An auditorium of students facing a projector with Jenette McCurdy on it.
Jennette McCurdy, author of the best-selling "I'm Glad My Mom Died," attracted a large crowd of students to her virtual talk about her life and mental wellness. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

New York Times best-selling author Jennette McCurdy talks to students about overcoming trauma and writing her book

McCurdy spoke to students about her struggle with mental health and the process of writing her memoir.

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On Nov. 29, students flooded the University Commons Theater for the virtual program “Taking Control with Jennette McCurdy,” organized by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Activities Programming Board.

McCurdy spoke remotely about her new book "I'm Glad My Mom Died,” which was on the New York Times Best Seller list for 16 consecutive weeks. She also discussed the process of navigating hostile relationships and her journey toward taking control of her life.

“I think that this event is not only essential, but is really important now for our students’ minds … as they try to find themselves and find their voice and for us to empower our students and most importantly, for our students to be true to who they are,” said Aaron Hart, Ed.D., the new vice president for student affairs at VCU.

The pressure to perform

In her memoir, McCurdy discusses how she pursued acting to please her mother, the stress that came with her fame, her mother’s death from cancer and McCurdy’s eventual path to healing.

McCurdy, a former actress who starred as Sam on the Nickelodeon sitcom “iCarly” and subsequent spin-off show “Sam & Cat.” However, she never liked acting. She got into it because of her mother’s influence. When McCurdy first started, she had trouble looking people in the eye and was so nervous she would physically shake.

“There was some sort of pressure of just needing to do it for the family that I think helped me to almost eventually start to overcome the nerves because I knew that there was something bigger that I was working for,” she said. “But I never really loved it.”

Eventually, she realized she wanted to walk away from her career in acting to pursue writing. It wasn’t an easy decision, particularly with every family member telling her she was throwing away years of work – both her efforts and her mother’s.

“I don't think success matters if you don't feel connected to the thing you're doing,” McCurdy said. “I don't think money matters if you don't believe in the thing you're doing.”

Even though McCurdy faced a lot of abuse from her mother growing up, she said she doesn’t hate her.

“I would say I loved her too much, like I loved her to a state of … codependency,” she said.

McCurdy said she had a hard time defining herself because her identity was so linked to her mother. She even had the same favorite color as her mom because it would upset her mother if she did not.

Students sitting in auditorium chairs clapping.
Students filled the Commons Theater to view the livestream of Jennette McCurdy's appearance. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

For a long time, the author said she used to feel the need to justify her mom’s behavior. For instance, McCurdy defended her mother teaching her how to restrict her eating when she was 11-years-old by rationalizing that her mother thought it would help her acting career.

“Everything had a reason [for] why she was doing it,” McCurdy said. “I would defend her endlessly.”

‘The castle had fallen’  

When McCurdy’s first therapist told her that her mother was abusive, McCurdy dropped the therapist and didn’t go back to therapy for a year and a half. McCurdy said a series of events led her to the lowest part of her life in her late teens and early twenties. That’s when McCurdy said she hit “rock bottom” in terms of her eating disorder and battling addiction.

“As intimidating and overwhelming as it was to accept that my mom had been abusive, I knew that I needed to accept that reality because the castle had fallen at that point,” McCurdy said. “The castle of sort of pretend narratives that I clung to my whole life, that I needed my whole life … I couldn’t pretend any longer. I needed to accept that my mom was abusive in order to start healing and taking accountability for myself.”

After her mother’s death, McCurdy said she would swing from crying because she felt like she was nothing without her mother to being angry and resentful that her mother had conditioned her to feel that way.

“And eventually I realized that that sort of hatred and then the anger was concealing a much more complicated, uncomfortable feeling like the pain and deep sadness and really deep grief …  But I definitely learned that for me, anger is often a defense for what's underneath and what's a lot more uncomfortable to feel,” McCurdy said.

It was during her lowest point McCurdy said she developed her sense of humor, because she needed some levity during her mother’s cancer diagnosis. McCurdy said at first she used humor as a defense mechanism to keep away from her pain, as well as distance herself from others.

Now she views humor as a way to help her actually get closer to her feelings and heal.

McCurdy said she used to be a big people pleaser and another coping mechanism she used was rather than focusing on herself she would try to help other people who “needed it more” instead.

“I would fall into relationships with people that I felt like 'Oh, well, they're alcoholic, so they need more help than I do.' I have an eating disorder … but I'll just work on their issues,” she said.

One of the reasons this was so hard for McCurdy is because growing up her mom made her believe that a boundary was a betrayal of the person you loved. They should have access to everything.

When McCurdy started working on herself and overcoming her issues, she realized concrete boundaries were really important for her. That meant ending some friendships, and even blocking her grandmother.

“I know that can be really scary. You know, I definitely shed a lot of tears,” she said. “I learned a lot in letting go of some friends that had been really instrumental in my life up until that point. But at the end of the day, I do believe you gotta put yourself first and prioritize yourself..”

Approaching her story head-on with humor

When McCurdy was first sending her proposal for a book out to publishers, an agent who picked it up asked if she could make it more “young adult.” By that, they meant to talk less about her exploration of grief, parental abuse and struggles with an eating disorder.

“That's the whole book. I can't cut back on those things – that's literally what the book is,” she said to a laughing audience.

However, McCurdy’s manager encouraged her to write the book she wanted to. If it didn’t sell, it didn’t sell. Obviously, that wasn’t the case.

Students sitting in auditorium chairs with posters of Jenette McCurdy sitting on their laps.
Jennette McCurdy told students, “I don't think success matters if you don't feel connected to the thing you're doing. I don't think money matters if you don't believe in the thing you're doing.” (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Mental health is a passion for McCurdy. One of the things she wanted to do with her book was describe eating disorders in a graphic way that had some humor. When she was struggling with her disorder, all the literature she could find about eating disorders were self-help books.

“I wanted [to write] something that I would have wanted when I was going through [my eating disorder].”

McCurdy said she is grateful for the response she has gotten from her book and didn’t expect the reaction it has inspired. She said she’s been traveling a lot lately and will have people come up to her in the airport to tell her how much they connected to her memoir and share some of their own experiences.

“It’s like there's so much deep connection that's happening that I didn't expect to happen,” she said.

Sav Thurston, a student who attended the event, said they grew up with iCarly and also faced parental abuse.

“Growing up in a household like that, it was really important to see how these figures that we idolize so much growing up could really go through these situations as well,” Thurston said.

Tobi Ojo, a student who is a member of the Activities Programming Board’s event squad, McCurdy’s talk resonated with her. Even though the event was virtual, she said it felt like face-timing a friend.

“She wasn't really formal, she was informal and really tried to seem very present despite being on a virtual screen,” Ojo said.

So what’s next for McCurdy? She said she’s working on a new novel that should be available “very soon.”

Student and employee health and well-being resources at VCU can be found at RamStrong, a one-stop location that addresses the eight dimensions of well-being: physical, emotional, social, financial, intellectual, occupational, environmental and spiritual.