My life purpose has always been to make Mom happy, to be who she wants me to be. So without Mom, who am I supposed to be now?
I only know what iCarly, a former Nickelodeon TV show about three friends who start a webshow, is (I’m 1,000 years older than its target audience) because when I was first living in Germany it was always on TV dubbed in German and it was basically the only level of German I could understand a few words of. I generally knew who Jennette McCurdy was from that. She would go on to co-star alongside Ariana Grande in a spinoff, Sam & Cat, before quitting acting to a lot of public speculation a few years ago.
Her mother, Debra McCurdy, who passed away from cancer in 2013, was the driving force in all of Jennette’s decisions — that classically infamous overenthusiastic showbiz mother living out her own thwarted dreams of stardom through her kid. That would be stressful enough, but hanging over all of this was a melee of harrowing domestic issues, including her mother’s hoarding, guilt about whether she caused her mother’s cancer (because her mother told her so), and the family’s constant stress of whether they could pay the rent, until as a child Jennette herself started supplying the funds to pay it through her acting work.
But things got even darker: in response to the restrictions and abuse her mother inflicted on her, Jennette developed obsessive-compulsive disorder and later, anorexia, bulimia, and alcohol abuse. It’s a heartbreaking but not unsurprising response to having her life dictated by someone who refuses her any autonomy of her own, even moving in and sleeping next to her, and insisting on bathing her and “checking for cancer” in what amounts to sexual abuse.
To learn what she went through, and how it’s shaped her life is frequently jaw-dropping. I can’t imagine what it took to even write this, to bare so much about what her life was. While reading I kept feeling like the bottom must’ve been hit by now, but then the next page brought some fresh horror. To think this was her life and yet the public appearance she kept up! But it’s important and helpful – there’s so much to resonate here just about growing up female in America under pressure, even putting the entire child star element to the side.
I know “brave” gets overused to the point of being meaningless or even mildly insulting, but I kept thinking that while reading this – how unimaginably brave she was to tell this story. She already knows how being a child star paints you with that brush forever – she says she knows it’s what people will always see when they look at her. To add the dark, ugly details and how it related to her mother on top of that already fraught situation is just so brave.
People are already reacting to the book’s title and cover and shaming her for telling this story (people who obviously haven’t and won’t read it, that is). But she had to know there’d be that kind of backlash, there always is if you challenge societal expectations around the mother-child relationship. Yet she did it anyway, and pulled it off marvelously and often hilariously. That’s right, despite what I’ve described so far, this is frequently hilarious too. And she’s very blunt about why her mother’s death was the only way for her to be her own person:
Mom made it very clear she had no interest in changing. If she were still alive, she’d still be trying her best to manipulate me into being who she wants me to be.
I hope that she’s healing — certainly telling this story had to be a step towards that. But she also seems open that it’s a big messy ongoing process, especially the disordered eating aspect of it. This might be the part that struck me the most, having been through disordered eating for a decade and a half myself. I hurt for her reading this, and she put so many of my own thoughts into words about it. I feel grateful to her for that.
It’s incredibly eloquent and well written in general, not at all what I was expecting from a celebrity memoir. If performing wasn’t ever her dream and isn’t what she wants to do, it’s clear that she has immense talent for writing.
Through writing, I feel power for maybe the first time in my life. I don’t have to say somebody else’s words. I can write my own. I can be myself for once. I like the privacy of it. Nobody’s watching. Nobody’s judging. Nobody’s weighing in. No casting directors or agents or managers or directors or Mom. Just me and the page.
What was most exceptional here, among many exceptional things, is how successful Jennette is in making you understand what she felt and why it mattered. Whether that’s in her descriptive ability (the air in her childhood home felt “like a held breath” as they waited for cancer to recur) or explaining how her first kiss was for TV and thus hurt her emotionally, in addition to being what just sounds like an alarming experience as a man she refers to as “The Creator” (easily identifiable) ordered her around during this difficult moment.
I think of what it would be like if everyone was famous for a thing they did when they were thirteen: their middle school band, their seventh-grade science project, their eighth-grade play. The middle school years are the years to stumble, fall, and tuck under the rug as soon as you’re done with them because you’ve already outgrown them by the time you’re fifteen.
But not for me. I’m cemented in people’s minds as the person I was when I was a kid. A person I feel like I’ve far outgrown. But the world won’t let me outgrow it. The world won’t let me be anyone else.
That makes me cringe to even consider yet it’s her lived reality. I would say that I can’t imagine, but she shows exactly what it’s like.
She also explains why she quit acting: throughout her story, she emphasizes how little control and power she had in anything in her life, and what joy it was for her to have the smallest element of choice over something. Now, “I’ve finally started to take some control of my relationship with food, and the healthier that relationship becomes, the more unhealthy a career in acting seems for me.” A wise woman who knows herself.
Although her recovery and healing process seem ongoing, her progress is clear. I can’t wait to read more of her writing.
Published August 9, 2022 by Simon & Schuster. I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.