When former child star Jennette McCurdy’s new memoir was released earlier this month, some were taken aback by the book’s title. After all, “I’m Glad My Mom Died” is not a sentence you hear every day.
In an interview with The New York Times, the ex-Nickelodeon star admitted that it took time (and as she details in the book, a lot of therapy) to get to a place where “glad” seemed like an appropriate word to use.
“I feel like I’ve done the processing and put in the work to earn a title or a thought that feels provocative,” she told the paper.
McCurdy’s mom Debra died of cancer in 2013, while McCurdy was still part of the popular Nick show “Sam & Cat” alongside Ariana Grande. In the book, McCurdy writes about how her mom encouraged her to restrict her daily calories and do weekly weigh-ins to stay fit for TV ― behaviors that ultimately led to McCurdy developing an eating disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
McCurdy also alleges that her mother forced her to take showers with her well into her teens and gave her breast and vaginal exams until she was 17 years old.
“Grief for me toward my mom used to be really complicated. I’d feel really angry and confused at why I felt angry that I was grieving her. I felt like she didn’t deserve my tears and my sadness and that she was abusive,” McCurdy told “Good Morning America” recently.
As for the controversial title, “Anybody that has experienced parental abuse understands this title … I wouldn’t have written the book if my mom were alive. I would still have my identity dictated by her,” she told the morning show.
Understandably, not everyone in the actor’s family loves the title.
“Our grandmother is very upset about that title,” McCurdy’s brother Marcus told the Times. For his part, he relates to the sentiment.
“It’s more of a coping mechanism,” he said. “You can either be like, ‘Woe is me, my life is horrible.’ Or you find the humor in these things that are really tragic.”
While McCurdy’s story is off-putting to some, those who’ve experienced the death of an abusive parent connect deeply to it.
“It feels like she’s taking back her power, and I think she deserves that and more,” Ramsey told HuffPost. “All of us do.”
Those who take issue with the book’s title seem to be projecting their own healthy parental relationships onto McCurdy’s, Ramsey said, “as if bad parents don’t exist.”
Ramsey lost their dad in 2018 when they were 13. All the feelings you’d expect a preteen to feel when they lose a parent prematurely simply weren’t there. For good reason, Ramsey said.
“If you asked me about my memories of my late father, the bad ones would outnumber the good 10 to 1,” they said. “My dad holding my hand with his right hand and selling drugs with the other; abandoning me at an arcade at the age of 9; forcing me to sit at a table for hours because I wouldn’t eat cabbage; blaming me for not staying in contact with him at the age of 11.”
Ramsey felt pressure from their family to morph their grief into something more “acceptable” and to sweep their dad’s parental failings under the rug.
“In my family, the term ‘respect your elders’ isn’t taken lightly, even at the cost of your own self-respect,” Ramsey said. “Even when it comes to people who have contributed greatly to your trauma.”
Ultimately, the only thing that Ramsey could mourn was what might have been: “I mourned the opportunity that was lost for him to be a good father.”
Jennette McCurdy and her late mom, Debra, at the Revlon Run/Walk for Women on May 9, 2009, in Los Angeles. (Photo: Frederick M. Brown for Getty Images // The Washington Post / Contributor)
Karyl McBride, a marriage and family therapist in Denver and author of “Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers,” often hears about this kind of complex grief from clients.
“They may grieve for the actual person who was their parent, but it also brings back the loss of the parent they didn’t have and really needed,” McBride told HuffPost. “It’s kind of a double-whammy of grief.”
The more recovery the client has done, the less complex the grief can become, the therapist said.
“When you work on it in therapy, sometimes the adult child ends up feeling kind of sorry for the parent who was so unhappy that they had to project their self-loathing onto their children,” she said. (Of course, grief isn’t one-size-fits-all; an adult child may never come to a place of sympathy or forgiveness, and that’s all right, too.)
Those who openly admit to feeling relieved that their parents are dead inevitably come up against people who shame them for their lack of respect for the person who brought them into the world. (Then there are the requisite guilt trips from the “don’t speak ill of the dead” crowd, as if death absolves even the worst of parental failings: child abuse, emotional abuse, desertion.)
Kelli Dunham, a comic and writer, received criticism along both those lines this June when she wrote an essay for HuffPost Personal that carried sentiments similar to McCurdy’s. Dunham wrote that she was part of a rarefied group: “The Glad [Dad’s Dead] club.”
“When he died, the ambivalence was replaced with relief,” Dunham wrote. “There was relief for him, that he was no longer suffering. But there was also ease in simply feeling safer. The man who had once beaten our 125-pound Newfoundland dog with a two-by-four didn’t live in our house anymore. The constant creeping fear of ‘Could I be next?’ was gone.”
Kelli Dunham and her late father. This past June, Dunham wrote an essay for HuffPost Personal detailing the complicated grief she felt when she lost her father in her adolescent years. (Photo: Kelli Dunham)
The response to Dunham’s essay was mixed. Some were unsettled by it; interestingly, a lot of the critical response came from readers who were worried about their kids one day writing negative articles about them after they died.
But Dunham also received a few dozen emails and DMs from people who said things like, “I can finally take a breath, I’ve never heard anyone else say this” or “I’ve felt guilty for feeling like this for 30 years.”
It’s hard to really understand McCurdy’s usage of “glad” until you’ve been there, Dunham said.
“It’s glad but it’s not a thrilled, excited, dancing-on-my-dad’s-grave-setting-off-a-confetti-cannon-type glad.”
More than anything, Dunham said she felt quietly relieved when he was gone.
“He died when I was 12, and I felt instantly safer in my own home,” she said. “I also felt guilty for feeling relieved, of course, and couldn’t talk about it until I was much older.”
Brittany, a 29-year-old from Illinois, said she has so many stories about her own abusive mom that she could write her own book. (For this story, she asked to use her first name only to protect her privacy.) Growing up, she witnessed her mom push her dad down the stairs and put a knife to his forehead.
As a middle-schooler, Brittany found herself taking care of her little sister and taking refuge with her grandma. (After her parents’ divorce, Brittany said her mom’s “main focus was finding a boyfriend and going out to the bars.”)
“She never really wanted me to ever leave the house or have a life unless she was mad at me; then she would kick me out with no phone and lock the doors, forcing me to walk across town to my friend’s house to call my grandma to be picked up,” Brittany said.
She said her mom was verbally abusive, too.
“She brainwashed me into thinking my body was gross and normal body functions were shameful,” she said. “I was constantly told I was a ‘whore, bitch, slut, nasty.’ I had horrible self-esteem well into my late 20s because of her.”
At the time of writing this, Brittany’s mom is dying from lung cancer that has metastasized to her brain and other parts of her body. Brittany’s grandmother is still hoping for an eleventh-hour reconciliation, but Brittany has no interest.
“I refuse to see her before she passes ... because it would be nothing but screaming and fighting. She has even told a family member that she doesn’t care to see us because we are nothing but ‘selfish bitches.’ She has a totally different view on reality and it’s scary.”
“For me, I feel that I already mourned the loss of having a mother years ago, so the news of her dying did not really affect me,” she added. “I still have not cried over my mom’s diagnosis, and some people think I’m being heartless.”
Deep down, Brittany said, there’s a “weird sense of relief” that she won’t ever have to worry about her mother causing her or her children any psychological harm in the future.
“I can’t help but have anxiety about her trying to meet them one day or even doing something drastic like trying to steal them from me,” she said.
I feel that I already mourned the loss of having a mother years ago, so the news of her dying did not really affect me.Brittany, 29
Will Kamei, a photographer who lost his dad when he was 20, said he’ll always have conflicted, unwieldy feelings for the man he considered his best friend and his abuser.
“After a lot of therapy and nightmares, sharing stories and deducing the worst, child sexual abuse is the only thing that made sense,” Kamei said of the dynamic between him and his dad.
“It’s something I had always wondered, maybe suspected, but because of the toxic relationship my dad created with me since birth, I saw him as nothing less than a saint,” he said.
The relationship was always double-sided; good and then tremendously bad.
“A great example of our relationship was that he would literally go everywhere with me, he supported my transition, he supported me coming out, and he also introduced me to drugs,” Kamei said. “There’s an argument there to be made about ‘it’s always better [to experiment] in the home,’ but maybe you shouldn’t be giving your kids meth.”
Kamei, too, relates deeply to the title of and the material about parental abuse in McCurdy’s book.
“I’ve truly been allowed to explore and find myself in the years since my dad passed, and if he were still alive today, I’m afraid that I’d still be stuck, alone, isolated, and being mentally and emotionally manipulated,” he said.
Still, Kamei misses his best friend, the good parts of his dad. He probably will always feel that way, he said, yet he’s found a way to sit with and accept the contradictory nature of his father.
“It’s OK to love parts of them that didn’t abuse you, that made you feel included, important and loved,” he said.
“But having someone who is supposed to love you unconditionally, who is supposed to protect you, cherish you, support you, put you first, before anything, choose themselves over you time and time again; to put money or fame before you, to actively choose harming you over not harming you, is the deepest form of betrayal there is,” he said.
There’s a passage toward the end of McCurdy’s book that hits a similar theme. Reflecting on her last visit to her mom’s gravesite, McCurdy outlines all the good her mom put out to the world: her infectious happiness, her pep talks and child-like energy.
But the good doesn’t negate the bad. You can’t romanticize the past and the parent that hurt you and absolve them of their sins just because that’s what the rest of your family is rooting for. Ultimately, McCurdy says, “My mom didn’t deserve her pedestal.”
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.