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Jennette McCurdy lived a teen star dream. Silently, she was suffering.

The former ‘iCarly’ actress opens up about her abusive mother, struggles with eating disorders and her Nickelodeon child star past in her memoir, ‘I’m Glad My Mom Died’

Jennette McCurdy, a former Nickelodeon star, has a new memoir titled “I'm Glad My Mom Died” about her troubling childhood in the spotlight. (Philip Cheung for The Washington Post)
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PASADENA, Calif. — For the entirety of her teens, Jennette McCurdy was a literal poster child for Nickelodeon stardom. Her face was beamed into millions of homes every week on episodes of “iCarly.” Her smile was plastered on towering Hollywood billboards, as well as on lunchboxes, T-shirts, journals, plastic plates and party balloons. She danced onstage with Michelle Obama and sang on a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

She was living the epitome of a wholesome teen star dream. But it was all a lie.

“There was this half of my life that was so cheesy and so polished and so glossy and so fake,” she said. “And then there was this other part of my life that was so painful and real and raw and hurting, and that part was going completely unseen.”

The vibe is darkly comedic on this cloudless July day in Pasadena at an upscale comfort-food restaurant near where McCurdy lives. The innocuous background makes a grotesque juxtaposition to discussions of her emotionally, mentally and physically abusive mother, her own past struggles with eating disorders and alcohol, and a career she was forced into as a child.

Pizza arrives while McCurdy recalls being given antibiotic injections in her buttock on set to keep her working through a bout of strep throat. She swishes her blond ponytail aside and makes a move on a fried chicken slider as she marvels at the time her ex-boyfriend told her he thought he was Jesus Christ reincarnated.

McCurdy smiles and laughs often, but it’s no longer on cue. And it often happens when it feels like maybe it shouldn’t.

It’s a similar tone she strikes in her new memoir, the provocatively titled “I’m Glad My Mom Died” (out Aug. 9). The now 30-year-old has been slowly opening up about the reality of her past in her one-woman live show of the same name and on her podcast, “Empty Inside.” But McCurdy’s memoir is, thus far, her magnum opus. It’s a sharply funny and empathetic look at a trove of personal trauma extending from her early childhood through her twenties. Each vignette reveals new nightmares that, for much of her life, she knew only as normal.

“The type of trauma that Jennette has been through usually crushes a person,” said her friend and comedian Jerrod Carmichael in a phone interview. “It’s like she was in the rubble of a plane crash, but survived. And she’s willing to contend with and confront these things that I’ve seen a lot of people run from.”

As the title suggests, McCurdy’s late mother, Debra, is central to her story and to her pain. Debra was first diagnosed with breast cancer when McCurdy was 2 years old and ultimately died from a subsequent battle with the disease in 2013, when McCurdy was 21. The years in between saw McCurdy perform a high-wire act of people-pleasing and silent suffering, while projecting a perky demeanor for the world.

She grew up relatively poor and Mormon and was home-schooled alongside her three older brothers in a small house in Orange County, Calif. Her mom had dreamed of becoming an actress and foisted her unfulfilled aspirations onto her daughter. Her dad (who she found out was not her biological father after her mother’s death) worked two jobs and was, as Jennette put it, “not a very emotionally connected person.”

Debra dictated Jennette’s likes and wants and made every decision for her well into her teens. She insisted on giving McCurdy showers until she was 16 years old, washing her hair, shaving her legs and performing routine breast and vaginal exams as a means, she said, to check for cancerous lumps.

“She worked really hard to keep our relationship very private. I now see it as conditioning, but at the time I thought, ‘Oh, Mommy and me have a relationship that’s so special,’” McCurdy said. “Like when you have a best friend and you have all these secrets and that feels like a form of intimacy. That’s exactly what my mom did with me — only it wasn’t friendship. It was abuse.”

McCurdy's relationship with her mom was all-consuming. She lived in constant fear of disappointing her mother and being the victim of her wrath, but also in fear of her mom's cancer returning and the immense guilt she'd feel if she stepped out of line.

The whole family walked on eggshells around Debra, but one of McCurdy’s brothers, Dustin, who is five years her senior, said he still feels guilty he did not realize the extent of their mom’s abuse toward Jennette until recently.

“While I may have known the outline, the sketch of what had happened, there were more details presented in her [one-woman] show that surprised me,” he said in a phone interview. “But I do realize intellectually, of course, that that was kind of the whole point: It was a very deliberate, very covert, clandestine relationship.”

Dustin, who said his mother was also “extremely abusive toward my dad, mentally abusive, and very mentally abusive toward me,” initially found relief in Debra’s preoccupation with her only daughter. “For me, having [Jennette] be the breadwinner, this is going to sound really selfish, but it kind of got our mom away from us. So part of me was more than willing to be like, ‘Oh, she’s fine. Take her out of the house for a while. That sounds great.’”

“Back then, it seemed like Jennette often tried to get us in trouble and kiss up to Mom,” he said. “Now, I totally get it. She just wanted to stay safe in whatever way she could.”

This one looks like a brontosaurus,” McCurdy gleefully observes as she plucks a stalk of fried asparagus from the bowl at the center of the table.

The idea that McCurdy could take pleasure in the presence of food was unimaginable a few years ago. Her mother began helping her restrict her calories and encouraged her to become anorexic at age 11 in an attempt to delay puberty and book more roles, McCurdy said. Occasionally, the young actress’s plummeting weight raised alarm bells to people around her, including her pediatrician and dance instructor, but no one ever pushed the matter far enough to intervene.

“What would happen if anybody tried to step in was my mom would completely turn off toward them. She'd go cold,” McCurdy said. “If my dance instructor had continued to press, I'm sure my mom would have just pulled me out of dance. If somebody from church had said something, we wouldn't show up at that ward anymore. Like, she could not be challenged.”

The “eating disorder voice,” an internal dialogue filled with judgment and self-hatred, began to consume McCurdy's every thought. First, as she battled anorexia and, later, grappling with bingeing and bulimia. At one point, she lost a molar in an airplane bathroom, the result of tooth decay from frequent vomiting.

In her late teens, when paparazzi photos showed a curvier McCurdy on a Hawaiian getaway with a boyfriend her mother didn’t know about, Debra sent a barrage of abusive emails, quoted in the memoir, calling Jennette “a little slut” and an “ugly monster.” She attempted to sabotage Jennette’s career, posting menacing letters on fan club pages in an attempt to get her fans to turn on her. And then she asked Jennette for money to pay to fix the family refrigerator.

McCurdy never wanted to become an actress. Her sole motivation for performing, from the time she was 6 years old, was to please her mother. After appearing in national commercials and small parts on sitcoms and in the Harrison Ford flop “Hollywood Homicide,” she booked a starring role on Nickelodeon’s “iCarly” at age 13, playing Carly’s wisecracking, juvenile delinquent best friend, Sam Puckett.

The series centered on a young vlogger (Miranda Cosgrove) and her quirky entourage, and it quickly became the network’s flagship show. Especially popular episodes drew more than 6 million viewers, beating other prime-time cable fare like the NBA playoffs; its highest-rated installment pulled in 11.2 million. It was a global phenomenon. Kids were obsessed and viewed McCurdy as their own tough-as-nails best friend.

But not only was McCurdy nothing like Sam, her on-screen personality was largely built around food. Sam often gnawed on fried chicken and oversize turkey legs and swung a sock filled with a stick of butter (a.k.a. a “butter sock”) as a kid-friendly weapon.

“It’s tragically hilarious. It made me so anxious because my character was constantly eating,” she said. “I tried speaking with the producers on a couple occasions, asking if we could dial back on that stuff. I had some sort of reasoning like, ‘I think there’s so much more to Sam as a character, and I think she goes much deeper than this.’ But I was not capable of facing the eating disorder for myself so, of course, I wasn’t capable of saying, ‘Hey, I’m actually really struggling with this. So, can we not?’”

In public, fans would spot her and shout, “Hey, Sam! Where’s your turkey leg?” Or they’d gift her Sno Balls, the real-life processed dessert equivalent of the Fat Cakes featured on the show.

“It started to feel like my life was mocking me in every way,” she said. “They didn’t know what I was struggling with, but it felt like people were just poking directly in every f---ing insecurity and every trauma that I had. It was just twisting the knife.”

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While her mother dominated every aspect of her life, when she got to set each day for “iCarly” and the spinoff “Sam & Cat,” she was also under the domain of Dan Schneider, the creator and showrunner of her two sitcoms and a slew of other shows at Nickelodeon.

In her memoir, McCurdy refers only to “The Creator” when detailing her experiences on set, leaving out a name. The vague moniker is one she just “kind of thought was funny,” she said. “I wanted some laughter around that, specifically because I know there’s so much tension there.”

Day to day, she wrote, “The Creator” was “mean-spirited, controlling, and terrifying,” firing children over basic mistakes and making “grown men and women cry with his insults and degradation.” His intermittent praise, like that of her mother, came with strings and fear. “Tomorrow he might be screaming insults in my face that will hurt me just as much as the compliments raise me up.”

She recalled occasions where he provided an unsolicited shoulder massage and pressured her to sip his alcohol-spiked coffee when she was 18, while he lamented that “the ‘iCarly’ kids are so wholesome.”

According to McCurdy, after allegations of emotional abuse, “The Creator” was eventually forbidden from being on set with any actors and operated out of what she described in her book as a “cave-like room to the side of the sound stage, surrounded by piles of cold cuts, his favorite snack, and Kids’ Choice Awards blimps, his most cherished life accomplishment.”

“My heart starts beating fast. It makes me angry,” she said over lunch. “But it’s important to talk about. It was so commonplace, his behavior, and it was so accepted because everyone was scared of losing their job. I don’t blame any of them. I get it. But it was really unfortunate, everything that happened in a children’s television series environment. It really seems like there’s not much of a moral compass there.”

When “iCarly” ended after six seasons, Nickelodeon greenlit a Schneider-run spinoff series that brought together McCurdy’s character, Sam, and Ariana Grande’s “Victorious” character, Cat, for the blandly titled “Sam & Cat.”

Grande and McCurdy tolerated one another, but there was no close, sisterly bond like there had been between Cosgrove and McCurdy. As Grande’s music career began to skyrocket, McCurdy came to resent Grande, who was given permission to miss work for her music commitments while McCurdy held down the fort on set and turned down her own feature film offers that conflicted with shooting. She’d been promised a slot directing an episode, but that never materialized.

It wasn’t that she was jealous of Grande’s musical success — McCurdy had attempted a brief foray into country music and hated it — but the show had originally been pitched to McCurdy as a solo vehicle, so little things added up. Her breaking point came when Grande showed up on set and revealed she’d spent the previous evening playing charades at Tom Hanks’s house.

“I love Tom Hanks!” McCurdy said. “What I would give to meet Tom Hanks.”

“Sam & Cat” soon imploded, and when the series was canceled after 36 episodes in 2014, it came with an unexpected proposal. McCurdy said she was told that Nickelodeon would offer her a $300,000 “thank-you gift” if she agreed to never talk publicly about her experiences at the network, specifically in relation to the behavior of “The Creator.” “This feels to me like hush money,” McCurdy wrote she said at the time. She turned it down on the spot.

A representative for Nickelodeon declined to comment. Requests for comment from Schneider’s agent were not returned.

“The way I see it now is, that decision came from self-righteousness,” she said. “Should I have taken that money? I'm glad I didn't because I'm able to talk about it, and I don't have to have that secret haunt me.”

For McCurdy, the competing expectations of her mother, the showrunner, the network and her fans resulted in pent-up “frustration and rage” that increasingly manifested in self-sabotage. Her teens had been so sheltered, she was left flailing as she entered adulthood and began experimenting with sex and alcohol. She was in a holding pattern of despair and began drinking heavily to cope. Her bulimia worsened.

“It’s no f---ing wonder people go off the deep end. It’s no f---ing wonder people shave their head and get tattoos on their face or pee in buckets,” she said. “It’s no wonder that people have mental health struggles and very public breakdowns. I’m really grateful that I didn’t have that. My breakdown was private.” She pauses and chuckles, “I break down in silence, in the sad silence of my own doom.”

Despite being surrounded by other young actors on set, McCurdy felt like she could never confide in anyone about the turmoil and discomfort she felt with her stardom while her mother was still alive.

“I had no one to talk about that with because my mom was very clear: This is something to be grateful for. This is what we’ve been working for our whole lives,” she said. “She had all the standard stage mom phrases ready to make sure that if I even expressed the slightest bit of discomfort, it was bam, no, that’s not allowed.”

The server comes by to check on everything and McCurdy flashes a grin and two big thumbs up, then groans, “I always do that.”

It wasn’t until her mom died in 2013 that McCurdy realized her “self-destructive ways were as life-threatening as they were,” and she forced herself to start regularly attending therapy. “That got me to the point where I was able to accept my mom was abusive,” she said. But it wasn’t an instant fix.

“I was still very much the person I was while my mom was alive. It was a very slow-moving process, excruciating in a lot of ways,” she said. “Coming to terms with the reality of what my life had been was not simple. It was not painless. It was through consistent work and exploration that it became freeing and healing.”

After starring in the Netflix thriller series “Between,” she stepped back from acting almost entirely as she embarked on years of intensive therapy and eating disorder recovery. She began allowing her passion for writing to fill the void left by the removal of destructive forces.

Carmichael said that in their friendship, which began several years ago when they were introduced through mutual friends, “She’s said things to me that just pierced my soul.” They usually skip small talk and go “from zero to ‘Why were you crying yesterday?’”

“She was baptized in fame and the pursuit of it and being told what her life is, a narrative that’s essentially indoctrination through her mother and religion and Hollywood,” said Carmichael, who noted that McCurdy has been “very generous and very open” about her personal life with him. “I really respect and admire her.”

“So many people have artificial growth and Instagram growth, right? Jennette’s is much rawer than that and in-process,” he added.

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A couple of years ago, Cosgrove reached out to McCurdy about starring in an “iCarly” reboot, this time aimed at adults and streaming on Paramount Plus. Cosgrove and several other stars would reprise their roles, but Schneider would not be involved. McCurdy declined.

“That was an easy ‘no’ for me,” McCurdy said. “My biggest priority is my mental health and my happiness, and there was no intersection there. There was no overlap.”

“I'm grateful for the financial stability that career provided me, and I'm grateful for friendships I've made, and I'm grateful that it put me on the path that I'm on now,” she continued. “But it has been difficult for me to find value beyond that. That time of my life was so drenched in the baggage of not wanting to be there, of my mom, of the environment that I was in — I'd like to be able to have a little bit more peace with that.”

Even now, she knows exactly what her mother would think of the sleeveless mock turtleneck she wore to lunch (“She’d hate it. She had terrible taste.”), her food order (“Wouldn’t be happy about this at all.”), her friends, her car, her house. But that nagging voice is a lot quieter these days and no longer provides a constant soundtrack to her life.

She currently has a book of essays and at least one novel in the works. She’s directed a few short films and is hoping to venture into longer fare. Recently, she hasn’t hated the idea of tiptoeing back into acting.

It’s been a long time since she’s exhibited any of the criteria for an eating disorder, she said. Alcohol is no longer a vice, though she might have a glass of wine occasionally at dinner with friends. She spent her 30th birthday at Disney World, and she’s been in what she describes as a “healthy, loving” relationship for the past six years.

“There’s no active form of dysfunction in my life at all,” she said, adding later, “I’m in a good place, which is such a weird thing to say. I feel more fulfilled than I ever have, and I wish it wasn’t new, but it is very new for me.”

Ashley Spencer is a freelance writer and reporter whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, the New York Times, Vanity Fair and elsewhere. Follow her at @AshleyySpencer.

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