Editor’s note: This article contains references to child abuse, OCD and disordered eating.
4 out of 5 stars
When it comes time to choose my favorite book of 2022, Jenette McCurdy’s memoir, “I’m Glad My Mom Died,” will undoubtedly be in the running.
The new memoir tells the dismal story of Jenette’s child-acting career, a path she was forcibly led down at a young age by her late mother, Debra McCurdy.
In addition to battling breast cancer, Debra struggled with anorexia, maintaining a life-long addiction to disordered eating that she would later push onto Jennette.
Afraid to upset her mother and terrified of what would happen to her “childlike” physique after growing breasts and starting her period, Jennette followed her mother’s guidance on calorie restriction, a habit that would continue throughout her time on the hit Nickelodeon shows “iCarly” and “Sam & Cat.”
“I proudly show my half-eaten portions to Mom after every meal,” Jennette writes. “Each Sunday, she weighs me and measures my thighs with a measuring tape.”
Debra, on top of controlling Jennette’s diet and career, forced her to undergo regular “body checks” and vaginal exams, and helped her shower well into her teenage years. In every way possible, Jennette’s life was dictated by her mother.
“I was conditioned to believe any boundary I wanted was a betrayal of her, so I stayed silent. Cooperative,” she writes.
Every time Jennette tried to test the limits of her mother’s expectations, whether it was by expressing an interest in writing instead of acting, or hanging out with boys who weren’t religious like her, Debra would burst. At multiple points throughout the book, Jennette recounts how her mother would flood her with over-the-top sobbing and other forms of emotional warfare in order to get her way.
Jennette’s father, Mark, would also endure Debra’s tantrums, countless threats and ultimatums. At one point, CPA was called following a screaming match on the McCurdy’s front lawn.
Much to Jennette’s dismay, Debra would do anything — even flaunt her breast cancer diagnosis — to win over the sympathy of others, and get special treatment for anything and everything she wanted (a perk she often used to stay by Jennette’s side in every audition, meeting and acting-related event she went to).
Debra brought up her cancer so often that Jennette feared she would one day fall into recurrence, leading her to use her annual birthday wish to protect a seemingly undeserving and abusive mother from having to go through chemotherapy again — the first compulsion she remembers exhibiting in her OCD journey.
Although Jennette felt the pressure and strain of her mother’s toxic influence long before she died, she still felt a sense of loyalty to her, even as a child. Debra gave Jennette a career, after all, and made sure she was happy — but that superficial happiness came at a heavy, heavy price.
Not only did Jennette have to sacrifice her own autonomy each and every day before her mother’s death, but she also bore the weight of her family’s livelihood. If she failed as an actor, she would not only lose the approval of her mother but also drive her entire family into financial insecurity.
“I had [my mom] up on a pedestal, and I know how detrimental that pedestal was to my well-being and life,” she writes. “That pedestal kept me stuck, emotionally stunted, living in fear, dependent, in a near constant state of emotional pain and without the tools to even identify that pain let alone deal with it.”
Even as a small child, Jennette knew that acting was her mother’s dream, not hers. She appeased Debra’s wishes because she cared about her happiness. Jennette’s inexplicable empathy for her mother, while infuriating to readers, is a common occurrence in cases of child abuse.
According to a study from the National Library of Medicine, “the ability to bond with a caregiver is such a strong biological imperative that once a bond is formed — even with an abuser — it is difficult to break.”
Jennette brings such a deeply personal and contemporary voice to the autobiographical genre, and it was clear to me from the first page that these are the words she has longed to write her whole life.
The care that Jennette takes to tell her story, and showcase the ways in which her mother’s abuse exacerbated her disordered eating and OCD, affected me in ways I was not expecting.
As someone who also struggles with OCD and has a history of disordered eating, I was paralyzed by the accuracy of Jennette’s description of compulsive habits exhibited in childhood, and had to pause my reading several times to still my breathing.
The name she gave her intrusive thoughts, “the holy ghost,” reminded me of the religion-oriented intrusive thoughts that I experienced at the onset of my OCD.
Being unable to understand my intrusive thoughts at the time, I too understood them as the voice of God. I compulsively prayed (not in the religious way, but the mentally ill way), and truly believed that I was controlling the outcome of events by doing so.
For instance, at 6 years old, I thought that I alone was bringing my dad home safely from work each night by praying at the start of every minute — and if I forgot to pray for one minute, or somehow failed to pray “correctly,” that is when the panic hit.
OCD is a nightmare to live with, and I genuinely appreciated reading Jennette’s experience with the disorder as someone who experiences it in a similar way.
“[Intrusive thoughts] are a brutal distraction,” Jennette writes. “I can never be present with whoever I’m with.”
Jenette’s depiction of her parents’ narcissism was also interesting for me as someone who has a lasting but very distant relationship with one parent, and a close, personal relationship with the other.
It was a bit heartbreaking to read Jenette’s account of how her mother’s self-centeredness both “created” her public persona and destroyed her self-image.
Incidentally, I grew up with a similar mindset — that straying from my parents’ perception of success would inevitably lead to failure.
While Jennette’s story is admittedly a few notches up on the intensity level compared to mine, she has a refreshing take on how our parents’ expectations for us coincide with their own lasting dreams and insecurities.
Photo caption: Photo courtesy of forbes.com.