with the vintage salutation of men to women: Kezt cskolom ( I kiss your hand ).

Did they find her womanly? As usual, she wasnt wearing a wig. Her white handbag was slung like a sailors duffel over her blue double-breasted captains jacket, an ocean-faring motif for a seafood dinner perhaps.

My father tilted her pate coquettishly and chatted away to the grizzled server, who was all smiles and obsequious nods. When the waiter left the table, I remarked on his deference.

Waaall, they have to cskolom me now.

Why?

Because, she told, Im tough.

I decided to exercise some toughness of my own. I announced I was forgoing the fisheries sector soup. Its attained the correct way here, my father insisted, and proceeded to wear me down with a characteristic free-floating filibuster: Halszl should only be made with river fish. Or lake fish Lake Balatons the largest freshwater lagoon in…

I said Id try the soup.

The waiter arrived with a cast-iron kettle and began ladling out its contents, beginning with the my fathers bowl. Ladies first! my father quipped. She seemed pleased to see her own sophistry.

Balaton, she told. Thats how we ended up hearing it on the radio.

A conversation with her was like a ride in a run-amok submersible. One minute you were bobbing on the surface; the next trawling the ocean floor. Now she was back in the summer of 44, when my father and grandpa hid in a doctors apartment, while the doctor holidayed at Lake Balaton; they listened very quietly to the BBC.

Thats how we heard the Germans had taken away the Jews of Kassa, she told now. My grandfathers hometown. My parent started to cry. He told me, They have killed my parents.

Did he try to get his parents out? I asked.

My father studied the tablecloth and said nothing. Aaanywaaay, she told ultimately, he couldnt have known.

That they would be murdered, she meant. It was something that had never happened before.

You did something, I said. You saved your mothers. By then, Id extracted a detailed description of my fathers 1944 rescue of his parents from an imperiled safe house. Wearing a fascist armband and carrying an unloaded rifle, hed given the Arrow Cross guards the party salute and goose-stepped his parents out of the building.

That was different, my father told. I believed it. So they believed it. The Arrow Cross, she entailed. I took part in their game. If you believe you are whoever you pretend to be, youre halfway saved. But if you act funny, if you act afraid, youre halfway to the gas chamber.

For dessert, my father ordered gesztenyepr , pureed chestnuts laced with rum and vanilla, served in a gigantic goblet. This role-playing during the war, my father said as she tackled the towering confection, that was a similar process.

To what?

I can sit down with anyone now, and he kisses my hand. 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. Meaning her altered in sex. Because if you are convinced you are this other person, everybody else will be convinced.

So what youre doing now, I asked, is that playing another role, too?

I was role-playing as a human, she said, but I wasnt altogether accepted by women as a capital-letter M human. I didnt have the wherewithal. Now, as a woman, Im not role-playing any more.

Because this is who you were all along?

Waaall, its who I am now, she told. Since the operation. I have developed another personality.

Which has been easier for you, I asked, to be accepted as a woman after being born a human, or to be accepted as a Magyar after being born a Jew?

My father thought about it, holding her spoonful before her like a hand mirror. As a woman. Because I am a woman, with a birth certificate that says Im a woman. So I must be a woman.

My father polished off her dessert. So, is the inquisition over now? She grinned and waved her spoon. The Lives And Crimes Of Stefnie Faludi! Oh my God!

We filed out into the night air. The Danube lay before us, obsidian in darkness. My parent tugged at my sleeve. Getting away with it, she said. Susaaan, dont be remembered that line. Thats the key to it all. Because a lot of people get discovered that the latter are Jewish, and they were shot.

The campervan careened down a darknes and potholed boulevard along the river. We were lost, though my father wouldnt acknowledge it. She had asked me to come with her to a transgender disco in an abandoned factory.

After a half-hour of wrong turns, we arrived. In the plenty were fewer than a dozen cars. My parent seemed nervous, checking and rechecking her hair and makeup in the rearview mirror. A heavy rain drummed on the vans roof. We made a run for it.

Susan

Together in Budapest, 2010. Photo: Russ Rymer

A set of steep, worn cement steps led up to what was once a locker room and dressing area for employees. Bed sheets had been pinned to clotheslines to create a few private spaces. Each of the cubicles bore a hand-drawn sign. Makeup room, my father translated. Changing room, said another. And, in the farthest corner: Conversation nook, containing a couple of gone-to-seed armchairs and a table. American techno blasted from the speakers. The dancefloor was empty.

My father cast around for a familiar face. Ensure none, she led the way to a corner sofa. THEY ARE SUPPOSED TO HAVE A STAGE SHOW, my father hollered over the booming soundtrack. IT STARTS AT MIDNIGHT.

I checked my wristwatch. It was 10 oclock.

Much to my amazement, my father fell into conversation, or at least a monologue, with a partygoer seated on her other side. Chloe wore a teased red wig, tube top and vinyl micro-mini.

WHAT ARE YOU TWO TALKING ABOUT? I shouted. Michael Jacksons Thriller was drowning out every other word.

ME, OF COURSE! my father told. IM TELLING CHLOE ABOUT MY SURGERY.

My head was beginning to pound. Midnight came and ran without a stage show.

WHY ISNT ANYONE DANCING? I asked as the hands on my watch inched towards 1am.

My father shrugged and her mouth moved.

WHAT?

I SAID, THEY ARE TOO SHY.

It was half past one when, one by one, a few guests ventured on to the dancefloor. For a quarter-hour, my father studied their movements.

Then she handed me her handbag and joined them.

I watched as she and eventually a half-dozen others gyrated in place, each in their own bubble, dancing by themselves. My mind travelled to the weekends in my adolescence when my father has endeavoured to teach me how to waltz, and excoriated me for leading.

She looked so alone out there. Everyone appeared so alone. I get up off the lounge. My parent and I circled around one another for a few minutes.

Then I put out my hand and she took it. I couldnt teach her the female steps to a Viennese waltz, but Id done my time in New Yorks Limelight. I knew what to do with Michael Jackson. I resulted her through a few moves and soon “were in” swaying one another around. It resulted to me that I hadnt danced like this in ages. It passed to me that I was having a good time.

My father was grinning, and not that anxious half-grin she so often had on her face. I held up my limb and she twiddled underneath it like a pro.

Stefnie Faludi died in Budapest in May 2015, aged 87.

This is an edited extract from In The Darkroom, by Susan Faludi, published by William Collins at 16.99. To order a transcript go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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