“Dolor hic tibi proderit olim.” — Latin expression translated as “This pain shall one day have meaning.”
When a book with the provocative title “I’m Glad My Mom Died” came across my desk, I couldn’t quite place the familiar-sounding name of its author Jennette McCurdy. I had to read further to be reminded that she had starred, several years earlier, on the Nickelodeon kid-com iCarly, as the “zinger-flinging” tomboy best friend Sam, and later starred alongside burgeoning pop sensation Ariana Grande in a crossover spinoff called Sam & Cat.
I’m not nearly young enough to have been in those shows’ target demographic, but I was more than a little aware of them when they were on, not only from my work selling DVDs, but also because they carried a reputation amongst twenty-something millennials as being as subversive and inventive as possible while filling the mold of what a show for children should and could do. McCurdy elected not to participate when the show was revived for a season in 2021, with the generally understandable explanation being that she was retired from acting and had a problematic relationship with her former career — which anyone reading between the lines (and not even needing to examine her statements too closely) could take as, she was a child actor who was all but forced into it.
In this light, the title of the memoir starts to make sense, but it’s a much longer and more complicated story than that.
Celebrity bios tend to come as an accessory to fame and fandom: you like the actor, now pick up the book and hear what they have to say. Most of these stories do involve overcoming some kind of hardship: poverty, addiction, prejudice, scandal, on their route to fame and fortune (or down from it, depending when the book was written.) We get a chance to peep in on what kind of trouble creates, or emanates from, that level of success that we Joe Nobodies never get to see firsthand. While it superficially has this in common with a “celeb bio” McCurdy’s story hits differently. The author may have been something of a household name from her time on TV (“something of” in the sense that she grapples with being shouted out as “Sam” or worse “iCarly girl” when out living her life) but its impact is far, far outsized to that level of fame and success. If all McCurdy had wanted to do was to pull back the curtain on her Nickelodeon life, she may not have told it the way she ultimately does.
The broad strokes you can probably imagine: “Net” was pushed into acting at a young age by an overbearing mother who desperately wanted to vicariously live out her own dreams of Hollywood stardom through her daughter. She bounced around auditions, met rejection success in various measures, encountered the superficiality and callousness of the entertainment industry, and eventually hit it big, at which point, you know, it all comes to an end eventually.
The arc of the story is colored by McCurdy’s finely detailed portrait of her family, her parents’ broken relationship, the hoarder-ish squalor in which they live, and their attempts to be good members of their community (McCurdy has a Mormon upbringing, which gives her mother pause against letting her associate with her not-religiously-affiliated castmate Miranda Cosgrove.)
At the center of it all is her mother Deb. Deb McCurdy survived cancer very early on in Net’s life, a fact which seems to define her and everyone around her. She and her daughter develop a complicated relationship of co-dependency where Young Net will do anything to please her mommy, beginning with taking up and continuing acting despite her own discomfort with the lifestyle, and developing eating disorders in the name of maintaining the small, childlike body she perceives as not only her key to success, but her entire identity.
Despite what the title suggests, that perhaps young Jennette grew up hating and resenting her mother and going through the motions because she was powerless, the truth is far more sinister: this is a story of a young person who loves her ailing mother so much she would do anything for her, and when the time comes to separate from her — to become her own woman and decide what comes next in life — it may destroy them both.
The book is segmented into “Before” and “After” Deb’s death, which coincides with some of the most frustrating and uncertain times in Net’s life, not just because she’s facing all the normal decisions one has to make when one reaches their twenties, but because all of that is magnified by the nature of her stardom, which suggests she should remain frozen in adolescence as long as possible. Worse yet, she’s experiencing that adolescence in one of the most unforgiving environments possible, a world of taskmaster producers, overzealous fans, and leering paparazzi. I know it almost seems a joke to ask for pity for someone who attained fame and fortune at a young age, but if thrust into that world against one’s will, it sounds like a particular and severe form of emotional abuse, and McCurdy pays the price. Fame and all, she’s a human being who deserves a dignity and respect that seldom seems to have been offered to her.
After reading this book, it may be hard to watch movies and TV shows featuring child actors and not think about what they are losing in order to take part in this world of showbiz. It’s a harrowing thought that is going to stay with me for a long time.
Though the book makes a few careful allusions to the nightmarish working conditions, and the professional clashes between costars (not Miranda Cosgrove though, she comes off like a true friend,) it’s light on what you might call “dirt,” and so much the better. It’s not that kind of story.
No, this is an absorbing tale of a fraught and unique journey from innocence to experience, stunningly told. The story takes the form of several-dozen short vignettes — much shorter than a standard book’s chapters — told in the first-person present tense, so that whatever age and experience Jennette would have had at that point in her life, that is the perspective of the events we are given, with no hindsight, no reflection and no examination from today. The masterful storytelling conceit at the center of it puts you directly in Net’s shoes as she navigates this strange world, starting as a young kid who only has a dim idea what is happening to her and struggles to reconcile her negative feelings with her desire to please her best friend “Nonny Mommy,” growing into a sheltered naïf wondering what would be an appropriate gift to give a “cool” costar, worries about her first onscreen kiss, and couldn’t be further from her cool and confident onscreen character, and finally into a jaded, sardonic and self-loathing young adult who has problematic romantic encounters, throws acidic judgments on everything about her life, and is desperately in need of help she can’t seem to bring herself to find or accept. When McCurdy struggles to define herself after the end of her stint as Sam, it isn’t just about some actor trying to land a new role, it echoes the universal struggles of people who get to a point in their life and realize that they are defined by something that is no longer true and have no way how to proceed as themselves, a truly existential despair felt by people in all walks of life.
The beats of the story you may know, or guess at, from all too many who have walked that path, but the telling of it is bright and fresh and beautiful and harsh and tragic all at once.
When discussing memoirs, histories other such books, there’s a phrase I’ve come to dislike: “It’s non-fiction that reads like fiction!” The implication here is that non-fiction is boring, and factual, and dry, and fiction is adventurous and exciting and offers rollercoaster-ride plots. The truth is that a good book is a good book; what makes a non-fiction a good read is more often than not due to its non-fictitious nature and this one is exciting in a way all its own by telling its story in a way that highlights its deeply personal, complicated, and somewhat improbable nature. Jennette McCurdy has written a great book, which she was able to do because something very strange and tragic happened to her. But she was able to make a singular book that has made a deep impact on the cultural psyche because she proved herself a gifted storyteller with a unique voice. I hope… I hope, hope, hope… she continues to write and turns her gift toward any other stories she may be able to dream up.
But even if not, at least she turned her pain into something with meaning.