“Life is constantly highs and lows happening at once, often in the same room,” the former iCarly star tells Mic of her debut memoir. “It’s never just all sad or all funny.”
This article discusses sensitive topics such as child abuse and eating disorders.
Jennette McCurdy was an omnipresent figure in my childhood. At school, my classmates and I perused iCarly.com and laughed about her best skits. At home, my TV played her show and its merch decorated my bedroom. Even when I traveled thousands of miles away to my cousin’s apartment in Colombia, McCurdy was there, speaking Spanish and moving her lips a little too slowly to match the dialogue. What I didn't know at the time was she couldn't escape herself, either.
I was eight years old when McCurdy started playing Sam Puckett on iCarly, a Nickelodeon sitcom about three teens with a popular web show that long predated (and, perhaps, predicted) today’s influencer culture. Puckett was unafraid to speak her mind, fiercely protective of her friends, and always kept handy a butter-stuffed sock to defend herself should the need arise. I loved her, and seemingly everyone else did too – the role catapulted McCurdy into international fame at the age of 14.
“People ask me sometimes, ‘Do you remember this? Do you remember that?’ And I'm like, ‘I don't remember any of it,’ in terms of just the content of the show,” McCurdy told me over Zoom. “I was so focused on just showing up and doing my job. That was really it for me.”
McCurdy’s impeccable comic timing and no-nonsense delivery of quips enthralled me and my fellow Gen Zers. But unbeknownst to us, she was suffering under the studio lights.
“Child stardom is a trap,” McCurdy declares in her debut book, I’m Glad My Mom Died. The coming-of-age memoir recounts her nonconsensual journey of becoming a child actor, and the eating disorders and alcohol dependency that followed. Through hilariously harrowing prose, McCurdy reveals her mother forced her to start acting at age six, introduced her to calorie restriction with weekly weigh-ins once she hit puberty, and gave her genital and breast exams until she was 17. Their identities were intertwined to the point where McCurdy’s mother, who died of breast cancer in 2013, even dictated her favorite color.
The book contains an overarching biblical allusion (she grew up a “second-rate Mormon”) to a man dubbed “The Creator.” Fans believe this is a moniker for Dan Schneider, who created iCarly and several other popular Nickelodeon shows for more than two decades. The network cut ties with Schneider in 2018, allegedly after years of complaints about his verbal abuse on-set. McCurdy writes in the book how “The Creator” yelled at her to “move [her] head” more during a kissing scene – her first one in real life and on-camera – at 14. Later in the book, she claims he pressured her to drink at 18. McCurdy also reveals that “The Creator” is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the type of person who wears sunglasses indoors.
I’m Glad My Mom Died is an essential read, whether you grew up watching Nickelodeon or not. McCurdy writes with a masterful ability to make you cry at the start of a sentence but have you cackling by the end of it. She spoke to Mic about her inspiration behind the cover, walking the dark humor tightrope, and what she’s gained from years of therapy.
Mic: Why did you decide to write this book? What did you hope to accomplish?
McCurdy: I had explored everything in the book personally in therapy for six or seven years and done a lot of that really intense, soul-excavating inner-work. And then it got to the point where […] I was ready to explore it creatively and in a public-facing way. My goal at that point was to not just explore my life, but to write a good book. And I think that's what I've done with it.
What was the hardest part of the writing process?
I did probably a dozen drafts on the book and there's a lot of crafting that goes into it and a lot of editing and revising and tweaking to make sure that the content of the book is not just content, but that it's quality.
What a pretentious answer, but it's truthful to me. [Laughs] But the craftsmanship was, I think, the most challenging and rewarding thing.
How did you strike a balance between the comedic and more serious elements? Were there times you had to cut back on the dark humor? Like an editor telling you, “Okay, Jennette, this is too much.”
No, I'm so glad you asked this. My editor, Sean Manning, I will sing his praises whenever I get a chance to, because he was so instrumental in the tone and the voice of the book. I expected to get a lot of pushback on just my voice, which is that I try to ignite the more tragic life events that I've experienced with humor and levity. I think that's really important. And I think it's also more truthful. I think life is constantly highs and lows happening at once, often in the same room, it's never just all sad or all funny.
I've noticed, and I don't know if you have, too, that there's a lot of dark humor in this moment in pop culture. What are your thoughts on that?
I agree that dark humor is very much a part of the zeitgeist and very trendy these days. And I appreciate aspects of it. Although I think with dark humor, it's easy to veer into flippant territory, which that's just not my sensibility. I think that totally works for some people and I respect that that's their sense of humor, but it's not mine.
I think there's a way of finding humor in tragic events without making light of difficulties in those challenges. I think it's a hard thing to do. But I think there are people who do it incredibly well. Kenneth Lonergan, the filmmaker, is one of my North Star idols. Noah Baumbach, I think, does it incredibly well. He captures dysfunction with levity and humor. Greta Gerwig is incredible. Those are all filmmakers. Jeannette Walls wrote an amazing memoir where she did the high-wire act of finding the humor in the tragedy, and that's for sure my sensibility and what I always strive to accomplish.
Why did you decide to tell the events as they naturally unfolded without commenting from the more mature perspective you have now?
I think writing about all my childhood, adolescent experiences from my point of view now would do a disservice to who I was at the time. And also, I think it's easy for me, at least in writing, to get too nostalgic or wax poetic if I'm coming from that point of view now. I wanted to avoid that completely. I wanted it to be very frank and plain in the writing, and I also think that naïveté is a great platform and vessel for humor.
To me […] having that six-year-old point of view in that complicated environment, I think is funny.
I like to assume that anybody who's been in therapy has read Brené Brown. Have you?
Oh yes, absolutely.
So, you know about the power of vulnerability. How nervous were you about being vulnerable with this book?
I love that you mentioned Brené Brown, and I think something else Brené talks about that's so valuable is the difference between oversharing and vulnerability. And I've read just about all her books.
Therapy for me is my place for oversharing, and I think that's an important part of it. But if I'm writing personally, that's the place for vulnerability and to make the appropriate edits so that it is as vulnerable as it can be, but also readable because there's so much of – as I'm sure you know – the healing and recovery process that is not entertaining and is not worth sharing with other people. So it's important for me to find the story and the entertainment in my life, as opposed to just oversharing.
So how did you land on the cover? I know from the book that your mom’s favorite color was pink. Did that factor in at all?
Oh my God! You're the first person who’s mentioned that specific angle about the cover.
And yes, it was intentional that my mom's favorite color was pink, so I wanted there to be pink on it. Because you know, of course, even though I am glad that my mom died, it is very, very much more complicated and nuanced than that, and I thought having her favorite color in the cover was very important. Glad that you recognized that.
I knew I wanted to be holding an urn with confetti coming out, because to me that's finding the celebration in the trauma, […] but on top of that, my expression was really important because […] this is where skirting the line between dark humor being flippant comes in. I wanted to make sure that I didn't go that far, so I didn't wanna be jumping in the air, flinging confetti like, “Haha, I'm glad my mom died,” because that's frankly just untruthful to my experience. So I wanted to have kind of a softer expression – something that felt a little hopeful and uplifted and reflected where I get to by the end of the book.
What's your response to people who are offended by the title?
I think anybody who doesn't understand the title probably didn't have an abusive parent. And so I'm grateful that they didn't have that experience, but anybody who has had an abusive, narcissistic, or manipulative parent seems to understand and appreciate the title. So this is for them.
How has the book affected your relationship with your family?
My brothers have been so supportive. I actually dedicated the book to them, but they've just been lovely and really kind and wonderful. And they of course get and understand the material in a deeper way than anyone else possibly could.
You’ve been pretty adamant about never acting again, but you hint toward the end of the book that maybe the curtain hasn’t fully closed on your acting career. How do you feel when people ask if you’ll ever go back to it or if you’ll ever guest star on the iCarly revival? Because I feel it must get tiring after some point.
I feel like it's coming from a good place. They mean it supportively, and I take it to mean they maybe enjoyed my acting, which, that's so kind, and that's really nice that they would like me to do that.
I completely stepped away from acting when I was 24, which I talk about in the book and why that was so important to me at the time for it to be a very definitive action. I think that it was important to my growth and also to my identity to step away from it for a while, and at the time I thought permanently. And only through writing the book, I think, was I able to do the healing necessary to consider, “Oh, well, what would acting look like? And is there a way of acting without it carrying the baggage from my past?” And I think it could get there. I definitely have a nice openness. I don't even know what that could mean in terms of future opportunities, but there's just an openness that wasn't there before. And to me that feels like growth.
An interesting parallel that came up for me as I read was thinking back to how on iCarly, Sam also had a strained relationship with her mom. How much did you identify with that dynamic at the time?
I wasn't so concerned with, or even considering the parallels, of the character to my life or anything like that. Although, now it is not lost on me the irony that my character loved eating so much and I was struggling with eating disorders. I think there's a lot to explore there, which I do explore in the book.
Are you expecting any sort of pushback from Nickelodeon or “The Creator” as a result of this book coming out?
Let me just say first and foremost, beyond all of the headlines, I think I wrote a great book and I hope people focus on that aspect of it. I put so much work into making sure that this thing is good. That's very, very important to me – doing work that's of quality, that people can resonate with and find comfort and laughter in.
You mentioned in the book how Nickelodeon offered you the $300,000 “hush money” as you called it. Do you have any regrets about not taking it? You jokingly wrote how maybe you should’ve taken it since it was a lot of money.
I said exactly what I wanted to say in the book in the way that I wanted to say it. And anything I could tell you right now would just be a less articulate version. So I hope people read whatever vignette that is. I would pull it up if I knew the number. I'm just gonna guess 34. Maybe that's right. Maybe that's not. [Editor’s note: It’s chapter 64.]
What would you say to your six-year-old self now?
You're gonna be absolutely fine. You're gonna have a life that is more fulfilling and empowered than you can possibly imagine, and you are going to be able to fulfill your dream of writing.
What's the best lesson you've taken from therapy?
Boundaries. Boundaries were a really complicated one. I feel like the process of therapy, well, for me, certainly […] was working on just the eating disorder. I needed to get that pinned down first. And also, I will say that for anybody who's struggling with eating disorders, I wasn't at a place where I could go anywhere near any other aspect of my life until I got that under control.
So for me, eating disorder work came first and then came the excavation of the past. And eventually I got to the point in therapy where I could start working on implementing boundaries and understanding them. And that was key for me, and I think the most instrumental piece of where I'm at today. I think that those emotional, physical, mental, and environmental boundaries were very important.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a novel and a collection of essays. Thank you for asking. I get so excited to talk about this. I've been actually working on both at once, which has been so fun because I haven't burnt out on either one.
That's so awesome. Are you allowed to tell me the genre of the novel?
I'm not talking about anything yet.
You don’t want to jinx it.
Yeah, exactly. But I appreciate you asking. And I can't wait for people to read it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.