An eight-year-old Jennette McCurdy sits in the car with her mother, Debra, stuck in traffic on a long drive home.
It’s been a tough day for the little girl – she screwed up her audition for the latest network police drama, Without A Trace. These sorts of auditions were usually bread and butter for a child star like herself: Jenette was petite and cute, with big blue eyes that could well up with fat, blinking tears on cue.
But today, her heart wasn’t in it. She couldn’t cry in front of the casting director. The audition went badly, with Jennette explaining in her own words that she had ‘tanked’.
Now sat in a frosty silence in trailing traffic with mum Debra, the thought that was initially just a sapling in Jennette’s brain has taken hold to grow deep, winding roots – and she suddenly feels compelled to speak.
‘I don’t want to act anymore.’
Debra’s face contorted, ‘like she had just eaten a lemon’, Jennette remembers, before the screaming started. It was a reaction she was more than used to, with the young actor seeing more than her fair share of shouting matches between her parents.
Debra used to throw things at her husband when in her rages: ‘The louder it would sound when it broke, the more likely she was to throw that object.’
While this was all a familiar sight to Jennette, it didn’t make it any less scary for a child to see an adult lose control – particularly when they’re meant to be in charge of a moving vehicle – so after making her declaration, she quickly backs down, muttering to her mother to ‘forget she ever said anything’.
Almost instantly, the mood changes, and Debra starts giddily singing along to a Phil Collins song like the moment never happened.
Scared of upsetting her mother even further, Jennette hurriedly joins in the chorus of ‘Another Day in Paradise.’ She may not want to be an actor anymore, but performing is something that comes naturally to the little girl. She constantly feels the pressure to put a show on for her mother in a bid to quell her outbursts.
The harrowing scene above is just one tale from McCurdy’s memoir I’m Glad My Mom Died, which is a breath-takingly frank and painfully truthful account of life under an abusive and manipulative parent who pushes her daughter into the cutthroat and problematic industry of child acting.
By day, Jennette was a hugely adored child star, becoming a household name across the globe as the wisecracking tomboy Sam Puckett on Nickelodeon series iCarly, eventually landing her own spin-off series, Sam & Cat.
While it looked as if the actor was living every child’s dream, reality was far more painful for Jennette. As well as having to navigate her mum’s outbursts, manipulations and abusive behaviour, she also found life on a hit children’s TV show, and dealing with directors, producers and executives, increasingly difficult.
Now, eight years after her departure from the world of children’s TV and with the world of acting firmly in her past, Jennette has turned her attentions to writing, with I’m Glad My Mom Died exploring the struggles she faced as an abused child in a similarly abusive industry.
The book’s title is designed to disarm, with the iCarly star detailing the horror she suffered at the hands of Debra, who died in 2013, both darkly comic and deeply heart-breaking in equal measure.
It’s not too often that the mother-daughter relationship is explored in such an honest manner, with its depictions in film, TV and other media often quite saccharine and timid.
‘Mother-daughter dynamics are something people are really scared to touch,’ Fiona Yassin, psychotherapist and director of trauma treatment centre, The Wave Clinic, explains. ‘It’s not something people get to voice in their toxicity. People don’t want to write about female abusers.
‘We are taught that women should be more trustworthy, gentler, kinder and more emotionally available, and when they’re not, it’s seen as doubly malevolent.’
Jennette’s relationship with her mother was forged in and defined by trauma.
When Jennette was just two years old, Debra was diagnosed with aggressive, stage four breast cancer. She nearly died from the disease, with some of her behaviours manifesting following her treatment. Because she had seen Debra suffer so much, Jennette was desperately trying to make her happy, and was terrified of losing her.
In the early chapters of I’m Glad My Mom Died, Jennette recalls her sixth birthday party, where she wished her mum could stay alive another year as she blew out the candles on her birthday cake. The fear of loss meant the former child star acquiesced to mother’s demands, even if it made Jennette feel uncomfortable: agreeing to become an actor, taking up 14 dance classes a week, being pushed to audition for shows, even letting her mother wipe her bottom and clean her in the shower until she was 16, as to not upset her.
It’s not uncommon for even young children to behave in this way around an abusive parent, says Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic.
‘The relationship between a mother and her child is critical for development – it needs to be a relationship defined by safety and trust,’ she says. ‘By default, an abusive mother betrays that feeling of safety. And so the child may have a lot of fears when it comes to forming and maintaining relationships with others as they have not been able to form a secure attachment growing up. This kind of relationship is likely to underpin many areas of psychological functioning from when the child is young all the way into adulthood.’
Yassin agrees. ‘An abusive caregiver puts you at risk of physical problems when you’re older. The heart attack rate for children who have had a traumatic early years environment is 400x that compared to the general public.
‘Children with traumatised childhoods are also significantly more likely to become addicted to drugs and alcohol as they get older.’
Jennette speaks openly in the book about how the pressure enforced on her by her mother resulted in anxiety, shame and self-loathing, which then manifests in alcohol addiction and poor relationships.
Her anorexia and bulimia, which got so bad she rotted a tooth from constant vomiting, was directly instilled to her by her mother from an early age. Debra, who weighed 6.5 stone herself, encouraged strict calorie counting when Jennette was pre-pubescent so she could keep landing herself younger roles, and was seen as a way for them to ‘bond’ as they both shared small salads to keep their weight down.
You caused my cancer to come back. I hope you’re happy knowing this. You have to live with this fact. You gave me cancer.
While Jennette knows her attitude to food is deeply unhealthy, she struggles to recover, and finds herself constantly relapsing.
Eating disorders can be used as a crutch for those who have grown up in traumatising environment, Yassin says, as it can be a means for the abused child to gain control.
‘They’re pretty commonplace in these sorts of relationships,’ she explains. ‘It enables the abused to have control and ownership of their feelings. If you’re going to bed so hungry that it hurts, you feel that. Mum may not allow her to have anything of her own but she owns the eating disorder. That sense of ownership can be important. It can also be a way of numbing the pain that their parent is putting them through.
‘Eating disorders are never about the food on the plate. It’s about pain.’
Defying her mother’s wills, be it about food or anything else, gave Jennette brief pleasure, but long-term fear that Debra could find out. When her cancer returns, any of Jennette’s perceived ‘wrongdoings’ (such as putting on weight or having secret boyfriends) became a stick she was more than willing to beat her daughter with – despite Jennette’s success meaning she was effectively the sole provider of their family’s income.
In one vicious email exchange, Jennette’s mother tells her: ‘YOU caused my cancer to come back. I hope you’re happy knowing this. YOU have to live with this fact. YOU gave me cancer.
‘PS: reminder to send fridge money. Our yoghurt has soured.’
In an interview following the book’s publication, Jennette acknowledges her mother may have had mental health issues of her own.
‘She never sought help, never worked on any of her stuff,’ she says. ‘I completely empathise with mental illness, but the fact that she didn’t try to change it, that’s a more complicated feeling for me.’
Trauma can be ‘spread’ through generations if the ordeals which have inflicted said trauma isn’t effectively dealt with, says Yassin.
‘We talk about it being almost contagious,’ she explains. ‘The best thing to do is working through the ordeal until it doesn’t carry any charge for you anymore. If you don’t deal with the trauma and end up replicating it, then there’s the potential that it will manifest in your romantic relationships and friendships, and then it will come out in your relationships with your children.
‘Abusive relationships can bleed into other relationships. Some behaviour will mirror in every relationship unless whatever is causing that behaviour is dealt with.’
Within the book, we see Jennette seek therapy to try and tend to some of the wounds her mother left entrenched after she dies from cancer aged 56.
The first therapist Jennette sees listens as she describes her mother’s behaviour in detail, before the therapist broaches the idea that, maybe, her mother was an abuser. It’s a concept Jennette can’t comprehend.
‘My whole life, my entire existence has been orientated to the narrative that Mom wants what’s best for me,’ she writes. ‘If she didn’t… that means my entire life, entire point of view, entire identity has been built on a false foundation.’
Having to renegotiate entrenched beliefs can be triggering for abused children, as they have to create a new identity from scratch: something that requires a lot of mental resilience and strength.
‘You need to build up those internal resources to comprehend trauma, and that can take a really long time,’ Yassin explains. ‘The possibility of being retraumatised can be greater if it’s not handled sensitively.
‘When we’re younger, we develop something called schema – our day-to-day beliefs that we think about ourselves – but if we have an abusive caregiver, these schema can form differently.
‘For an example, someone with an overprotective mum may believe the world is a fearful place. They may struggle with trust, and so they may be triggered by situations where they feel they can’t trust someone. It can take years to reprocess these beliefs.’
It may have taken a long time, with Jennette eventually getting a new therapist, turning her back on acting and writing a one-woman show in which I’m Glad My Mom Died stemmed from, but the actor has finally come to terms with her childhood trauma.
She hasn’t entirely forgiven Debra for what she suffered at her hands – and that is sometimes far healthier than a traditional, storybook conclusion which is wrapped up in a neat bow, explains Yassin.
‘People go into therapy looking for something that’s going to make them happy or a ‘pretty’ ending. It doesn’t always work that way,’ she says.
‘I think you can get to the understanding that you don’t have to forgive, the world doesn’t collapse if you choose not to offer forgiveness. For some people, the peace come from sharing their reality more than finding forgiveness.’
In her memoir, Jennette acknowledges she has reached a point where she can sit within the two complex and conflicting opinions she has of her mother. She understands how Debra treated her was deeply wrong, and yet still misses her because she admired some of her qualities: her infectious happiness, her pep talks and childlike spirit.
Being able to navigate these two viewpoints can be the most beneficial place for an abused child to navigate.
‘Many people are forced to sit between things being all good or all bad. It’s where we get very rigid,’ Yassin says. ‘Parent-child relationships can be hugely complicated if the child has been abused.
‘No one is wholly all good or all bad. People are made of moving parts – you can choose to work with their positive elements, or discard them for the negative. In order to reach peace and understanding, it’s knowing that things are made out of separate elements, and deciding the best course of action for you.’
Now, without having to appease a controlling mother, Jennette is able to live her life in a way she chooses to, discovering her true identity. Living in Los Angeles, she is working on her first novel, as well as hosting the podcast Empty Inside that explores difficult and taboo topics.
‘I genuinely felt I had no identity without my mom,’ she said in a recent interview.
‘I didn’t know who I was. I felt terrified, incompetent and incapable. Eventually, the process for me was realising that those feelings were her conditioning. That was her voice, not mine, but it took a long time to get to a place where I could identify that I was, and am, glad that she died.’
I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy (Simon and Schuster) is available to buy from all good bookshops.
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