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On the outside, the "iCarly" actress, who portrayed Sam Puckett to a generation of kids, abided by the bubblegum standard for young stars and largely avoided public scandals. In 2017, she left the industry quietly, remaining absent from the recent "iCarly" reboot on Paramount+.
But now, McCurdy, 30, is exposing the harrowing details of what really went on behind the scenes.
Her first memoir, "I'm Glad My Mom Died" (Simon & Schuster, 320 pp., out now), uses dark humor to explore the traumas of early fame in an industry she never wanted to join. It was all for her "narcissistic" mother, Debbie, who, before dying of breast cancer in 2013, allegedly steered her daughter into compromising situations. Instead of providing love and support, McCurdy says her mother instead conditioned her into eating disorders and administered breast and genital examinations – allegedly to check for cancerous lumps – until she was 16.
The title of her first book is intentionally harsh and to some, inappropriate. After all, it's a societal expectation that love for our family members be unconditional.
"I love a bold title, and I never would have titled it that if I didn't feel like I earned (it) in the writing of the book," McCurdy tells USA TODAY. "I definitely would not have been able to confront or face my experience of eating disorders had my mother not passed away… because my eating disorders were so endorsed and supported and encouraged by her."
For McCurdy, this book isn't just her writing debut. It's a reckoning with guilt and grief after her mother's premature death. It's healing from multiple eating disorders and processing decades of trauma. It's finally doing what she wants for the first time: not acting. Writing.
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Jennette McCurdy was only 11 when her mother suggested calorie restriction
McCurdy was not even a teenager when she learned how an eating disorder worked.
Much to her mother's excitement, the rising star found great success in her early acting days, appearing in hit shows like "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "Malcolm in the Middle." But in order to advance her career, her mother suggested a life-changing way to keep her looking young even after puberty:
"If you really want to know how to stay small, there's this secret you can do ... it's called calorie restriction."
From that moment, McCurdy learned to survive on 1,000, sometimes 500, calories a day. Her anorexia eventually spiraled into binge-eating, then bulimia. Part of it was an effort to maintain her already-petite stature. But mostly, it was a desperate attempt to bond with and impress her mother, who she says also exhibited disordered eating.
In her private life, the idea of food relentlessly tortured McCurdy. Yet when it came to the big screen, her "iCarly" character contrastingly indulged in buckets of fried chicken and racks of barbecue ribs.
A cruel irony, she quips.
"To be totally honest, I really had a lot of anxiety that surfaced from having to eat on camera, just about every episode, because it was such a comedic gag that my character engaged in," McCurdy reveals. "I didn't know how to express that or to handle that (at the time)."
Now, McCurdy admits she never thought she'd have a balanced, healthy relationship with food. But through dialectical behavior therapy, a skills-based program that helps people cope with upsetting feelings and stressors, she learned that eating disorders don't have to be chronic: There is hope.
"I have not had any eating disorder symptoms for years. I feel so free from those," she says. "People still often talk about how difficult they are to overcome. I hope (this book) provides some sort of encouragement for somebody out there who needs to hear it."
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Though stars like Jojo Siwa have publicly criticized Nickelodeon, McCurdy has remained relatively mum about her own personal experiences with mistreatment toward child stars.
Without naming names, McCurdy describes a toxic and unhealthy workplace perpetuated by management. Claims of sexual harassment circulated within the "child friendly" corporation and "The Creator," accused of "emotional abuse," shocked the TV world with his departure, she writes. (McCurdy declined to comment on The Creator's identity, but Dan Schneider was the show's producer and showrunner. USA TODAY reached out to Schenider's rep and Nickelodeon for comment).
She was hesitant at first about when – or whether – she'd ever speak out, writing that she turned down a $300,000 "hush money" deal. But nearly a decade later, she's "ready" to share her story "because I had been living with the burden of that truth for so long that I felt I needed to express it."
As for her Nickelodeon co-stars, McCurdy makes sure to address the rumors surrounding her relationship with "Sam & Cat" co-star Ariana Grande. At the time, it was assumed the on-screen besties feuded over pay differences that led to the show's cancellation in 2014. But McCurdy's book sets the record straight: from her perspective, that their rift had less to do with money and more to do with equity.
While McCurdy coped with her mother's death in 2013, McCurdy says Grande was given permission to miss episodes in order to travel and perform.
"I didn't like her. I couldn't like her," McCurdy writes, acknowledging that some of it stemmed from jealousy of Grande's seemingly "easy upbringing."
The two haven't spoken since the show's run, but McCurdy wishes Grande well. She knows how that sounds – but genuinely, she hopes her former co-star is "happy and fulfilled."
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McCurdy's relationship with her mother was complex. Sometimes, she craved her approval and validation – so much so that people-pleasing became instinctual, and she inadvertently gave up control over her diaries, schedules, relationships, finances and even body during shower checkups.
But then she distanced herself from her mother during her dying years, until 2013. Strangely, it felt freeing, McCurdy recalls, and she caught a glimpse of the happiness and independence she deserved.
"A therapist suggested that my mother was abusive, and I was in no way ready to hear that information," McCurdy says. Looking back and processing the death of the woman who raised her proved confusing. Why was she relieved? Shouldn't she be overwhelmed with sadness?
After another attempt at therapy, McCurdy says she learned to reframe her life and accept the unfortunate truth that her mother's actions weren't love: It was exploitation and "narcissistic abuse."
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"I felt pressure to find forgiveness and to justify her behavior… but ultimately, what I realized is that there are a lot of people who have mental health issues who take full accountability and who really work on themselves and spend so much time and energy trying to trying to improve their lives and the connections with others."
McCurdy's mother was not one of those people, she says. Like most narcissists, her mother "would say, 'No, you need to do something about your behavior. I don't have problems.'"
Healing from trauma looks different for everyone: For McCurdy, writing this memoir symbolized empowerment over her narrative. And understanding that it's OK not to forgive her late mother provided her peace:
"I will say that somehow in letting go of forgiveness being the goal, I got to a place where I was able to find some degree of compassion, some degree of sympathy for my mom."
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If you or someone you know is struggling with body image or eating concerns, the National Eating Disorders Association's toll-free and confidential help line is available by phone or text at 1-800-931-2237 or by click-to-chat message at nationaleatingdisorders.org/helpline. For 24/7 crisis situations, text "NEDA" to 741-741.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jennette McCurdy on narcissistic mom's abuse: 'I'm Glad My Mom Died'