How Jennette McCurdy Survived Child Stardom — and Her Mother

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Brian Kimskey

In the opening scene of Jennette McCurdy’s debut memoir, I’m Glad My Mom Died, McCurdy stands by her mother’s hospital bed as she lies dying in a coma. McCurdy’s brothers share key news from their lives: One is moving, another is getting married. McCurdy, wanting to say something her mother really wants to hear, finally musters up the courage: “Mommy, I am so skinny right now. I’m finally down to 89 pounds.” This anecdote captures the essence of the book: darkly funny, tragic, and a little devastating.

The blistering memoir recounts the physical and emotional abuse McCurdy endured at the hands of her mother, Debra, and the lengths she went to in order to please her. There is nothing McCurdy holds back: her mother teaching her disordered eating so she could delay puberty and continue getting child roles, giving her breast and vaginal exams (ostensibly to check for cancer) until well into her adolescence, and exploding into fits of rage with no notice. McCurdy did everything, including pursuing an acting career that did not fulfill her, to make her mother happy. It never worked.

McCurdy grew up working class in Orange County, California, and was raised Mormon alongside her three older brothers. Her mother, who was desperate for money and blamed her children for causing her to lose out on her own dreams of stardom, forced McCurdy into acting when she was just 8 years old. After appearing in commercials and sporadic TV episodes, McCurdy was soon supporting her family full time with her work.

In 2007, when she was 13, McCurdy landed a role on Nickelodeon’s teen sitcom iCarly alongside Miranda Cosgrove, and she went on to star in the show’s spinoff, Sam and Cat, in 2013. Those experiences came with their own trauma, and in her memoir, McCurdy alleges mistreatment on set — including, she says, being pressured to drink alcohol while underage and being photographed in a bikini during a wardrobe fitting. In the book, McCurdy says Nickelodeon offered her $300,000 to never speak about her experiences, which she turned down. (A press representative for Nickelodeon declined to comment.)

McCurdy’s initial anorexia developed into bulimia, and she was later diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and struggled with anxiety. When a doctor suggested that she might have an eating disorder, the idea was rejected by both her mother and McCurdy, who was deeply in denial. It became impossible for her to seek help while her mother was alive — such was the control that she held. This control extended past her death: “My first therapist had suggested that she was abusive, and that led me to leave that therapist,” McCurdy says over Zoom. “I couldn’t handle the idea that my mother was abusive because that would mean reframing my entire life. The No. 1 narrative of my life was ‘Mommy knows best.’”

It wasn’t until her mother died of breast cancer in 2013, when McCurdy was 21, that she could begin to heal and see her parent’s treatment for what it was. McCurdy entered therapy, quit acting, and began to forge her path: “Once I started rebuilding my own identity was when I made some of the bigger life decisions, like quitting acting,” she says. She directed a handful of short films that were her first attempts at making sense of her upbringing, and in early 2020, she put on a one-woman musical in Los Angeles and New York that was a sort of first draft of her memoir. When the pandemic prevented further performances of the show, she began writing the book in earnest.

Sitting at home for our Zoom in an oversize fleece and ponytail, McCurdy seems to have put a distance between both her glamorous Hollywood persona and the chaos of her adolescence. Now retired from acting, she wants to focus on writing and directing short films, creating a career that fits her much better than acting ever did. She seems, as she puts it, to have built her own identity.

The title of your book is so good. Most people can accept that a lot of dads are shitty, but that’s less the case when it comes to moms.

Yes! With dads, everybody can flippantly say, “Ugh, never mind him, you know how dads are!” There’s so little acknowledgement and so much fear around saying anything negative about moms. I don’t know when that started or why that is, but it’s so frustrating to me.

Do you feel like your mom missed her chances to get it right?

I think about it in terms of my mom’s mortality. If you’re aware of your death, I think most people get their affairs in order and have those uncomfortable conversations with the people they love that they’ve been putting off for so long. My mom thought she was gonna die, and there were at least ten separate times where the doctors said, “Hey, do what you need to do, it’s happening.” For her to have all those different experiences of her own mortality and to not change? It’s shocking to me. Initially I excused her because of mental illness. But there are so many people who struggle with their mental health and still take it upon themselves to work on it and take accountability.

My mom explicitly told me how to engage in disordered eating. As a survival instinct and a coping mechanism growing up, I couldn’t face that it was an eating disorder, and I just lived in the delusion that this was Mom’s way of helping me and helping my career. In therapy and in retrospect, recognizing that as such obvious abuse, it’s unsettling.

Initially, when I accepted the abuse, I don’t think I had much compassion for her, but now, oh man. She was so fucked up. On the one hand, I have some sympathy for her, and on the other, fuck her! How do I forgive that?

I don’t think you have to. Could you have ever written this book if your mom hadn’t died? 

The way that I’m exploring things couldn’t have happened. It would have been impossible because my life would be very similar to where it was before she died.

I was terrified of her. I don’t think I would have been brave enough to stand up to her, unfortunately. I would still be in a career I’d be dissatisfied with, I certainly wouldn’t have any of the catharsis or healing that writing has provided me. I don’t think I’d be in therapy at all either.

I think it’s impossible to really deal with something while you’re still living in it. There is so much denial.

I see that denial when I revisit my old diary entries, where I can see how warped and delusional the thinking was. I see it now as like, Oh man, I was trying to survive, but also it’s really sad to me that those are my best tools for survival at that time in my life. The things that felt the most comforting to me were so self-destructive and so dangerous. It’s something I struggled with, but I’m able to look back and have compassion for my past self. I wish I had made different choices, but I see that I was trying my best. For a long time the guilt complex was so intense.

Was that compounded by religion for you?

The Mormon thing! Jesus Christ, no pun intended, if you want to feel guilty, have an overbearing mother who conditions you to believe everything is your fault and her life is your responsibility, and the Mormon faith on top of it. The guilt complex is something me and all three of my brothers very deeply relate to. We are all able to work through that instinct with one another, which is tremendously helpful.

If I had stayed in the faith, that’s another thing that would have held me back. I would be married with ten kids, and I’d be bouncing them and going to church and making the potluck and I’d think it was what I was supposed to do.

You write about your OCD and the way it intersects with religion, and you do so in such a funny way, like when you ask the voice in your head: “Are you the Holy Ghost, or are you OCD?” Your perspective is so refreshing — as someone who has OCD, it’s debilitating to experience, but it’s also so funny. Was that a deliberate choice?

Sometimes the more inclined people are to be precious about something, if I have any personal experience in that something, I want to explore it with a little more humor. Nothing is ever entirely precious or entirely gut-busting. There are always both shades to just about anything. You’d be hard-pressed to find any subject worth exploring that doesn’t have some humor, some drama. It feels dishonest if it’s too much of one thing.

Especially when you’ve experienced it. It’s liberating to laugh at yourself.

I feel that way with eating disorders, too. I think they’re viewed with so much reverence. It feels like there’s this need to be so heavy with them, but there was one time I was throwing up in a bathroom stall in Disneyland and a little girl handed me a thing to sign. That’s funny to me.

You write about often visiting Disneyland with your grandfather, who worked there. Was it a safe place for you?

I think about this a lot because of how deep my obsession is with Disney. I watch Disney vloggers at nighttime, and my friends all lovingly make fun of me. I have a loose theory that I think people who are intensely obsessed with Disneyland come from rougher upbringings and maybe had a lot of responsibility on their shoulders and felt like adults earlier than they should have so there’s some need to live out their childhood.

I went to Disneyland a lot as a child because my grandfather could sign us in for free, and when we were there my mom was less erratic. She became a calmer version of herself, and it felt like she was less on me in the hypercritical way she was everywhere else. It was this relief for me, a salve. Back then, I never felt safe in my own home. Disneyland was my ultimate safe place, and I think it’s why I still love it so much to this day. I went to Disney World for my 30th birthday. Even though it’s fake, I feel safe.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How Jennette McCurdy Survived Child Stardom — and Her Mother