Authors: Susan Faludi
Henry Holt and CompanyÂ Â Â New York
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For the GrÃ¼nbergers of SpiÅ¡skÃ© Podhradie and the Friedmans of KoÅ¡ice, and their children and their children's children, the family I found, and who found me
He thought about how he had been despised and scorned, and he heard everybody saying now that he was the most beautiful of all the beautiful birds. And the lilacs bowed their branches toward him, right down into the water. The sun shone so warm and so bright. Then he ruffled his feathers, raised his slender neck, and rejoiced from the depths of his heart. “I never dreamed of such happiness when I was an ugly duckling!”
Hans Christian Andersen, “The Ugly Duckling”
The identifying of ourselves with the visual image of ourselves has become an instinct; the habit is already old. The picture of me, the me that is
D. H. Lawrence, “Art and Morality”
there was a strange deception:
a wolf dressed in frills,
a kind of transvestite.
But I get ahead of my story.
Anne Sexton, “Red Riding Hood”
In the summer of 2004 I set out to investigate someone I scarcely knew, my father. The project began with a grievance, the grievance of a daughter whose parent had absconded from her life. I was in pursuit of a scofflaw, an artful dodger who had skipped out on so many thingsâobligation, affection, culpability, contrition. I was preparing an indictment, amassing discovery for a trial. But somewhere along the line, the prosecutor became a witness.
What I was witness to would remain elusive. In the course of a lifetime, my father had pulled off so many reinventions, laid claim to so many identities. “I'm a Hungaaaarian,” my father boasted, in the accent that survived all the shape shifts. “I know how to faaaake things.” If only it were that simple.
“Write my story,” my father asked me in 2004âor rather, dared me. The intent of the invitation was murky. “It could be like Hans Christian Andersen,” my father said to me once, later, of our biographical undertaking. “When Andersen wrote a fairy tale, everything he put in it was real, but he surrounded it with fantasy.” Not my style. Nevertheless, I took up the dare with a vengeance, and with my own purposes in mind.
Despite the overture, my father remained a refractory subject. Most of the time our collaboration resembled a game of cat and mouse, a game the mouse generally won. My father, like that other Hungarian, Houdini, was a master of the breakout. For my part, I kept up the chase. I had cast myself as a posse of one, tracking my father's many selves to their secret recesses. I was intent on writing a book
my father. It wasn't until the summer of 2015, after I'd worked my way through many drafts and submitted the manuscript, and after my father had died, that I realized how much I'd also been writing it
my father, who, in my mind at least, had become my primary, imagined, and intended readerâwith all the generosity and hostility that implies. It wasn't an uncomplicated gift.
“There are things in here that will be hard for you to take,” I warned in the fall of 2014, when I called to announce that I had a completed draft. I braced myself for the response. My father, who had made a career in commercial photography out of altering images and devoted a lifetime to self-alteration, would hate, I assumed, being depicted warts and all.
“Waaall,” I heard after a silence. “I'm glad. You know more about my life than I do.” For once my father seemed pleased to be captured, if only on the page.
One afternoon I was working in my study at home in Portland, Oregon, boxing up notes from a previous writing endeavor, a book about masculinity. On the wall in front of me hung a framed black-and-white photograph I'd recently purchased, of an ex-GI named Malcolm Hartwell. The photo had been part of an exhibit on the theme “What Is It to Be a Man?” The subjects were invited to compose visual answers and write an accompanying statement. Hartwell, a burly man in construction boots and sweat pants, had stretched out in front of his Dodge Aspen in a cheesecake pose, a gloved hand on a bulky hip, his legs crossed, one ankle over the other. His handwritten caption, appended with charming misspellings intact, read, “Men can't get in touch with there feminity.” I took a break from the boxes to check my e-mail, and found a new message:
To: SusanÂ C. Faludi
The e-mail was from my father.
“Dear Susan,” it began, “I've got some interesting news for you. I have decided that I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man that I have never been inside.”
The announcement wasn't entirely a surprise; I wasn't the only person my father had contacted with news of a rebirth. Another family member, who hadn't seen my father in years, had recently gotten a call filled with ramblings about a hospital stay, a visit to Thailand. The call was preceded by an out-of-the-blue e-mail with an attachment, a photograph of my father framed in the fork of a tree, wearing a pale blue short-sleeved shirt that looked more like a blouse. It had a discreet flounce at the neckline. The photo was captioned “StefÃ¡nie.” My father's follow-up phone message was succinct: “StefÃ¡nie is real now.”
The e-mail notifying me was similarly terse. One thing hadn't changed: my photographer father still preferred the image to the written word. Attached to the message was a series of snapshots.
In the first, my father is standing in a hospital lobby in a sheer sleeveless blouse and red skirt, beside (as her annotation put it) “the other post-op girls,” two patients who were also making what she called “The Change.” A uniformed Thai nurse holds my father's elbow. The caption read, “I look tired after the surgery.” The other shots were taken before the “op.” In one, my father is perched amid a copse of trees, modeling a henna wig with bangs and that same pale blue blouse with the ruffled neckline. The caption read, “StefÃ¡nie in Vienna garden.” It is the garden of the imperial villa of an Austro-Hungarian empress. My father was long a fan of Mitteleuropean royals, in particular Empress Elisabethâor “Sisi”âEmperor Franz Josef's wife, who was known as the “guardian angel of Hungary.” In a third image, my father wears a platinum blond wigâshoulder length with a '50s flipâa white ruffled blouse, another red skirt with a pattern of white lilies, and white heeled sandals that display polished toenails. In the final shot, titled “On hike in Austria,” my father stands before her VW camper in mountaineering boots, denim skirt, and a pageboy wig, a polka-dotted scarf knotted at the neck. The pose: a hand on a jutted hip, panty-hosed legs crossed, one ankle over the other. I looked up at the photo on my wall. “
Men can't get in touch with there feminity.
The e-mail was signed, “Love from your parent, StefÃ¡nie.” It was the first communication I'd received from my “parent” in years.
My father and I had barely spoken in a quarter century. As a child I had resented and, later, feared him, and when I was a teenager he had left the familyâor rather been forced to leave, by my mother and by the police, after a season of escalating violence. Despite our long alienation, I thought I understood enough of my father's character to have had some inkling of an inclination this profound. I had none.
As a child, when we had lived together in a “Colonial” tract house in the suburban town of Yorktown Heights, an hour's drive north of Manhattan, I'd always known my father to assert the male prerogative. He had seemed investedâinsistently, inflexibly, and, in the last year of our family life, bloodilyâin being the household despot. We ate what he wanted to eat, traveled where he wanted to go, wore what he wanted us to wear. Domestic decisions, large and small, had first to meet his approval. One evening, when my mother proposed taking a part-time job at the local newspaper, he'd made his phallocratic views especially clear: he'd swept the dinner dishes to the floor. “No!” he shouted, slamming his fists on the table. “No job!” For as far back as I could remember, he had presided as imperious patriarch, overbearing and autocratic, even as he remained a cipher, cryptic to everyone around him.
I also knew him as the rugged outdoorsman, despite his slender build: mountaineer, rock climber, ice climber, sailor, horseback rider, long-distance cyclist. With the costumes to match: Alpenstock, Bavarian hiking knickers, Alpine balaclava, climber's harness, yachter's cap, English riding chaps. In so many of these pursuits, I was his accompanist, an increasingly begrudging one as I approached adolescenceâsecond mate to his captain on the Klepper sailboat he built from a kit, belaying partner on his weekend assays of the Shawangunk cliffs, second cyclist on his cross-the-Alps biking tours, tent-pitching assistant on his Adirondack bivouacs.
All of which required vast numbers of hours of training, traveling, sharing close quarters. Yet my memory of these ventures is nearly a blank. What did we talk about on the long winter evenings, once the tent was raised, the firewood collected, the tinned provisions pried open with the Swiss Army knife my father always carried in his pocket? Was I suppressing all those father-daughter tÃªte-Ã -tÃªtes, or did they just not happen? Year after year, from Lake Mohonk to Lake Lugano, from the Appalachians to Zermatt, we tacked and backpacked, rappelled and pedaled. Yet in all that time I can't say he ever showed himself to me. He seemed to be permanently undercover, behind a wall of his own construction, watching from behind that one-way mirror in his head. It was not, at least to a teenager craving privacy, a friendly surveillance. I sometimes regarded him as a spy, intent on blending into our domestic circle, prepared to do whatever it took to evade detection. For all of his aggressive domination, he remained somehow invisible. “It's like he never lived here,” my mother said to me on the day after the night he left our house for good, twenty years into their marriage.
When I was fourteen, two years before my parents' separation, I joined the junior varsity track team. Girls' sports in 1973 was a faintly ridiculous notion, and the high school track coach, who was first and foremost the coach of the boys' team, mostly ignored his distaff charges. I designed my own training regimen, leaving the house before dawn and loping the side streets to Mohansic State Park, a manicured recreation area that used to be the grounds for a state insane asylum, where I ran a long circuit around the landscaped terrain, alone. By then, I had developed a preference for solo sports.
Early one August morning I was lacing my sneakers in the front hall when I sensed a subtle atmospheric change, like the drop in barometric pressure as a cold front approaches or the prodromal thrumming before a migraine, which signaled to my aggrieved adolescent mind the arrival of my father. I reluctantly turned and made out his pale, thin frame emerging from the gloom at the bend of the stairs. He was wearing jogging shorts and tennis sneakers.