KSU employee conjures own teen strife in Unraveling

Ben Wolford


Credit: DKS Editors

All happy families are the same – but unhappy families, like Amanda Himmelfarb’s, are unhappy in their own way.

The star of Michelle Baldini and Lynn Biederman’s first co-authored book, Unraveling (Delacorte Press), has the distinct misfortune of having to put up with “The Captain,” her nagging mother.

Baldini, project coordinator in the school of Library and Information Science, poured some of her own teenage difficulties into the semi-autobiographical character.

“I never got over some of the things that happened as a teenager,” she said. “I did not have a good relationship with my mother at all.”

Stir in an annoying sister, fighting parents, an embarrassing nickname (the predictable variation of Himmelfarb) and boy problems, and you’ve got a tasty post-pubescent girl drama.

But this isn’t your mother’s young adult fiction.

Laura Ingalls Wilder would gasp at the mention of fluids (kinds particular to males and females), descriptions of sex and curse words, not to mention text message transcripts (“nite was nothin to b thankful 4.”)

A mother of two college-aged girls, Baldini has had hands-on experience with the modern breed of teen angst. And that experience has manifested itself in one of the driving themes of Unraveling: the pressure girls face.

“One of my favorite scenes in the book is after Amanda makes ‘The Deal,’ and that’s her virginity in exchange for a date to Homecoming,” Baldini said. “She’s walking out of the dance and her dress is wrinkled, and she’s trying to smooth it out and make it neat again.”

The date is high school stud Rick Hayes. And her dress is wrinkled because – well, you know why.

But the peer pressure idea is eclipsed by a deeper issue: Amanda’s relationship with her mother.

Baldini was in graduate school when she met Biederman in a young adult literature class.

“We were discussing mother-daughter relationships, and Lynn and I had a lot to say regarding that subject,” Baldini said. “I approached her after class and said: ‘I like the way you talk. Want to write a book with me?'”

Biederman, who lives in Bedford, N. Y., had childhood strife of her own. She was quoted in a New York Times story about her, “If the Time is Right, Oil and Water Can Mix,” as saying, “Had we not been mother and daughter, our paths would never cross.”

So creating the Amanda/”Captain” situation was a natural process, Baldini said.

“We talked for a couple hours about our experiences as daughters and then also experiences that we were having as mothers of teenage daughters,” she said. “And this character of Amanda just started to grow.”

Amanda’s grandmother was an alcoholic, and “The Captain” learned her parenting skills from her. Consequently, Amanda is mercilessly criticized at every corner.

“Writing ‘Unraveling’ helped me,” Baldini said. “It was a journey for me as a mother myself now. Even though I had resolved some things with my mother, I was still making mistakes that she had made.”

Baldini proves in the book that the vicious mother-to-daughter cycle can be stopped, or at least abated.

She offers no solution, however, to nicknames like “Himmelfart.”

Contact principal reporter Ben Wolford at [email protected].