Jennette McCurdy and Her Mom’s Toxic Relationship

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "I'm Glad My Mom Died" by Jennette McCurdy. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How did Debra McCurdy help her daughter Jennette become a star? What was Jennette McCurdy’s relationship like with her mom?

Jennette McCurdy’s book I’m Glad My Mom Died describes the relationship between her and her mother as toxic. Her mother did everything possible to ensure Jennette would be a successful actor but sacrificed crucial parental qualities in the process.

Keep reading to learn more about the difficult relationship between Jennette McCurdy and mom Debra.

McCurdy’s Difficult Relationship With Her Mom

Jennette McCurdy and her mom’s relationship dominates every aspect of her childhood and young adulthood. We’ll examine how Debra’s behavior colors McCurdy’s home life, her relationship with her dad, her acting career, her disordered eating and drinking, and her efforts to be independent of Debra.

McCurdy’s Troubled Home Life

From early childhood, McCurdy lives with her family in Garden Grove, California, about an hour and a half from Hollywood. McCurdy’s home life is marred by Debra’s mental and physical illnesses, including Debra’s hoarding, her volatile mental and emotional state, and her cancer. These issues cause McCurdy to feel constantly anxious, guilty, and responsible for her mom’s health and happiness. However, she loves her mom deeply and, as a child, she’s unaware of how much her uncomfortable feelings are a reaction to Debra’s behavior.

Debra’s Hoarding

Debra is a hoarder, and their house is so filled with junk that there’s no room for the four children to sleep in their bedrooms; they sleep on mats on the living room floor. They also use a fold-out mat on the floor as a dining room table.

Debra’s Volatile Mental and Emotional State

Debra is very emotionally volatile and frequently has angry outbursts over everything from her sons spilling milk to her husband getting home late from work—she often makes him sleep in the car when he gets home late.

Debra’s unpredictability causes McCurdy to be very sensitive to her mom’s emotions; this hyperawareness allows McCurdy to determine what’s about to happen and behave accordingly. She feels responsible for her mom’s happiness.

Debra’s Cancer

Debra was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer when McCurdy was two years old, and she underwent chemotherapy, radiation, a bone marrow transplant, a mastectomy, and a breast implant. Even after the cancer is in remission, Debra’s illness is a constant presence in McCurdy’s childhood: Debra frequently tells her cancer story to anyone who will listen, and every week she makes her kids rewatch a home video she made shortly after her diagnosis. Each time, she tells McCurdy that she can’t understand how she could have been singing “Jingle Bells” at such a somber time—McCurdy was two years old.

The overall feeling in McCurdy’s house that her mom’s cancer could return at any minute contributes to McCurdy’s desire to please her mom and do anything she can to keep her healthy and happy. McCurdy even believes that she can keep Debra alive by wishing for it every year when she blows out the candles on her birthday cake.

Debra’s Control of McCurdy’s Acting Career

Whereas Debra’s behavior influences McCurdy’s home life and her relationship with her dad, when it comes to acting, Debra controls McCurdy’s career completely—including the decision to act in the first place.

Debra had always wanted to be an actress, but her parents wouldn’t let her. When McCurdy is six, Debra tells her that she should be an actress because Debra wants to give McCurdy the life she never had. McCurdy knows being an actress is what she has to do to make her mom happy.

Debra takes McCurdy to audition for an agency and McCurdy is accepted as a background actor. She starts to get more work because she’s good at cooperating and doing what she’s told, which she says are important traits for a child actor. She auditions to work as a principal actor with a better-known agent, and she doesn’t get it, but Debra talks the agent into taking McCurdy on as long as she takes acting classes.

McCurdy hates the acting classes. She doesn’t enjoy acting at all, but she’s glad it makes her mom happy. To add to the discomfort, Debra insists on sitting in on her acting class, so McCurdy has the additional pressure of knowing her mom is watching, judging, and coaching her (by using facial expressions and mouthing the lines).

McCurdy becomes known for crying on cue. To do so, she has to imagine horrible things happening to her family. It makes her miserable, but she usually books roles if she cries on cue in the audition. After she’s done this for a while, she has one audition where a part of her rebels against having to feel so much pain again, and she isn’t able to cry. After the audition, she tells her mom that she doesn’t want to act anymore. Her mom throws a fit, crying and banging on the steering wheel. When McCurdy retracts her statement, her mom stops crying immediately. McCurdy notices that she’s not the only one who can cry on cue.

When McCurdy is about 17, she begins to resent her mom for the first time. Her mom controls every aspect of McCurdy’s acting career, down to how she signs her name for autographs. It had always been her mom’s dream for McCurdy to act, and McCurdy had always wanted her mom to be happy. But now that McCurdy is successful, she starts to realize that her mom is happy and she’s not. She feels like her mom used her. Sometimes she even hates her mom, but she immediately feels guilty and tells herself how much she loves her mom and is grateful to her. Near the end of the book, McCurdy describes her mom as a narcissist.

Lack of Emotional and Physical Boundaries Between Debra and McCurdy

McCurdy and her mom are so close that there are few emotional or physical boundaries between them. When teenaged McCurdy finally starts to assert some independence from her mom, Debra punishes her for it.

Debra doesn’t have many friends and, until McCurdy meets her co-star Miranda Cosgrove on iCarly, McCurdy doesn’t, either. When McCurdy is a young girl, Debra tells her repeatedly that she is her best friend and that she’d rather have McCurdy than any man. It makes McCurdy feel special to be so close to her mom.

Throughout McCurdy’s childhood—until she is 17—Debra showers with her. Sometimes Debra showers with both McCurdy and her brother Scottie, who is 16. This makes McCurdy and her brother extremely uncomfortable. Debra says she has to shower with her because she was trained as a hairstylist and only she knows how to properly shampoo and condition McCurdy’s hair.

During the showers, Debra performs breast and vaginal “exams” on McCurdy. She says this is to check for cancer. McCurdy dissociates from her body when this is happening and thinks hard about Disneyland to remove herself mentally from her present reality. When the “exams” are over, McCurdy feels immense relief.

Jennette McCurdy and Her Mom’s Toxic Relationship

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Jennette McCurdy's "I'm Glad My Mom Died" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full I'm Glad My Mom Died summary:

  • Former child star Jennette McCurdy's autobiography
  • McCurdy's difficult, often traumatic, relationship with her controlling mother
  • What it's like to grow up as a child in the spotlight

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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