The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Susan Faludi
On The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Susan
Lisa Owen: In 2004 Susan Faludi received an email from her estranged father, simply titled ‘Changes’. It detailed her father’s gender reassignment surgery and set her on a path of writing her latest book, ‘In the Dark Room’. Susan Faludi is in Auckland for the Writers’ Festival and she joins me in the studio.
Your father changed her identity more than once. Once was to hide his Jewishness, and since then, he’s changed gender, and also his American-ness sort of got pushed aside at one point as well. So why did he struggle, do you think, with so many aspects of identity?
Susan Faludi: Well, that’s one of the many mysteries of my father, and I think from a very early age, my father felt that she didn’t belong, and she kept going to—first, I think, most fundamentally, in Hungary, my father was born into very wealthy Jewish parents in Budapest – the only child, and lived a life of some privilege until World War II, when all that was swept away. And my father survived by living on the streets, basically an urchin, passing as a Christian with a set of false identity papers and a stolen fascist armband.
Yeah, so sometimes dressing as the enemy, in essence.
Yeah. And actually, my father—This story that I heard as a child, I thought, ‘This can’t be true.’ And I was able, working on the book, to track it down and actually talk to the relatives who witnessed it. So when my father was a teenager during the war, he went into a protected house where my grandparents were being held. And he’d heard that they were about to be taken out and shot into the Danube, which was the fate for thousands of Budapest Jews in the winter of 1944. And so my father went in, pretending to be a Nazi Arrow Cross officer, with the fake armband and a rifle that had no bullets, and marched my grandparents out and saved them. So from a very early age, passing as someone else was crucial to my father’s survival.
Absolutely. And when your father went overseas and he had gender reassignment surgery, you then see her again in Hungary – you go to visit. Where did her ideas at that point come from in terms of what a woman should be like?
Yes. Well, I was… a real-life test of my feminism, reuniting with my father. I should—To back up a little, my father and I had been estranged for more than a quarter century, and that was because when I was growing up, my father was a very, you know, patriarchal, dictatorial, domineering father and husband to my mother, and ultimately physically violent. And ultimately, the police had to be called…
He stabbed someone?
Yes. So when my father contacted me in 2004 to announce that at the age of 76, she had flown to Thailand to have gender reassignment surgery, I had a certain image of my father that I had carried on for 27 years as the macho, aggressive parent. And so I show up in Hungary – my father had moved back to Hungary in 1990 – and on that first visit, it was all about showing off her Doris Day-Marilyn Monroe wardrobe and looking at make-up and looking at selfies and lots of lectures on the joys of being a woman – women get taken care of; it’s great; you just act helpless—
That must have been super challenging to you.
Well, we had a lot of arguments over that. That was certainly not my experience of being a woman. And it wasn’t my father’s experience either. This was kind of a consumerised, out-of-the-box notion that she’d picked up. And I think a lot of it was a holdover from the 1950s and also from her childhood. My grandmother was quite the diva who embodied a certain kind of coddled femininity that I think my father craved.
By the time you get to the end of the book, and it’s in the very last pages, I think, you say, ‘In the universe, there’s only one true divide – one real binary – life and death. So a lot of people accept that gender is on a spectrum. What about race?
What about race?
Yeah, what do you think about that? Because, life and death, you said, are the two only truly binary things.
Well, what I meant by that is everything else is fungible; everything else is malleable and mutable. And I saw that in my father. I mean, my father, although she started with this kind of va-va-voom image of being a woman, she become more comfortable with herself. She put that down. She moved away from the caricature persona, she became more herself, which ultimately affirmed my strongest feminist belief, is that gender is infinitely varied and fluid, and we’re all much more complicated and much more interesting than the sex roles that society imposes on us, and all the other categories, which includes race and religion, and all of which my father went through. My father was kind of an identity zealot in that regard.
In the early ‘90s, you wrote about the backlash against feminist gains, and I’m just wondering, do you think things are better now, or worse since then?
Since November 8th, I would say that we’ve pretty much dropped into the toilet.
Well, we have a president whose first action was- one of his first actions was reinstituting and making even worse the global gag rule against healthcare organisations – even speaking of abortion. He’s somebody who’s equated equal pay with socialism; he’s hell-bent on defunding Planned Parenthood, putting justices on the court who will ban abortion. This is not a good time for women.
Why do you think Americans chose a male president who trash-talks women, and he does, over a female candidate?
Well, now, first of all, the majority of voters actually voted for Hilary Clinton.
Yes, it’s the way the electoral college works.
Yeah, with electoral college, gerrymandering – it came down to a few swing states. But, that aside, we do have to face the fact that, in particular, certainly a majority of white men, voted for Trump, and a majority of white women did. And something that—One of the key factors in looking at the divide of voters is non-college educated vs college educated. There was a huge divide, bigger than since 1980. This divide did not show up in the two Obama elections, which might suggest, and clearly we need more research done on this, that there’s a gender dimension to this. There’s something about Hilary Clinton in the way that she was presented during the campaign, not who she is really, that I think—
But the image – the public identity of her.
Right, which the Republic right was very good at casting her in, which is that she is this, you know, ‘elitist’ who cannot understand or cannot appreciate the interests of working-class people and working-class women, in particular. And this fantasy that this sugar daddy was going to come along and protect them. And, in the end, in the US we have a real problem with imagining a woman having power without seeing that woman as either ‘controlling mom’ or ‘wicked witch’.
I can relate to that. All right, it’s very nice to talk to you. We could keep talking, but we’re out of time.
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