In every memoir-writing class I’ve attended, someone has inevitably asked: I want to write about this thing that happened to me, but I’m afraid of what my family will think. Should I still do it? To this I’ve heard a few answers. First, there’s the write your truth no matter what approach. In creative-writing workshops and MFA classes, I’ve almost always heard this advice from people for whom dealing with familial consequences appeared to be a thin afterthought. Then there’s the write your truth but also ask for permission response, which could lead writers to a surprising cooperation but could also scupper their whole project. Once, though, I watched an instructor listen to a student describe a manuscript that dealt frankly with family mental illness and abuse. There was no way to obfuscate the identity of the other family members. The writer was still deeply tied to their family, and the risk of estrangement was not an option. There, I heard the most honest answer of all: Maybe you should wait until they’re dead.
The actor Jennette McCurdy did just that with her best-selling instant hit of a memoir, I’m Glad My Mom Died. McCurdy is most recognizable as a child star of Nickelodeon’s late-2000s sitcom iCarly, where she played the brash and funny Sam. Now, as a memoirist, she paints a picture devoid of the high-fructose colors and seeming glamor of a life in Hollywood. In her book’s first pages, an adult McCurdy is hovering over her mother, who has cancer and is in a coma. McCurdy and her three brothers are in the hospital, taking turns whispering to their parent’s prone form, hoping to stir signs of life. When it’s time for McCurdy to speak, she chooses to tell her mother that she currently weighs 89 pounds—the goal that McCurdy’s mother wanted her daughter to reach.
It’s a moment of hilarity and heartbreak. On one hand, the utterance is a punch line, unexpected and sharp, just like the book’s title. On the other, it starts to signal one of many instances of mental, physical, and emotional abuse that McCurdy suffered from her mother. For the reader, the moment also encapsulates what they’ve signed up for: a layered account of a woman reckoning with love and violence at once. This will not be a flippant exposé of childhood stardom, nor an angry diatribe directed at an abuser. This complexity is what makes I’m Glad My Mom Died feel real. It’s also why it had to be a memoir.
Today, celebrity revelation is frequent, and can take many forms. Paris Hilton has used her YouTube documentary This Is Paris to discuss the mental and physical abuse she says she endured at the psychiatric residential treatment center where she attended school at 17. (The facility changed ownership in 2000; its current CEO told The Salt Lake Tribune that its mental-health treatment methods have since changed, but did not address Hilton’s specific allegations.) More recently, Marcus Mumford, of the band Mumford & Sons, released a solo song about being sexually abused as a child. Whereas celebrities might once have been at the mercy of tabloids, social media and self-made confessions allow them a tightly controlled disclosure. The famous will display their vulnerable side—to the extent they choose. McCurdy opted to make her revelation a full, multilayered book. Despite the memoir’s provocative title, she isn’t trying simply to say I was abused. The arc of her memoir is really trying to navigate the complicated question of what, if anything, a child owes a caregiver who mistreats them.
McCurdy does this, in part, by carefully inhabiting her child-self’s point of view. In an early vignette, she recounts going to hated acting classes as a young kid, yet remarks: “I’m glad Mom gets what she wants, to watch me act. But it does add stress to me.” In another striking moment, McCurdy enters puberty and realizes she’s beginning to grow breasts. She understands immediately that her growing up—and by extension having her own desires, leaving her mother’s sphere of influence—must be avoided at all costs. She asks her mother if anything can “stop the boobies from coming.” And she recounts her mother telling her the secret to staying small, a secret that McCurdy felt would “cement and validate our wonderful best friendship, the way only secrets can.” That secret is calorie restriction, which, as McCurdy grows older, spirals into anorexia, binge eating, and a protracted struggle with bulimia.
What’s remarkable about this scene isn’t just that McCurdy’s mother pushes her daughter to disordered eating. It’s that McCurdy has the self-awareness to recall this instance as her younger self interpreted it: as a memory of love, closeness, maybe even gratitude. When McCurdy draws on her child voice, the reader instinctively takes the position of the discerning adult to see both the wrongness of the situation and the flawed, desperate love young McCurdy has for her mother. That complicated truth—of having adored and feared someone, of missing them and being relieved that they’re gone—deserves the more than 310 pages McCurdy takes.
Some supposed literary types will think the immense popularity of I’m Glad My Mom Died—the hardcover initially sold out at many major bookstores—is merely the result of McCurdy’s former stardom and modern culture’s thirst for a sensational take. With its bold headline and bright cover featuring a smirking McCurdy holding a pink urn, the book feels deliberately marketed for virality, perfect for sharing on the internet and catching the eye of bookstore browsers. I’ve mentioned the title of this memoir to some people who have dismissed it out of hand, remarking that being glad one’s parent is dead is crude and a sentiment that should be kept to oneself. But those people haven’t read the book. McCurdy takes her time to remember difficult and complex moments of her life, staying true to her younger self while ultimately trying to come to terms with who she is as an independent adult. It’s a triumph of the confessional genre.