Jennette McCurdy is, actually, quite good at Jackbox.
The revelation comes a few beats after we talked about the multiplayer video game — I played a few times in the pandemic and told McCurdy that I was pretty terrible at it and lost every round. “Yeah, me too,” she said, and we promptly moved on. But in the middle of talking about her friendship with a former Nickelodeon costar, she stopped herself and looked down at her hands quietly. “I was actually distracted because…I was not bad at it,” she said. “I just felt my people-pleasing, agreeable part come out and say that. I just have to bring attention to it. It’s so small, and so silly, who cares, I won a fucking round of Jackbox, whatever. But I want to be truthful even in something that small.”
It is indeed a strange admission to deliver in the middle of an interview, but I get it. Nothing is so liberating as being able to tell the truth after decades of holding it in. McCurdy has denied her own desires and basic needs for so long, admitting the truth must feel like a necessary victory, even if it results in slightly one-upping me about a game I hate.
McCurdy and I are around the same age, which means I largely missed her heyday on Nickelodeon, but my 12-year-old niece watched all her shows rapturously in reruns during the pandemic. From 2007 to 2015, McCurdy played the plucky and aggressive Sam Puckett on Nickelodeon’s iCarly (with Miranda Cosgrove) and later on its spinoff Sam & Cat (with Ariana Grande). Both shows were huge hits for the kid and tween bracket, making McCurdy a household name for a particular subset of Gen Z’ers, and some baby millennials. Her character was funny, cute, quippy, thin, and white — much like a lot of the girls churned out by the children’s entertainment industry.
But McCurdy didn’t become a child and teen star on her own; she was guided by her mother, Debbie, who raised her in Orange County with the intention of making her daughter a famous actor. Debbie first got cancer when McCurdy was just 2. When McCurdy was 21, Debbie died after years of painful surgeries and invasive chemotherapy. A devastating loss, maybe, to be just 21 when your personal and professional guiding hand dies after nearly two decades with cancer. Or maybe not: McCurdy’s new memoir, which comes out this week, is titled I’m Glad My Mom Died. The cover features McCurdy in a soft pink blouse and trouser set holding an urn full of rosy crinkle confetti. The title is funny, but like a lot of funny things, it’s true. “It’s something I mean sincerely,” she told me about the title. “I’m genuinely glad. If she were alive, I’d still be trapped. Every important decision in my life wouldn’t have been possible.”
Her book tells you why, clearly and unflinchingly. McCurdy’s mother knew how to raise a little actor — she wanted to be one herself — but she was also wildly abusive to her youngest daughter. She writes that her mother forced her to work long and grueling hours even when she was sick; “‘pull up the britches and chug the Gatorade,’” McCurdy said to me, mimicking her mother. Until McCurdy was 17, her mother continued to give her breast and vaginal exams, worried about her getting cancer too. She helped McCurdy develop a dangerous and devastating eating disorder, first anorexia and then bulimia. She restricted McCurdy’s social life and her dating up until her 20s. She was verbally abusive, cruel, demanding, and hostile to the child who so desperately wanted to please her, and threw dishes and screamed at her husband in front of her four children.
Now, having recently turned 30, McCurdy has poured those experiences into a memoir that’s part cautionary tale for child stars and part Mommy Dearest. I’m Glad My Mom Died starts when McCurdy is just a little kid, being forced into auditions by her mother — ”My life purpose has always been to make Mom happy, to be who she wants me to be,” McCurdy writes early in her memoir — all the way to after her mother dies and McCurdy decides to quit acting for good. “I’d always had such a negative perception of quitting,” she told me. “But that can be a really freeing thing to do. That can be the right thing to do. That can be the braver thing to do.”
After starring in the 2015 Netflix drama series Between (it ended after two seasons), she launched her own interview podcast called Empty Inside and performed a live solo show about her experiences. The book stems from that show, an ever-changing exploration of her childhood and the career she never wanted, which she originally put on in Los Angeles before the pandemic shut it down.
“If she were alive, I’d still be trapped. Every important decision in my life wouldn’t have been possible.”
Being a writer is inherently a big rebellion for McCurdy. “[My mother would] always say writers get fat and dress frumpy,” she told me. “‘You’re going to get a watermelon butt instead of your peach butt.’” And the book itself is a fulsome repudiation of her mother. “My mom didn’t deserve her pedestal,” McCurdy writes. “She was a narcissist. … My mom emotionally, mentally, and physically abused me in ways that will forever impact me.”
I’m Glad My Mom Died is a decadeslong account of a young famous person and all the things she had to give up in order to be famous so early: a normal dating life, a healthy relationship with her body, a nurturing dynamic with her parents. When she quit acting, she was sure it was for good. It wasn’t even a given that she might return to the public eye in any form at all.
The book is cheeky and gutting, but above all, it’s the truth and an avenue for McCurdy to return to a sometimes hostile public eye in the only way she could. “I think seeing yourself is particularly difficult with growing up in the public eye, because you’re so public-facing and seen as one thing,” she said. “That makes the reality of you so much more unseen and invalidated and unacknowledged. But now, because I see myself, I can accept being seen by others.”
McCurdy asked to meet in the Huntington Botanical Gardens in Los Angeles, where she lives. It’s the most non-LA place in all of LA; in the gardens, you can’t hear any traffic, you can’t see any screaming billboards for Skims or Apple. The Japanese Garden in particular is McCurdy’s safe space. She loves it here; she used to take her grandfather here all the time before he died. “He, at one point, cried at how beautiful it was here. That’s a person who can appreciate the peace of things,” McCurdy said. “I remember asking him, ‘How did you stay with grandma for so long?’ He just so wants to be in peaceful environments, wanted to be surrounded by beauty and calm, and my grandmother was just the opposite.” McCurdy perched herself on the edge of a gazebo overlooking a little pond. “He was like, ‘Well, you know her, hon. She is who she is and I just try not to fight it, and I want to be there for you kids,’” she said. “That’s nice. And noble. But also, like, you could’ve been there for us if you had left her and had a happier, more harmonious life.”
Such has been the theme of all the great conflicts in McCurdy’s life; she seemed to have always been trapped between cruel, selfish women and inactive, enabling, distant men who could’ve done something to stop the child abuse. McCurdy and her family (she has three older brothers, who are, according to her, very supportive of their little sister) lived with her mother’s parents for much of her childhood. McCurdy writes in the book that her grandmother was bombastic and irate; she calls McCurdy a bitch and often berates her in a way that you can tell she once berated her own daughter. Her daughter Debbie was similarly controlling, and routinely manipulative. At 20, when McCurdy was caught on vacation with her then-boyfriend (a secret from her mother), she sent McCurdy a vicious email, reprinted in the book. “You used to be my perfect little angel, but now you are nothing more than a little SLUT, a FLOOZY, ALL USED UP,” she wrote to her daughter. “You look pudgier too. It’s clear you’re EATING YOUR GUILT.”
When you read McCurdy’s account of her mother’s and grandmother’s abuse, it’s tough not to ask: Where the fuck were all the other adults in her life? She has a limited relationship with both the man who raised her and her biological father (both of whom she writes about in her memoir with warmth but distance). In her memoir, the male adults in her family are simply trying to get by with as little resistance as possible. It’s hard not to read her book and wonder why her father didn’t intervene when his wife forced McCurdy to work while sick or why he didn’t notice his daughter was dangerously thin. “My mom just had such an intense presence,” McCurdy said. “She was 4’11”! And powerful. You felt it when she walked into a room.”
“I’d always had such a negative perception of quitting,” she told me. “But that can be a really freeing thing to do.”
McCurdy tries to be empathetic. “I get how complicated [my father’s] role in that family was,” she said. “My mom had this long affair, had these three other children that weren’t his, and I imagine the timing of her cancer played a factor in his sticking around. But, as much as I try to see it from the point of view of the various adults that were in the household, I just don’t have much respect for their approach.”
Her relationship with her mother was so toxic, in fact, that she has started to relate to stories about mothers with Munchausen syndrome, like in the Hulu miniseries The Act, which is based on a 2016 BuzzFeed News story. “There’s that Munchausen by proxy relationship, and I’m like, relatable!” she said. “Which it shouldn’t be.” But it’s not like her mother liked it when McCurdy was sick; she was simply instructed to work through it, even as a child. “There was one time where I got strep throat six times in one year,” she said. “I see it now, it was just a result of burnout and exhaustion. But she was, at that point, so ill that she couldn’t intervene, but I still had her voice in my head.” McCurdy ended up developing a resistance to the antibiotics she was given to treat the strep. “That was not a fun year.”
McCurdy looks a lot like she did when she was on Nickelodeon, which is to say she hasn’t aged. She still has big, expressive blue eyes that reflect the Japanese Garden’s pond. Her eyelashes are devastatingly long, her mouth still has that sharp cupid’s bow in the front. She still has heavy blonde bangs and a tiny, unassuming frame. Sometimes, while she’s speaking, she stares off blankly in the distance, as if she’s looking for someone. As if she’s waiting for someone to come in and give direction.
Her mother never comes. It’s taken McCurdy her entire life to detach from her mother, and she will likely now spend the rest of her life trying to process the residual damage. The toughest part to face, maybe, has been the question of whether her mother actually loved her. “I was grieving the version that I wanted her to be, and then it’s what my therapist referred to as ‘regrief’ once I came to terms with who she actually was,” she said. “Then there was a lot more anger and deep confusion. My grandfather passed away a few years ago and I recognized that as, Oh, this is what normal grief is.”
After years of therapy, McCurdy thinks her mother possibly had a combination of borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder. The last one is the toughest pill to swallow. “I lived for her,” she said. “I believed that she was in some way living for me. And to think she was incapable of even feeling for you, let alone living for you. It’s just really sad. I feel that in my chest.”
But there are parts of her mother that McCurdy misses, even if that yearning is curdled by the reality of how her mother treated her. “She just had a way of making anyone believe in themselves,” McCurdy said, hunching over a bit to imitate her mother. “‘Net, you got this, don’t worry about it, stop your mind from doing the worry thing. Don’t complain. Nobody works harder than you. You’re talented enough, you’ll make it happen.” McCurdy heard so many of those pep talks in their Ford Windstar on the way to or from an audition, and she really believed it. She always did. Her mother was nothing if not convincing. “They were tough love. They weren’t gentle stroke-of-the-arm type of pep talks, but it worked.”
Strangely, when McCurdy imitates her mother, she actually ends up looking like a child. Her already small frame shrinks more, and her hand trembles a bit. The light in her eyes dims and her shoulders slump forwards. She doesn’t look confident or reassured; she looks nervous. “I thought I missed her pep talks,” she said. “Now, as I’m saying it, maybe they just wouldn’t work anymore.” She placed a hand on her stomach, the way she did frequently in our interview whenever something hurt a little too close to the bone. “I just felt it,” she said. “The missing her.”
If you come to McCurdy’s memoir for some juicy tidbits about working with Dan Schneider (the creator of iCarly and Sam & Cat, among a slate of other Nickelodeon shows) and Ariana Grande, you’ll get some, but not much. There are details about “The Creator,” a title for Schneider that McCurdy chose simply because it made her laugh. (In 2018, Schneider and Nickelodeon parted ways after ViacomCBS did an investigation that showed he was verbally abusive to employees, according to a 2021 New York Times story. Schneider declined to comment about the charges at the time, and he did not respond to our request for comment. ) “I’ve seen The Creator make grown men and women cry with his insults and degradation — he’ll call people idiots, buffoons, stupid, dumb, sloppy, careless, retarded, and spineless,” she writes. “The Creator knows how to make someone feel worthless.” And unlike some other Nickelodeon employees, McCurdy did not sign an NDA in exchange for a payout after she left the network. “What the fuck?” she writes in her memoir. “Nickelodeon is offering me three hundred thousand dollars in hush money to not talk publicly about my experience on the show? My personal experience of The Creator's abuse? Shouldn’t they have some sort of moral compass?”
Most of McCurdy’s thoughts about Grande, meanwhile, are rooted in her own anxiety and jealousy of working with another woman who seemed to be getting more from The Creator than she was. “I grew up in Garbage Grove in a goddamned hoarder house with a cancerous mom who constantly wept about not being able to afford rent and utility bills,” she writes. “Ariana grew up in Boca Raton, Florida, an incredibly wealthy, idyllic town, with a healthy mom who could buy her whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted.”
But there generally wasn’t much on-set drama among the actors — in fact, McCurdy and her former costar Miranda Cosgrove were good friends when they worked together. They spent last Thanksgiving together, almost a decade since their show ended.
It’s been nearly as long since McCurdy’s mother died, but she can still hear her voice in her head. “She’d probably think that tree needed watering,” she said, pointing a dozen feet away from us. “She’d hate my shoes, they’re platform Converse. She’d think they’re unflattering or too boyish. She wouldn’t like this” — she tugged at her baggy pink overalls — “because it doesn’t show off my waist. She always wanted my waist to be shown off in any outfit.”
“People would always say the catchphrases: ‘Hey, Sam, where’s the fried chicken?’ or ‘Eat any turkey legs recently?’ or ‘How’s that ham?’ It was adding trauma onto a pile of trauma.”
Unsurprisingly, McCurdy developed disordered eating at a very young age, quickly associating staying small and looking young with having a successful career and, therefore, a happy, stable mother. Her mother taught McCurdy to cut her calories and eat Lean Cuisines (ideally not the whole thing) and that starving herself was the key to success. It started with anorexia, and soon McCurdy was bingeing and purging. “There was so much fear around adulthood, and there was fear around making my own decisions because I felt like I’m incapable,” she said. “I’m incompetent, down to shampooing my hair. It was safer to stay this small, controllable person than to own myself and be accountable to myself.” In her book, McCurdy talks about how her mother kept insisting she shampoo her daughter’s hair well into her teen years, about how she was so sheltered that she was shocked during her first sexual encounter because she didn’t know what ejaculate was. “Man, that’s really disturbing,” she said, mostly to herself. “What delusion I lived in as a means of survival. It’s just messed up.”
But you know what doesn’t help a burgeoning eating disorder when you’re a teenager? Having to play a character whose leading quirk is how much they eat. “My character’s trademark was that she loved food. The irony of that is not lost on me, and in retrospect, it’s very funny,” she told me. “But at the time, it was deeply painful. People would always say the catchphrases: ‘Hey, Sam, where’s the fried chicken?’ or ‘Eat any turkey legs recently?’ or ‘How’s that ham?’ It was adding trauma onto a pile of trauma.”
Her eating disorders weren’t just about staying skinny either. “Bulimia was really the thing that was my form of avoidance, it was my form of distraction,” she said. “It is so inherently exhausting to binge and purge. This is a vessel for my anxiety, and then I purge, and then I have no energy left to think about anything and I just want to go to sleep. That, as painful as it was, was easier than facing, Oh, my mom was abusive.” McCurdy’s mother died when she was 21, but it wasn’t until McCurdy was around 23 that she was able to enter therapy and stick with it long enough to start parsing through her childhood — and adult — trauma. “It was like making contact with that pain for the first time. It felt like I couldn’t survive the pain,” she said.
Unsurprisingly, McCurdy doesn’t think anyone should have their kids act professionally. “I do hope that if there are parents that are considering putting their kids in acting, I hope if they read the book…they don’t.”
The week that McCurdy and I met, Nickelodeon was aggressively advertising its latest season of That Girl Lay Lay. Throughout LA, bus stop ads flashed the 15-year-old actor and rapper Lay Lay’s face, along with the other children featured on the show. And look, maybe the environment for child actors has changed since McCurdy’s heyday. “It would be impossible for the cultural temperature to be where it’s at and there not to be some more awareness and attention to the child’s well-being and safety and maybe even happiness,” she said. “Question mark? Hopefully? I really, really hope so.”
“I think the content is embarrassing. I just wish I had never done it.”
When McCurdy looks at the little kids in her life, it seems hard not to think about all the things she missed out on. She remains close with all her brothers, and her nieces in particular, even if she’s largely fallen out with the other grown-ups in her life. “I recently went on a Disney trip with Claire, my brother Mark’s daughter, and I was watching her and went to the bathroom and just cried because it’s so beautiful to watch a child just be able to be who they are,” she said. “That is an opinionated, hilarious child that is so authentic. I think I've healed through watching them and their relationship with their parents. Just being able to be around children who are so…free.” (She’s grateful her mother isn’t around to upbraid the rest of her family. “Oh god,” she said. “I just felt horrified of, like, how she would have been with my nieces.”)
These days, McCurdy is remarkably therapized. She’s put in so much work, and you can tell by the slow, thoughtful way she answers every question. She wants to be clear, and she wants to tell the truth. She also still struggles with feeling like she’s already been defined by work she did when she was 19. “Seeing even the Facebook posts of friends being like, ‘started my first job!’ These momentous first experiences, I felt like my life was already behind me,” she said. “There was a time when I really did not have much hope for my future.”
But she also still holds so much shame. It’s not shame about anything her mother did to her; it’s actually about her career. Almost a decade removed from the work she did as a literal child, McCurdy is ashamed about the work left in her wake. “I think the content is embarrassing. I just wish I had never done it,” she said. “I appreciate the financial stability. I’m grateful for the doors that it’s opened for me in so many ways and the friendships that I’ve made. But the content of it just embarrasses me.” Simply put, McCurdy doesn’t think the shows she helped make are very good. It doesn’t matter if those shows were made for children — children who loved it — nor does it matter that she was a child herself at the time they were made. “The embarrassment piece lingers. I care so much about making good work. It’s that ‘what do I do with this’ shame.” McCurdy is, these days, more open to considering acting again, but she mostly considers herself a writer. For now, she’s just glad to be out of the sitcom machine. Imagine! She could be a hot but unhappy wife on some ABC pilot. “I would’ve kept doing sitcom after soul-sucking sitcom,” she said, imitating one of those thankless roles. “Dinner!”
Which isn’t to say that she thinks she’s a bad actor; in fact, she knows she’s pretty good at it. “I was performing so much in real life. That was such an active performance that it was kind of like I was able to be more real when I was acting than I had to be off camera,” she said. “I could show emotions that I wasn’t allowed to show in real life.”
But you know what’s funny? McCurdy seems to despise the industry she dutifully worked in for half of her life, while also being, of all things, a Disney adult. “I know. I know. I know!” she said, laughing at her own admission. “We could’ve sat at the Disneyland Hotel! I know all the good spots. I don’t do many rides, I just find the cool environments that are relatively unbusy. I bring my journal. It’s bizarre, right? Full-blown Disney adult.” McCurdy has a long association with Disney — her grandfather worked there and could always sign the family in, and it was the one place her mother wouldn’t be stressed out. Now, at 30, McCurdy watches Disney vlogs and buys embroidered Disney shirts on Etsy. “I’m just going to escape.”
McCurdy asked me if I want kids; I asked her the same. She said maybe no, but that could change. It’s tough to think about your own offspring when your mother only saw you as an extension of herself, as someone to be controlled and manipulated. As someone without free will. Can you raise someone well if you weren’t shown how to? “But, when I say I’m not maternal, people say I’m so maternal. What is that?” she asked me. I told her that maybe what people are seeing is someone who’s healed, that healed pain can look like care to other people, that it can give you maternal qualities even if you weren’t raised by someone very maternal at all, even if you never experienced maternal love firsthand.
Her big eyes grew glassy with tears, and she clutched her chest. “That makes me emotional,” she said, crying, but with half a smile. “That’s so powerful. To not hold it. To say, Wow, I’ve looked at all this shit. I didn’t run away from it. I looked at it.”●