The new memoir from former child star Jennette McCurdy has an attention-grabbing title: I’m Glad My Mom Died.
Over the course of the book, McCurdy, who built her name on Nickelodeon’s iCarly and Sam and Cat, more than makes her case, detailing years of her mother’s mental and physical abuse. The result is a detailed look at a very specific and individual childhood of horrors, but it also points to a major systemic problem. I’m Glad My Mom Died doubles as a damning indictment of the child star system.
McCurdy became a working actress at age 6, when, she writes, her mother asked her, “You want to be Mommy’s little actress?” She started as an extra, then graduated to work on commercials and guest star roles on shows like Malcolm in the Middle and CSI. In 2007, at age 15, she was cast in a supporting role on the Nickelodeon kid’s sitcom iCarly. Five years later, she got her own spinoff, Sam and Cat, co-starring Ariana Grande. Throughout the process, McCurdy says, she existed in a state of misery, struggling with eating disorders and substance abuse issues.
McCurdy’s mother Debra died of breast cancer in 2013, but it would be years longer before McCurdy was able to understand her mother as abusive, and to grasp that she herself had never really wanted to act. The child star system, though, is what enabled McCurdy’s mother and worsened McCurdy’s mental health. Working as an actress from a young age taught McCurdy to understand her body and her emotions as commodities — commodities on which her family depended because she was their breadwinner.
Early on in I’m Glad My Mom Died, McCurdy’s agent tells her that she didn’t score a callback to Because of Winn Dixie because “they’re looking for an ethereal beauty, and Jennette reads more homely.” On the other hand, she doesn’t land the guest starring role of a hermaphrodite on Grey’s Anatomy because she’s too pretty. Child acting as an industry teaches McCurdy to understand her appearance on a scale of attractiveness.
McCurdy first develops anorexia as an 11-year-old, when she’s beginning to grow breasts. Hitting puberty, McCurdy understands, is a liability in her line of work: She is more employable because she is undersized for her age and can play younger, meaning she can stand in for children younger than herself who are worse at taking direction and legally entitled to more break time. Frantic, she goes to her mother for advice on how to stay small, and her mother introduces her to the world of calorie reduction.
Meanwhile, the intense dysfunction of McCurdy’s home life means she’s become an expert at crying on command; between her mother’s abuse and her father’s neglect, she’s got plenty of fuel for tears. This ability is, McCurdy writes, “the skill you want in child acting” and makes her highly in demand. McCurdy’s emotional reaction to her own abuse is, like her body, a commodity, one she is determined to sell in order to look after her family.
After McCurdy lands her role in iCarly, she’s put under the wings of Nickelodeon’s hitmaker, Dan Schneider. (McCurdy refers to him on the page only as The Creator.) Schneider would be pushed out of Nickelodeon in 2018 amid reports from former co-workers that he was verbally abusive and internet rumors questioning whether he may have been sexually abusive to the young actors he worked with.
Schneider has denied all allegations of inappropriate behavior, and McCurdy doesn’t tell any stories about him that are as lurid as some of the internet rumors would suggest. What she does recount is consistent with her professional sense of her body as being a commodity no longer entirely under her control — now in slightly sexualized ways.
McCurdy describes being pushed into wearing a bikini on the set of iCarly at age 15 even though she begs to wear a one-piece. “I hate this feeling, the feeling of so much of my body being exposed,” she writes. “It feels sexual to me. I’m ashamed.” She has her first kiss in a kissing scene filmed for the show, with Schneider screaming at her to move her head more. When he pitches her on her own spinoff, he goads her into drinking spiked coffee and massages her back. “I want to say something, to tell him to stop, but I’m so scared of offending him,” McCurdy writes.
Perhaps most striking is McCurdy’s clear-eyed realism when it comes to the kind of career her child stardom can grant her. She knows that Nickelodeon kids almost never make it to the big time and that her co-star Ariana Grande’s flourishing pop career is the exception that proves the rule. Her mother is convinced she’s a future Oscar winner, but McCurdy doesn’t kid herself. “Who’s gonna wanna hire me when I’ve spent almost ten years on Nickelodeon?” she writes.
But the business has also left her without escape routes. “I never went to college and have no real-life skills, so even if I wanted to get a profession outside of the entertainment industry, I’m years away from that being a realistic option.” This is the end of the line for McCurdy’s acting career, and she has to fight to find a way to pivot herself out of it. She asks the Sam and Cat staff to let her direct an episode so that she can get some TV directing credits under her belt. They agree at first, then tell her they can’t do it: Someone they “can’t afford” to lose has threatened to quit if the producers let her direct.
Today, McCurdy has managed to pull herself out of the child star trap. She’s in treatment for her eating disorders, and she has a career writing and directing short films and hosting a podcast. But in I’m Glad My Mom Died, she paints a vivid picture of child stardom as a system in which children find themselves turned into walking piles of other people’s cash, and summarily dismantled when they lose their value. It’s damning both for the horrors she experienced as an individual and the systemic failures to which her story points.