Published last year, in 2016, In the Darkroom is Susan Faludi’s account of reconnecting with her father in 2004 after she (Susan’s father) had undergone “sex reassignment surgery” (what we now more correctly call gender confirmation surgery). Stefanie, formerly Steven, has been an elusive figure all of Faludi’s life, and the animus of the book is her (Faludi’s) effort to more fully understand her father, as parent and person. The book digs into Stefanie’s past, growing up Jewish in Nazi-era Hungary and surviving the Holocaust, drawing parallels between the politics of that period and the present day. At the same time, Faludi - who has made a career of writing about the politics of gender in America - reflects on her own reactions and assumptions about her father’s transition.
When Faludi first meets her father at the airport in Budapest, “she (Stefanie) was wearing a red cabled sweater, gray flannel skirt, white heels, and a pair of pearl stud earrings. She had taken her white pocketbook off her shoulder and hung it from a hook on the cart. My first thought, and it shames, was: no woman would do that.” The book offers many episodes in this same vein, moments where Faludi recognizes her own - or others’, including her father - entrenched ideas about what it means to be a woman and how women behave. At one point, she asks (and at the same time admonishes) herself: “Since when had I become an essentialist?”
From a clinical perspective, Faludi’s book highlights how quickly our minds move to mobilize assumptions we carry about things like gender, even in those who have spent a lifetime unpacking, challenging, and rejecting these very assumptions - and when such assumptions escape, either into conscious thought or into spoken word, how often they inspire feelings of shame. With respect to the former, the point is not to rid ourselves entirely of these assumptions, for as it stands, there is no effective way to excise or erase certain aspects of our unconscious with the precision such an operation would require. Instead, the clinical work is to focus on slowing down, to acknowledge that these assumptions exist within us, but that they do not control or encompass us.
With respect to the latter, it is important to appreciate how the potential for shame can add pressure and anxiety to how we navigate situations where sensitivity is required (in some cases, leading to a full-fledged rejection of this need for sensitivity). While we make every effort to understand and respect others in the ways they want, the expectation cannot be that we will never err. Instead, we must feel comfortable (or perhaps more precisely, able to tolerate our discomfort) when this happens owning and learning from our mistake.
At the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Collective, we work hard to do both of these things - to slow down and catch our assumptions and to take ownership when we err - both with ourselves and with our clients.