[cw: eating disorders; physical, emotional, and substance abuse]
One of Hollywood’s worst-kept secrets is its widespread exploitation of child actors. The issue is so well known and publicized that laws were passed in an attempt to ensure that child actors don’t reach adulthood indigent due to their guardian’s money mismanagement or greed (Jackie Coogan, Gary Coleman, and Shirley Temple come to mind). Obviously, this has been all but a panacea when it comes to the child-actor-to-troubled-adult pipeline. Over the years, child actors have spoken out about how they were overworked, abused, and deprived of mental health and emotional support.
Former Nickelodeon star Jennette McCurdy adds her voice to that chorus of child actors in I’m Glad My Mom Died, which not only details how her late mother robbed her of her identity and childhood for fame, but also how her mother introduced her to an eating disorder that she struggled with throughout her early 20s. McCurdy, star of the 2000s breakout sitcom iCarly, weaves funny and relatable narratives with traumatic ones detailing her mother’s relentless abuse.
I’m Glad My Mom Died shows that there are commonalities in abuse, regardless of fame or status. Readers will find themselves enthralled by anecdotes about Hollywood and dating, but they will also take away a valuable point: that healing from abuse doesn’t have to include forgiving your abuser.
Parental and Emotional Abuse Is Abuse
McCurdy details how her mother showered her until she was 17. She also recounts instances in which she had to shower with her 16-year-old brother even as she reached puberty. She said she was extremely uncomfortable with the arrangement, but she hesitated to express her displeasure because her mother had a meltdown when her brother said he wanted to shower alone.
“I was conditioned to believe any boundary I wanted was a betrayal of her, so I stayed silent. Cooperative.”
According to McCurdy, her mother also claimed she was giving her breast and vaginal exams to check for cancer. McCurdy’s mother had cancer for years before her death in 2013. She writes about how she didn’t challenge her mother on this because, as a young child, she didn’t know any better. She also saw her mother’s bouts with cancer (she was in remission when McCurdy first started acting) and feared meeting the same fate. McCurdy’s mother would use this trust — and her authority — to manipulate her, especially throughout her teenage years.
McCurdy, who played roles younger than her age, also recalled how her boundaries were further undermined when her mother introduced her to anorexia as a way to stave off her menstrual cycle. McCurdy claims her mother also dealt with an eating disorder, but she essentially forced one on her daughter so she could still land younger roles. McCurdy comes to realize that what she believed was her own dream — fame — was really her mother’s, and her mother was willing to sacrifice her mental and physical wellness to get it.
The Power of Therapy
Throughout I’m Glad My Mom Died, McCurdy details how several people expressed concerns regarding her behavior (OCD and an eating disorder), only to be silenced or intimidated by her mother. In one scene, McCurdy recalls crying in the front yard while playing with her grandfather, who laments how she hasn’t been allowed to be a child.
Following her mother’s death, the two people who challenged McCurdy to acknowledge the trauma she experienced were therapists. McCurdy cut ties with her first therapist after the therapist forced her to acknowledge that her mother’s food monitoring was abusive. She was originally defensive, as she couldn’t fathom that her mother, who she long thought was her protector, would do anything to put her in harm’s way.
McCurdy’s second therapist challenged her to address her relationship with food and alcohol. She recalls how this therapist made her journal about the feelings she ascribed to certain foods, and what may have been triggering those feelings. While in therapy, McCurdy realizes that the best thing she could do for her mental health is to quit acting.
Death Doesn’t Absolve or Deify an Abuser
McCurdy didn’t cry when her mother took her last breaths in front of her. She realized that while her mother’s health was deteriorating, she was experiencing her first glimpses of freedom. Over time, she discovers that her mother — and her abuse — had imprisoned her. That her hangups about her body and success were insecurities her mother curated and forced upon her.
Essentially, McCurdy came to the realization that her mother was her first and most significant bully.
“Maybe I feel this way now because I viewed my mom that way for so long. I had her up on a pedestal, and I know how detrimental that pedestal was to my well-being and life,” she writes.
In I’m Glad My Mom Died, McCurdy, who is now 30, also highlights how her mother’s harm didn’t disappear with her death. She reveals how she turned to bulimia and alcoholism in her 20s as she continued to struggle with body issues. She also grappled with the idea of resenting her mother because she naively thought that her harm and wrongs could be fixed if she were still alive.
I’m Glad My Mom Died isn’t an easy read, but it is a necessary one. It gives the reader space to grapple with difficult topics by introducing a unique form of humor and levity that doesn’t detract from the gravity of her trauma.
During a recent interview, Drew Barrymore — whose own tumultuous experience as a child actor is well-documented — asks McCurdy how someone can tell their own truth if the source of their trauma is still alive.
McCurdy tells her, “If saying the truth ends a relationship, then it is probably a relationship that needed to end.”
You can learn more about the book in this episode of our podcast.