As a child, Jennette McCurdy dreamed of being a writer, drafting her first screenplay as a little girl in Garden Grove, California. Instead, her domineering mother, Debra, forced her into acting at age six. McCurdy, who later starred on Nickelodeon’s iCarly with Miranda Cosgrove and its short-lived spinoff Sam and Cat with Ariana Grande, remembers her mum telling her that “writers dress frumpy and get fat, you know? I would never want your little actress’s peach butt to turn into a big, giant writer’s watermelon butt.” So for the rest of her childhood, McCurdy all but stopped writing; even her diary was shared with Debra.
Now 30, McCurdy is the author of a newly minted number-one New York Times-bestselling memoir that has also achieved pop-cultural phenomenon status. Its striking title, I’m Glad My Mom Died, has inspired sanctimonious comments on Goodreads and beyond, as well as praise for its brash sense of bravery. “A lot of people have been coming up to me saying, ‘Hey, my mum’s alive. I can’t say this. Thank you for saying this for those of us who can’t,’” McCurdy told Vogue this week.
“I get that it’s a bold title, but there’s a lot of nuance underneath it that’s explored in the book”
Who would openly celebrate the death of their mother, which, for many people, is considered among the most shattering of losses? Someone whose mother’s death was her liberation. McCurdy’s mum, Debra, who died of breast cancer in 2013 when McCurdy was 21, had controlled and abused McCurdy throughout her life, she writes, pulling the puppet strings on McCurdy’s acting career (a dream Debra never achieved for herself) and manipulating her against quitting; urging her into anorexia, which led to bulimia, in an effort to ward off puberty and keep her tiny for childish roles; and insisting on giving her showers during which she administered breast and vaginal exams—which Debra claimed were checks for cancer—until McCurdy was 17.
“So what do you say? You want to act? You want to be Mummy’s little actress?” McCurdy recalls her mum asking. Even at six, McCurdy sensed: “There’s only one right answer.”
I’m Glad My Mom Died is more than source material for a deluge of headlines about Grande and the slimy advances of a Nickelodeon svengali McCurdy calls simply “The Creator.” McCurdy distinguishes herself from standard-issue celebrity memoir fare with a vivid, biting, darkly comic tone and an immersive present tense. She spoke to Vogue earlier this week about the success of her book, its provocative title, and finding her identity through writing.
All along, as you were forced into acting, you wanted to be a writer. How does it feel to finally achieve that?
It’s been, truly, an honour. I have felt so connected to the people that are connecting with the book, and it’s meaningful to me in a way that I haven’t experienced in my previous career.
You write about how anxiety-producing fame was for you, but you never wanted to act and you weren’t proud of the shows that you were on. Is it hitting differently when you’re being recognised for something that you’re proud of and actually want to do?
I’m really glad you asked that. It’s been a completely different experience. The people that approach me now, they’ll more than likely share something that they connect with in the book, whether it’s their own history with eating disorders or a narcissistic parent or family dysfunction. To have that level of humanity, it feels really validating for me, and I hope it’s validating for them.
“I feel really connected with myself and present with myself in a way that I just wish I could have shown the little me”
We’re talking before The New York Times bestseller list comes out and you are poised to make that list. Do you have any idea how you will react if and when you do?
I’m a big crier. I was ashamed of this for a long time. I was able to cry on cue but really couldn’t cry in person, and now it’s the opposite. I just feel things really intensely. So, I’m sure some tears will be shed, and I’m also a big happy-dancer. If that were to happen, I would be inventing some sort of crazy dance that will no doubt be embarrassing and then shared in an email thread with my entire team.
I’m Glad My Mom Died is a very arresting title, but as someone who has read the book, I get it. To be very clear, are you glad your mum died because it means you’re free to finally live your own life?
Yes. Yes. I get that it’s a bold title, but there’s a lot of nuance underneath it that’s explored in the book. I completely stand by the title. I knew I wanted it from the beginning. There was never a question or a doubt about changing it or going with an alternate. It was the only option.
I’m Glad My Mom Died is the name of your one-woman show, too. How did you come up with it?
The title actually came to me through songwriting, funny enough. I was tinkering on the keyboard and playing some little plucky happy chord, and I just started singing that I was glad my mum died, and it felt very genuine and very pure. I thought, ‘Well, I like that title a lot.’
I was reading tweets, which is usually a mistake, but one reader, in your defence, said that if your mum were here, maybe you wouldn’t be, because of how toxic life was for you. Is that too much of a leap?
I do not think that’s a leap at all. I think that’s completely accurate. Of course, there are moments where I fantasise that my mum would’ve apologised or that we’d have a turnaround in our relationship, but that’s fantasy. That’s a lot of what the book is about to me, not needing to romanticise the dead and validate our own experience with them. I feel very confidently that if my mum were still alive, I’d still have eating disorders. I’d still be having a lot of mental health struggles. I’m sure she and I would still live in the same place and I would have no chance of being in a relationship or having any friends. I have no doubt my life would still be very controlled by her if she were alive.
A friend messaged me after reading the book and said, ‘I’m glad her mum’s dead, too. Is that messed up?’
When people say that, I think it’s very sweet.
My eight-year-old daughter watches iCarly. Because it’s on Netflix, a new generation of kids are into these decade-old Nickelodeon shows. Knowing what I have learned about Nickelodeon and “The Creator,” I don’t know how I feel about this, but I’m curious how it sits with you that like they continue to live on?
I didn’t know it was still out there, so this is my very fresh reaction. Laughter, I guess.
There’s a ritual in the news cycle with celebrity memoirs, to pluck out the juiciest parts and turn them into headlines. With your book, one of those is around Ariana Grande and your impressions of her. After reading the book, I wondered if your issue was more with what she represented—having a comfortable family life and being allowed to miss work for music when you were not allowed to do that for movies—than with Ariana herself?
I feel like I explore that in the book in the best way that I can, and also with a humorous lean, so I risk losing the humour if I were to answer this now. I’m able to look back on it and just see it as the comedy gold that it is, to be on set at 21, where you’re just the most susceptible to jealousy and comparison that you can possibly be, and I’m there across from a burgeoning pop star of the day. Like, that is just so funny to me, and I tried to capture that humour.
“One million percent, writing has helped me establish my identity; be in touch with myself; heal; grow”
You write in the present tense throughout. I never got the sense that you were editorialising your past as an adult who has gone through therapy and done a lot of work on herself. I always felt like I was going through it with you at six, at 11, at 21. What went into that choice?
I’m so glad you noticed. It was intentional. I find a lot of humour in naivete and the point of view of a child, especially with the chaotic and abusive environments that I grew up in. To mine those environments for humour was important to me to keep the reader engaged and entertained. Frankly, I feel like it’s too easy to pontificate and get too poetic and flowery if I were writing from my point of view now. It could get way too grandiose and self-indulgent, so I wanted to keep it present and truthful to my emotional experience at whatever age I was at.
Had you been writing all along, even though your mum discouraged you? Did you draw on journals or diaries or anything to get back into those childhood perspectives?
No, because my mum and I shared a diary. It was a place for us to write little notes back and forth to one another, so even that was monitored. I didn’t have the freedom to explore. Sometimes, because I was homeschooled, for English assignments, I could maybe get away with a little writing, but it was really difficult until she got sick when I was 18, the second time she got cancer. That’s when I really started to immerse myself in writing classes while in the middle of acting. I was really trying to gain some footing there and to find my voice.
So, you were able to start writing around the same time that you were given more distance from your mum and freedom to find your own identity. Did writing become a part of that?
One million percent, writing has helped me establish my identity; be in touch with myself; heal; grow.
Would you want to adapt I’m Glad My Mom Died into a TV series or a film?
I’m open to possibilities. I’m really trying to just be present with all the exciting things that are happening right now, but if you have the number of the CEO of Universal Studios, I don’t know who that is, but text it to me.
The prologue is set around your mother’s deathbed, and you write that “my life purpose has always been to make Mum happy, to be who she wants me to be. So without Mum, who am I supposed to be now?” With some years passing, have you started to find some answers to that question?
The things that have gotten me to some answers are writing, therapy, solitude; tuning out any external feedback. For a long time, I was off social media. I didn’t act for a couple of years. I really walked away from the things that I felt defined me. I don’t know how to answer who I am in a sentence, but I do feel really connected with myself and present with myself in a way that I just wish I could have shown the little me. I wish I could have shown six-year-old me, “Hey, look, this is where you’re gonna be. This is who you’re gonna be.” It would’ve been really amazing to have that to aim for, but I’m really glad to be here now.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This article was originally published on Vogue.com