Interview: Jennette McCurdy on her memoir

Interview: Jennette McCurdy on her memoir

Interview Jennette McCurdy on her memoir

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 next to the hospital bed of her mother, who is in a coma and dying. McCurdy’s brothers share important news from their lives: one is moving, another is getting married. McCurdy, about to tell her mother something she really wants to hear, finally takes heart: “Mommy, I’m so skinny right now. I finally got down to 89 pounds.” This anecdote captures the essence of the book: darkly funny, tragic, and a little devastating.

The stirring memoir chronicles the physical and emotional abuse McCurdy endured at the hands of her mother, Debra, and the lengths she went to to please her. There’s nothing holding McCurdy back: Her mother teaches her about eating disorders so she can delay puberty and continue having child roles, does her breast and vaginal exams (ostensibly to screen her for cancer) well into her puberty, and explodes in tantrums with no notice. McCurdy did everything, including an acting career that she didn’t fulfill, to make her mother happy. It never worked.

McCurdy grew up working class in Orange County, California, and was raised Mormon along with her three older brothers. Desperate for money and blaming her children for failing her own dreams of stardom, her mother, desperate for money and blaming her children, forced McCurdy into acting when she was just 8 years old. After appearing in commercials and sporadic TV episodes, McCurdy soon supported her family full-time with her job.

In 2007, when she was 13, McCurdy landed a role on Nickelodeon’s teen sitcom iCarly opposite Miranda Cosgrove, and in 2013 she co-starred in Sam and Cat, the show’s spin-off. Those experiences came with her own trauma, and in her memoir, McCurdy alleges that she was abused on set — including how she says she was pressured into drinking alcohol while underage and that she was during a Wardrobe fitting was photographed in a bikini. In the book, McCurdy says Nickelodeon offered her $300,000 never to speak about her experience, which she declined. (A Nickelodeon press representative declined to comment.)

McCurdy’s initial anorexia developed into bulimia and she was later diagnosed with OCD and struggled with anxiety. When a doctor suggested she might have an eating disorder, the idea was dismissed by both her mother and McCurdy, who staunchly denied it. It became impossible for her to seek help while her mother was alive – she had that much control. That scrutiny extended beyond her death: “My first therapist had suggested that she was abusive and that caused me to leave that therapist,” McCurdy says via Zoom. “I couldn’t deal with the idea that my mother was abusive because it would mean redefining my whole life. The #1 story of my life was ‘Mom Knows Best.’”

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

Sitting at home in an oversized fleece and ponytail for our zoom, McCurdy seems to have distanced herself from her glamorous Hollywood persona and the chaos of her youth. Now that she has retired from acting, she wants to focus on writing and directing short films and building a career that suits her much better than acting ever has. 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 suck, but that’s less the case when it comes to moms.

Yes! With dads, anyone can flippantly say, “Oh forget him, you know how dads are!” There’s so little appreciation and so much fear of saying anything negative about moms. I don’t know when this started or why this is, but it’s so frustrating for me.

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

I think of my mother’s mortality. Aware of your death, most people put their affairs in order and have those uncomfortable conversations with the people they love that they have put off for so long. My mom thought she was going to die, and there were at least ten times the doctors said, “Hey, do what you have to do, it’ll happen.” That she’s going to have all these different experiences of her own mortality and not change? It’s shocking to me. Initially, I excused her because of a 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 responsibility.

My mom specifically told me how to get involved with eating disorders. As a survival instinct and coping mechanism growing up, I couldn’t face the fact that it was an eating disorder and I just lived under the illusion that this was Mom’s way of helping me and my career. In therapy and in hindsight it is disturbing to see this as such obvious abuse.

At first when I accepted the abuse I don’t think I had much sympathy for her but now oh boy. She was so fucked up. On the one hand I have some sympathy for her and on the other hand fuck her! how do i forgive this

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

The way I’m exploring things couldn’t have happened. It would have been impossible because my life would have been very similar to before her death.

I was afraid of her. Unfortunately, I don’t think I would have been brave enough to face her. I would still be in a career that I would be dissatisfied with, I certainly wouldn’t have any of the catharsis or healing that writing has brought me. I don’t think I would do therapy either.

I think it’s impossible to really engage with something while still living in it. There’s so much rejection.

I see this denial when I go back through my old journal entries where I can see how distorted and delusional the thinking was. The way I see it now is, oh man, I was trying to survive, but it’s also really sad for me that at this time in my life, those are my best survival tools. The things that felt the most comforting to me were so self-defeating and so dangerous. It’s something I’ve struggled with, but I can look back and have compassion for my past self. I wish I had made different choices, but I see I tried my best. For a long time the guilt complex was so intense.

Was that reinforced for you by religion?

The Mormon thing! Jesus Christ, no pun intended, if you want to feel guilty, you have an overbearing mother who tricks you into believing that everything is your fault and her life is your responsibility, and the Mormon faith on top of that. The guilt complex is something that I and all three of my brothers deal with a lot. We’re all able to process this instinct together, which is tremendously helpful.

If I had stayed in faith, that would have held me back, too. I would be married, have ten kids, and I would bounce them and go to church and do the potluck and I would think that’s what I should be doing.

You write about your OCD and the way it intersects with religion, and you do so in such a funny way, it’s like asking the voice in your head, “Are you the Holy Spirit or are you OCD?” Yours Perspective is so refreshing – as someone suffering from OCD it’s debilitating to experience, but it’s also so funny. Was that a conscious decision?

Sometimes people are more inclined to value something, when I have personal experience with it I want to explore it with a little more humor. Nothing is ever entirely precious or entirely heartbreaking. There’s always both shades for pretty much everything. You’ll have a hard time finding a topic worth exploring that doesn’t have some humor, some drama. It feels dishonest when it’s too much of one thing.

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

I feel the same way about eating disorders. I think they are viewed with so much reverence. It feels like they must be so heavy, but once I threw up in a toilet stall at Disneyland and a little girl gave me something to sign. This is funny to me.

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

I think about it a lot because I’m so obsessed with Disney. At night I watch Disney vloggers 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 backgrounds and maybe had a lot of responsibilities on their shoulders and felt like adults earlier than they should, so there’s a certain need to live their childhood.

I used to go to Disneyland a lot as a kid because my grandfather could sign us up for free and my mom was less unpredictable when we were there. She became a calmer version of herself, and it felt like she wasn’t as overly critical of me as she was everywhere else. It was that relief for me, an ointment. Back then, I never felt safe in my own home. Disneyland was my ultimate safe place and I think that’s why I 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 shortened for clarity.

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