After decades of estrangement from her father, Susan Faludi received an email: he was now a woman. Could they rebuild their relationship?

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

To: Susan C. Faludi
Date: 7/7/2004
Subject: Changes.

It 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."

Attached was a series of snapshots. In the first, my 76-year-old father is standing in a hospital lobby in a sheer, sleeveless chemise and red skirt. The caption read: "I look 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, "Stefanie in Vienna garden." The email was signed, "Love from your parent, Stefanie."

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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 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 inclination this profound. I had none.

In September 2004, two months after receiving my father's 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 reporter's notebooks and a single-spaced 10-page list of questions. She had asked me to write her story.

I was setting out to investigate someone I scarcely knew. I was largely ignorant of the life my father had led since my parents' divorce in 1977, when he'd moved to a loft in Manhattan that doubled as his commercial photographer's studio, and subsequently repatriated to Hungary. Since then, I had seen 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, I reluctantly scanned the faces. Maybe she wouldn't be here. Maybe I could turn around and fly home. Salutations in two genders were gridlocked on my tongue. I wasn't sure I was ready to release him to a new identity; she hadn't explained the old one. I can manage a change in pronoun, I thought, 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 looked thicker than I remembered his, and lighter in colour, a henna-red. She was wearing a red cabled sweater, grey flannel skirt, white heels and a pair of pearl stud earrings.

"I was role-playing as a man, but I wasn't totally accepted by women as a capital-letter - 'M' - man. I didn't have the wherewithal. Now, as a woman, I'm not role-playing any more."

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"Waaall," my father said, her thick Hungarian accent stretching out the first syllable, as I came to a stop in front of her. We exchanged an awkward hug. Her breasts - 48C, she would later 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 judgement. As if there weren't plenty of "real" women walking around with silicone in their breasts. Since when had I become the essentialist?

She led the way to the carpark. I trailed behind, watching uncomfortably the people watching us. The dissonance between white heels and male-pattern baldness was drawing notice. Some double-chinned matrons gave my father the up-and-down. One stopped in her tracks and muttered something. I didn't understand the words, but I got the intent. When her gaze shifted to me, I glared back. F*** off, you old biddy, I thought.

Growing up, I learned very little about the paternal side of my family.

I knew he was born and raised Jewish in Budapest, and was a child of privilege. My grandparents lived off inherited wealth and went out every night to the theatre, concerts, galas at the opera. A series of nannies and servants raised their only child.

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

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

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 lights. I recognised it: the makeup table that used to sit in my father's 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 said I didn't know. And thought, petulantly: change your clothes all you want, you're still the same person.

"It's hot out - I'll 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. "We're all women here."

Faludi and her father cycling when she was a teenager. Photo / courtesy of Susan Faludi
Faludi and her father cycling when she was a teenager. Photo / courtesy of Susan Faludi

She pulled the top over her head and gestured toward 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 won't bite!"

"I love this place," my father declared. "It's aaauthentic Hungarian." She, my husband and I were waiting for a table at the Fish-Farm Inn, where my father liked to order the halaszle, a traditional spicy fish soup larded with enough paprika to burn out your brain on the first sip. My father 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: "Kezet csokolom" (I kiss your hand).

Did they find her womanly? As usual, she wasn't wearing a wig. Her white purse was slung like a sailor's duffel over her blue double-breasted captain's 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 csokolom me now."

"Why?"

"Because," she said, "I'm tough."

I decided to exercise some toughness of my own. I announced I was forgoing the fish soup. "It's made the correct way here," my father insisted, and proceeded to wear me down with a characteristic free-floating filibuster: "Halaszle should only be made with river fish. Or lake fish - Lake Balaton's the largest freshwater lake in ... "

I said I'd try the soup.

The waiter arrived with a cast-iron kettle and began ladling out its contents, starting with my father's bowl. "Ladies first!" my father quipped. She looked pleased with her own sophistry.

"Balaton," she said. "That's 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 grandfather hid in a doctor's apartment, while the doctor holidayed at Lake Balaton; they listened "very quietly" to the BBC.

"That's how we heard the Germans had taken away the Jews of Kassa," she said now. My grandfather's hometown. "My father 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 said finally, "he couldn't 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 parents." By then, I'd extracted the details of my father's 1944 rescue of his parents from an endangered "safe house". Wearing a fascist armband and carrying an unloaded rifle, he'd given the Arrow Cross guards the party salute and goose-stepped his parents out of the building.

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

For dessert, my father ordered gesztenyepure, 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 change in sex. "Because if you are convinced you are this other person, everybody else will be convinced."

"So what you're doing now," I asked, "is that playing another role, too?"

"I was role-playing as a man," she said, "but I wasn't totally accepted by women as a capital-letter - 'M' - man. I didn't have the wherewithal. Now, as a woman, I'm not role-playing any more."

"Because this is who you were all along?"

"Waaall, it's who I am now," she said. "Since the operation. I have developed another personality."

Susan Faludi's father as a toddler in Budapest. Photo / courtesy of Susan Faludi
Susan Faludi's father as a toddler in Budapest. Photo / courtesy of Susan Faludi

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

My father thought about it, holding her spoon before her like a hand mirror. "As a woman. Because I am a woman, with a birth certificate that says I'm 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 Stefanie Faludi! Oh my God!"

We filed out into the night air. The Danube lay before us, obsidian in darkness. My father tugged at my sleeve. "Getting away with it," she said. "Susaaan, don't forget that line. That's the key to it all. Because a lot of people got discovered that they were Jewish and they were shot."

The campervan careened down a dark and potholed boulevard along the river. We were lost, though my father wouldn't admit 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 lot were fewer than a dozen cars. My father seemed nervous, checking and rechecking her hair and makeup in the rearview mirror. A heavy rain drummed on the van's roof. We made a run for it.

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. American techno blasted from the speakers. The dancefloor was empty.

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

I checked my wristwatch. It was 10 o'clock.

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 Jackson's Thriller was drowning out every other word.

"ME, OF COURSE!" my father said. "I'M TELLING CHLOE ABOUT MY SURGERY."

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

"WHY ISN'T 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 purse 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 had tried to teach me how to waltz, and excoriated me for leading.

Faludi and her father in his car with Susan at the
Faludi and her father in his car with Susan at the "wheel". Photo / courtesy of Susan Faludi

She looked so alone out there. Everyone looked so alone. I got up off the couch. My father and I circled around each other for a few minutes.

Then I put out my hand and she took it. I couldn't teach her the female steps to a Viennese waltz, but I'd done my time in New York's Limelight. I knew what to do with Michael Jackson. I led her through a few moves and soon we were swinging each other around. It occurred to me that I hadn't danced like this in ages. It occurred 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 arm and she twirled underneath it like a pro.

• Stefanie 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, $35.