In the Darkroom is an absolute stunner of a memoir — probing, steel-nerved, moving in ways you’d never expect. Ms. Faludi is determined both to demystify the father of her youth — 'a simultaneously inscrutable and volatile presence, a black box and a detonator' — and to re-examine the very notion and nature of identity. In doing so, she challenges some of our most fundamental assumptions about transsexuality ... in telling her father’s story, Ms. Faludi is also adding a layer of complexity to this evolving canon of literature, and she’s doing it with typical brio ... What Ms. Faludi eventually suspects is that her father’s late-in-life decision to change sexes may be determined by a much broader variety of personal and historical forces, and that gender, as she has long argued, is more fluid than we’d like to believe ... As In the Darkroom progresses, it becomes clear that Ms. Faludi’s father will always elude explanation. The real Rosebud the author provides is her own. Her identity as a feminist, she realizes, sprang from her father’s 'desperation to assert the masculine persona he had chosen.'”
Faludi is a mercilessly droll and careful writer. The emotional incontinence and narcissism that pass for insight and power in memoirs these days is not for her; being interested in facts, she is unlikely to play the dubious trump card of personal experience. All the same, I cried quite often as I read her book ... On the page, Stephanie is a huge character: Holocaust survivor, American dad, Magyar repatriate, overdressed shiksa. Her new identity is in a bizarre dance with the old ... Faludi’s book, reticent and elegant and extremely clever, will not be to everyone’s taste. But this doesn’t preclude it from being an out-and-out masterpiece of its kind.
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.
Susan Faludi is a formidable reporter, an old hand at beguiling secrets out of sources and digging up incriminating facts ... Most of In the Darkroom, and the best of it, consists of the epic battle, and eventually the epic rapprochement, between Susan and Stefánie—an irresistible force meeting an immovable object ... Susan never truly can sort out her father’s slippery identity. Given her skepticism about the notion of any fixed identity—the 'Holy Grail' of contemporary American life, as she puts it—this makes for a happy ending to a book whose complexity fascinates.
In linking the forcible destruction of one of Stefánie’s identities to the willful jettisoning of another, Faludi seeks to understand the limits of self-reinvention. 'Could a new identity not only redeem but expunge its predecessor?' she asks. Penetrating and lucid as it is, Faludi’s book can’t answer this question. By the end, however, it seems less urgent, because Stefánie’s prickly, particular humanity comes to overshadow concern about categories. Faludi even develops some appreciation for Stefánie’s audacious ability to assume new identities, which, Faludi learns, allowed for real wartime heroism. Her father would tell her a story about dressing up as a Hungarian Nazi to rescue his parents from the fascist Arrow Cross; Faludi hadn’t entirely believed this tale, but she comes to learn that her father understated his valor. She never reconciles her conception of gender with that of her maddening parent, but she reconciles with her, which matters more.
[This] book does much to document and try to make sense of the suddenly urgent issue of gender fluidity and discrimination, its confusions and challenges ... The narrative winds towards Stefánie’s sudden lapse into dementia, a predicament quite brilliantly described by Faludi not as the usual 'bleeding away of identity' but as the opposite, 'an onrush of all that she had been, all that she had experienced, suffered, fled.' It is the sad last chord of a painful story, for though Faludi’s remarkable, moving and courageous book is extremely fair-minded all the way through, she only ever finds the frailest signs of warmth in her larger-than-life parent.
What propels the narrative is the protagonist at the center of it. This is not your heartwarming family reunion, when a newly enlightened parent comes to the airport with flowers and the child melts into her arms. Steven, now Stefanie, is difficult and unlovable on a Walter White scale ... Faludi rips at her father’s new identity in a way that sometimes feels almost cruel, in the way that a reporter’s relentless pursuit of truth sometimes can. But perhaps Faludi has earned the right ... rarely think this, but I wish this book had more digressions. Faludi starts a broader counter-narrative about identity that she never quite completes. And very few writers can dissect a prevailing cultural norm as well as Faludi can. But in memoir form, she gets across her basic point: Identity is not what you read about in the media. Not every operation ends in a fairy tale, your “real self” is not one you can fully choose, and no, you can’t tell a feminist by her father.
...[a] riviting book ... [Faludi] does a remarkable job tracking down the truth about her father, a person of multiple and contradictory identities. The book’s title, In the Darkroom, has a double meaning. It refers to the job her father held altering images in a Manhattan photo lab and to the dark, mysterious side of her father’s volatile personality ... Ms. Faludi unfolds her father’s story like the plot of a detective novel. 'I had cast myself as a posse of one, tracking my father’s many selves to their secret recesses,' she writes. She interviews her father’s transgender friends in Hungary, wades through stacks of files and photograph albums in her house, and visits family relatives in Israel where she discovers more long-hidden information.
In the course of investigating the enigma that always has been her father, Faludi considers the various strains of gender, ethnicity, religion and family that, perhaps, go into making someone who they are. At times, this wide-load technique slows down the narrative force of Faludi's book: a fat section, for instance, on the identity theories of Freud and Erik Erikson reads like an excerpt from a psych textbook. Elsewhere, however, Faludi's ambition is justified, such as when she considers the darker dimensions of the identity politics that fueled the Holocaust, as well as rising right-wing nationalist movements in Hungary and other Eastern European countries today...A compelling, exhausting, messy and provocative book, In the Darkroom seems like especially pertinent reading in these, our own dark times, when questions of identity keep coming to the fore, as matters of life and death.
...a remarkable new memoir ... as she attempts and often fails to understand her inscrutable father, the book becomes a rumination on larger questions of identity. 'is who you are what you make of yourself, the self you fashion into being,' Faludi wonders, 'or is it determined by your inheritance and all its fateful forces, genetic, familial, ethnic, religious, cultural, historical? In other words: is identity what you choose, or what you can’t escape?' ... By the end of In the Darkroom, it is genuinely moving that Faludi has achieved a hard-won closeness with her difficult parent. Still, so many of her questions, large and small, remain unanswered. Stefánie, who died last year, was dodging and masking to the end.
Faludi’s descriptions of her early family life have a Kodachrome vividness. She summons up effortlessly her father the 'household despot', a Hungarian transplant to suburban New York ... Faludi describes her father as a sort of real-life Zelig, and throughout the book — which weaves together the various narrative threads with seamless dexterity — she seeks to understand the mysteries of gender identity. This is tricky territory, and Faludi navigates it with an honest bewilderment ... In the Darkroom is filled with questions of history and identity, but it is above all an extraordinary act of love.
There are interesting stories about Steven as a teen during the Holocaust and his subsequent adventures in Denmark and South America ... But some of the historical research, though impressive, seems a stretch relevance-wise and is far more detailed than any but the most passionate family-tree searcher would regard as interesting. It’s understandable that not every thread is neatly tied or every question fully answered. In the end, though, In the Darkroom fails to shed real light.
...a stunning, poignant, often humorous account of the renowned writer's reunion after 25 years with wild, shape-shifting cipher Stefan Faludi, who absconded from Susan's life after her parents divorced when she was a teen ... this is a marvelous work, fascinating, heartfelt and rewarding. More than just a character study rich as the tortes topped with whipped cream that Stefanie loved, In the Darkroom is a timely, provocative meditation on sexuality, the search for identity and the dark history of a nation, whose people turned on their friends and neighbors and let them die.
In the hands of a lesser writer, this plot could easily have devolved into a movie-of-the-week story of prodigal child and late-life reconciliation. But Ms. Faludi is too honest to offer easy answers to the questions of identity that are woven throughout the 400-page story ... Ms. Faludi is searching for a lot of things in this work, it seems, and it’s not clear by the end of the book whether she’s found anything, much less whether she’s discovered what she needed to. In the Darkroom is an exhilarating and frustrating work, with an abrupt ending that leaves much unresolved. But it’s is a bold attempt to shed light on the nature of family, identity and other issues of human nature for which there are few easy answers.
...what makes this book utterly absorbing and emotionally compelling is its incisive examination of all the stories and histories in which Faludi locates her father ... Faludi is sensitive to the uncanny coincidences of the factual and the figurative, and she explores these intelligently ... the way Faludi represents this development is skillful and moving.