The movie from 2014 Nightcrawler starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou, a ruthlessly ambitious young stringer who sells footage of gruesome deaths to news stations, driving the streets of Los Angeles to be the 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.
While the material is different, that also happens to be the message of former child actress Jennette McCurdy’s new memoir, I’m glad my mother died. McCurdy rose to fame on the show iCarlya popular children’s sitcom that ran on Nickelodeon for six seasons beginning in 2007. The memoir centers on McCurdy’s relationship with his mother, who in McCurdy’s account is as ruthless as Lou in Nightcrawler — except instead of selling crime scene footage, she focused her efforts on making McCurdy famous. McCurdy remembers her mother’s words to her at age six: “You’re going to be a star, Nettie. I just know it. You’re going to be a star.” These were not empty words. They were a verbal contract.
McCurdy grew up poor in Garden Grove, California, primarily home to “white trash,” as her brother put it. Her family suffered from what her mother called the “minimum wage curse,” with family members working low-wage jobs at places like Disneyland and Home Depot. Throughout her early years, McCurdy lived in a house her parents rented from her father’s parents. She remembers thinking, “This house is an embarrassment. This house is shameful. I hate this house.”
McCurdy’s mother, Debra, devised an escape plan and poured her energy into her daughter’s acting career. Debra and Jennette were less mother and daughter than business partners. And Debra put in a lot of work taking Jennette to countless auditions and hustle to ensure her the best representation. Debra opened door after door for Jennette until Jennette found herself in the limelight, performing to a worldwide audience on one of the most popular children’s shows of the past twenty years.
But McCurdy’s perspective on this sequence of events turns the standard story of hard work and climbing the ladder on its head. IN I’m glad my mother 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, you’ll go far. Jennette’s early success is due to her attention to this advice. After landing her first leading role, she remembers thinking, “They’re telling Mum that it’s good news, that it means I’m establishing a reputation as a collaborative kid and taking 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 talks about a disturbing dinner experience with The Creator – a reference to iCarly creator Dan Schneider, who has recently faced several allegations of inappropriate behavior – after he offered her the starring role in a new show. The creator pushes McCurdy to drink alcohol for the first time, puts his hand on her knee and massages her shoulders. McCurdy is unable to express his discomfort. Instead, she remembers thinking, “It’s always best to agree with the Creator.” The chapter ends with the Creator telling Jennette, “Every kid out there would kill for an opportunity like the one you have. You’re very lucky, Jennette.” McCurdy’s response is heartbreaking: “‘I know,’ I say as he keeps rubbing me. And I do. I know. I’m so lucky.”
Debra introduces her daughter to the concept of calorie restriction early in the book, and Jennette quickly finds success with this method: “I take to calorie restriction quickly, and I’m pretty good at it. I’m desperate to impress Mom. She’s a great teacher because she’s been on a calorie restriction for so long, she tells me.” As the memoir unfolds, McCurdy’s calorie restriction develops 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 continues after Debra’s death, after which McCurdy admits to thinking: ” I’m starting to expect I’ll have a bulimia-induced heart attack. It’s hard to admit it, but part of me actually wishes I would. Then I wouldn’t be here anymore.”
It is no coincidence that the handover of McCurdy’s health and happiness coincides with her ascent 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 gets to the true American dream. Eventually, McCurdy accumulates enough money to buy his own home, “a beautiful three-story house on a hillside that was turnkey so I could move in right away and not worry about having to do any remodeling.” But she always knows something is wrong. Writing from her perspective just after the purchase, she notes of her home, “This thing looked great on the surface, but underneath it was falling apart.”
At the end of I’m glad my mother diedhas McCurdy concluded that she is “grateful for the financial stability that [my acting] career has given me, but not much else.” McCurdy reportedly earned $50,000 per episode during her tenure iCarly, meaning her total salary earnings across the show’s run may have reached close to $5 million. And she has continued to make money as an actress 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 “minimum wage curse.” As good capitalist subjects we should be cheering her on.
But the book refuses to let us do that. At the height of her child star status, McCurdy felt unfulfilled. Instead, she admits, “I feel robbed and taken advantage of.”
The final part of the book, which covers events after Debra’s death, outlines Jennette’s journey to break free from her mother’s grip. McCurdy sells his house and moves into an apartment instead. She begins to improve her mental health and finally gets control of her eating disorder. She comes to dismiss 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 mother died is a stunning assessment of capitalism, a damning indictment of a system where it is nearly impossible to carve out a path from minimum wage to economic success that does not run through exploitation. It demonstrates the perverse incentives of our society, where success often depends on a willingness to degrade morality, and the winning mindset is a blind obsession with getting ahead by any means necessary.
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