The 2014 film Nightcrawler starred Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou, a ruthlessly ambitious young stringer who sells footage of grisly deaths to news stations, racing over the streets of Los Angeles to be first on the scene. The more risky, parasitic, and depraved his actions, the greater the financial rewards, culminating in Lou starting his own lucrative business. Director Dan Gilroy has called Nightcrawler “a success story” about what it takes to make it in America. The film’s message is simple and powerful: capitalism rewards psychopathy.
Dissimilar though the material may be, that also happens to be the message of former child actor Jennette McCurdy’s new memoir, I’m Glad My Mom Died. McCurdy rose to fame on the show iCarly, a popular children’s sitcom that ran on Nickelodeon for six seasons starting in 2007. The memoir centres on McCurdy’s relationship with her mother, who, in McCurdy’s account, is every bit as ruthless as Lou in Nightcrawler — except instead of selling crime scene footage, she focused her efforts on making McCurdy famous. McCurdy recalls her mother’s words to her as a six-year-old: “You’re gonna be a star, Nettie. I just know it. You’re gonna be a star.” Those weren’t empty words. They were a verbal contract.
McCurdy grew up poor in Garden Grove, California, home primarily to “white trash” as her brother put it. Her family suffered from what her mom called the “curse of the minimum wage,” with family members working low-paying jobs at places like Disneyland and Home Depot. Throughout her early years, McCurdy lived in a house that her parents rented from her dad’s parents. She recalls thinking, “This house is an embarrassment. This house is shameful. I hate this house.”
McCurdy’s mom, Debra, devised an escape plan, pouring her energy into her daughter’s acting career. Debra and Jennette were less mother and daughter than business partners. And Debra put in plenty of work, taking Jennette to countless auditions and hustling to secure her the best representation. Debra pried open door after door for Jennette, until Jennette found herself in the spotlight, performing for a worldwide audience on one of the most popular kids’ shows of the last twenty years.
But McCurdy’s perspective on this sequence of events flips the standard story of hard work and ladder-climbing on its head. In I’m Glad My Mom Died, McCurdy’s emphasis is not on the duo’s stunning success, but on the exploitation and abuse Jennette endured. Debra instills in Jennette a message similar to the one Lou gives his employees at the end of Nightcrawler: follow orders and do as I do, no matter what, and you’ll go far. Jennette’s early success flows from her attention to this advice. After getting her first principal role, she remembers thinking, “They tell Mom this is great news, that this means I’m establishing a reputation as a kid who cooperates and takes direction, two of the most beneficial traits of a child actor.”
As the memoir’s narrative progresses, McCurdy’s need to build and maintain a reputation for obedience takes an increasing toll on her mental health. She recounts an unsettling dinner experience with The Creator — a reference to iCarly creator Dan Schneider, who has recently sustained several allegations of inappropriate conduct — after he offered her the star role in a new show. The Creator pressures McCurdy into drinking alcohol for the first time, places his hand on her knee, and massages her shoulders. McCurdy is unable to voice her discomfort. Instead, she remembers thinking, “It’s always best to agree with The Creator.” The chapter closes with The Creator telling Jennette, “Every kid out there would kill for an opportunity like the one you’ve got. You’re very lucky, Jennette.” McCurdy’s response is heartbreaking: “‘I know,’ I say while he keeps rubbing me. And I do. I do know. I’m so lucky.”
Debra introduces her daughter to the concept of calorie restriction early in the book, and Jennette finds swift success with this method: “I take to calorie restriction quickly and I’m quite good at it. I’m desperate to impress Mom. She’s a great teacher because she’s been calorie restricting for so long, she tells me.” As the memoir unfolds, McCurdy’s calorie restriction devolves into anorexia and then bulimia. Her disordered eating takes over her life and transforms her into a different person, angry and unhappy. This disordered eating persists after Debra’s death, at which point McCurdy confesses to thinking, “I’m starting to expect I’ll have a bulimia-induced heart attack. It’s hard to admit it, but a part of me actually wishes I would. Then I wouldn’t have to be here anymore.”
It’s no coincidence that the devolution of McCurdy’s health and happiness coincides with her ascension of the American class structure. Her mother knows how to play the game. The more she loses herself to her mother and the exploitative children’s entertainment industry, the closer she comes to the true American dream. Eventually McCurdy accumulates enough money to buy her own home, “a beautiful three-story hillside house that was turnkey so I could move in immediately and not worry about having to do any remodeling.” But she knows all along that something isn’t right. Writing from her perspective just after the purchase, she remarks of her home, “This thing looked good on the surface, but underneath it was falling apart.”
By the end of I’m Glad My Mom Died, McCurdy has concluded that she’s “grateful for the financial stability that [my acting] career has provided me, but not much else.” McCurdy reportedly made $50,000 per episode during her time on iCarly, meaning her total salary earnings across the show’s run may have reached close to $5 million. And she’s continued to make money as an actor on other shows, as a musician, as a writer and director, and now as a memoirist. From the perspective of American capitalist culture, McCurdy’s is a success story. She broke the “curse of the minimum wage.” As good capitalist subjects, we ought to be cheering her on.
But the book refuses to let us do that. At the height of her child stardom, McCurdy didn’t feel fulfilled. Instead, she admits, “I feel robbed and exploited.”
The last section of the book, which covers events following Debra’s death, sketches out Jennette’s journey to breaking free from her mother’s grip. McCurdy sells her house and moves into an apartment instead. She starts to improve her mental health, finally getting her disordered eating under control. She comes to reject Debra’s dream for her, writing, “I’m allowed to hate someone else’s dream, even if it’s my reality.”
Like Nightcrawler, I’m Glad My Mom Died is a blistering appraisal of capitalism, a damning indictment of a system where it’s nearly impossible to chart a path from minimum wage to financial success that doesn’t run through exploitation. It demonstrates the perverse incentives of our society, where success often depends on a willingness to skirt morality, and the winning mindset is a blind obsession with getting ahead by any means necessary.
Conor Smyth is a recent graduate of Washington University in St Louis, where he studied history and political science. He is a current intern at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.
This article was first published on Jacobin.