(Metropolitan )

Hanna Rosin is a co-host of NPR’s “Invisibilia” and the author of “The End of Men.”

When I meet a feminist, I sometimes wonder what her father was like. If she mistrusts men, then maybe the one who raised her was shifty in some way. If she is a girl-power type, then maybe he was warm and supportive. It’s a crude parlor game and one that Susan Faludi’s new book, “In the Darkroom,” allows you to indulge.

The man in the darkroom is Steven Faludi, a photography editor and a black box to his daughter for most of her life. Susan, a feminist writer, famously wrote a book, “Backlash,” about the dirty tricks society continually plays on women just when they’re advancing. In her new book, we learn that her father was the “household despot” who never listened to a word she or her mother said. When her mother finally asked him to leave, Steven broke back into their house, beat her mother’s new boyfriend up with a baseball bat and then convinced a judge that he was the “wronged” husband.

For this and other reasons Faludi had not spoken to him in years when, one day in 2004, he wrote her an email (subject line: “Changes”) declaring some “interesting news.” At 76, he’d undergone sexual-reassignment surgery in Thailand, he wrote, and now he was Stefanie. Could she come visit him in Hungary? Faludi had had no inkling he’d ever leaned that way; in fact, he’d always been fixed in her memory as the “imperious patriarch” of her childhood. Just like that, he was a she, and the driving animus of her life and her career shifted.

Many great writers eventually turn to biography, but rarely does it so directly crash into their lifelong intellectual pursuits. In her new book Faludi does what any estranged child will recognize as heroic: She visits her father and masters her irritation long enough to get to the heart of things. And she uses the opportunity to explore what’s increasingly the central preoccupation of the left: identity. Was your “real self” something you could choose? And could you just shed the bits that didn’t suit you? Or was some deeper part of your identity made up of the stuff you “can’t escape”?

Susan Faludi (Sigrid Estrada 2016)

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. From the first day, Faludi has no problem calling her transformed parent “she,” but warmth doesn’t immediately follow. Stefanie is infuriatingly stubborn, inscrutable and an unreliable narrator of her own life. Despite Faludi’s reportorial doggedness, Stefanie continues to tell self-serving half-truths about everything — her childhood, her best friend, her experience as a Jew during the Nazi invasion of Hungary, her country’s history. It was a game of cat and mouse, Faludi writes, but the mouse was always winning.

When she is around Stefanie, one tenet of Faludi’s feminism (respect for free gender expression) chafes against another (disgust with feminine stereotypes). As part of her coming-out story, Stefanie tells a Hungarian magazine that she is a typical woman who loves gossip. She walks around the house in a negligee and pantyhose or leaves her robe coquettishly open and tries to corner Faludi into girlfriend-y chatter about clothes. Faludi remains suspicious. As she grudgingly comments on Stefanie’s new sundress, Faludi is thinking: “Change your clothes all you want, you’re still the same person.” In fact, Faludi begins to suspect that the operation was just the latest form of dodging, that becoming a woman had only added “another false front to hide behind.”

These days a story like Caitlyn Jenner’s is the preferred public one about a gender transition. The narrative arc ends with her looking gorgeous in a white bustier on the cover of Vanity Fair, just as fairy tales end at the wedding. Faludi pushes back against that inspirational story in a way that touches on the subversive. The sex-orientation scale published in 1966 by endocrinologist Harry Benjamin still guides who is and isn’t eligible for sexual-reassignment surgery. The scale, Faludi writes, favors people who will be able to pass as “normal” according to postwar ideas of traditional femininity. It doesn’t encourage ambiguity or comfort with a gender-identity continuum.

Faludi tracks down a man named Mel, who helped people at the hospital in Thailand where Stefanie had her operation. Mel talks to her about a taboo subject — regret — and says that of the hundreds of transsexuals he knew who had the operation, he believes only 10 really should have done it.

In Stefanie’s case, 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. After all, can’t an old man a continent away hold on to his illusions? But perhaps Faludi has earned the right. After all, fully embracing Stefanie’s transformation would mean purging Faludi’s memories of her father’s violence and the way it scarred her for life. Now she will get to meet the “real Steven,” one of her friends suggests. But the most vivid Steven/Stefanie to Faludi will always be the one who embodied the worst extremes of hyper-aggressive male behavior, who showed up at her childhood home with a baseball bat and sent another man to the hospital.

Eventually, Faludi’s probing pays off. She gets Stefanie to stop giving her tours of the new china cabinets and open the thing Faludi actually wants to see — a locked box in the basement containing all the old family photographs and documents. Faludi softens and begins to see a person whose parents abandoned her during the turmoil of the war years, whose mother beat her when she caught her dressing up in a corset and punished her by locking her in a dark room.

She begins to understand Stefanie as a person who had long suffered from the “anxiety of non-belonging,” as a young Jew in Nazi-occupied Hungary, as a gender-confused father trapped in postwar suburban America with its inflexible rules about what a man should be. Stefanie becomes not the embodiment of the enemy from “Backlash” but a character from my favorite of Faludi’s books, 1999’s “Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man.”

I 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.

In the darkrooom

By Susan Faludi

Metropolitan. 417 pp. $32