How Jennette McCurdy Survived Child Stardom and Wrote a Book

When Jennette McCurdy lost her mother to breast cancer in 2013, she went to therapy: “Really, really intense therapy,” she says. It’s not hard to understand why: From the actor’s earliest memories, her mother, Debra McCurdy, had been abusive, pushing her into a demoralizing career in the entertainment industry and encouraging her anorexia, among myriad other forms of trauma. McCurdy, who appeared on Nickelodeon’s hit series, was an instant star. iCarly and Ariana Grande two-hander Sam & Cat, and launched a country music career, but as she walked away from the Hollywood machine in the wake of her mother’s death and began to work on herself, she came to grips with how badly she needed to tell her own story. “I felt compelled to do it,” McCurdy says. “I couldn’t think about anything else until I got it out.”

A one-woman show was her first performance. I’m Glad My Mom DiedMcCurdy was 30 years old when she wrote the memoir. She will publish her book on Aug. 9 and it is hilarious and informative. It’s a document not just of all she’s endured, but also of the wisdom she accrued along the way.

She spoke with TIME about how and why she decided to write.

TIME: This book was written before you performed a show for one woman with the exact same title. They are so different.

McCurdy: The material is overlapping: They’re both autobiographical and both my life, and they have the same name. However, I consider them two different projects. The live show was designed specifically for an audience, and it’s a musical. This book explores the years that followed my death and the areas where I suffered the most. It also covers my childhood, my Mormon upbringing and my experiences as an actor/child actor.

Is there an era when the book felt right?

Because it’s so personal, I felt like it was important that I had a lot of experience in therapy. I didn’t sit down with a therapist and say: “So I want to write a memoir. How can we get me to a place where I’ve got the perspective to do it?” But it was several years of really intense therapy before I started feeling like I could explore all that personal stuff creatively.

What do you think about Hollywood after such harsh experiences with the childhood-star production line?

There’s complicated, layered gratitude. This is so corny, but I mean it genuinely—I think of Hollywood less as a domineering force, and more about the people in Hollywood that you surround yourself with. The people who I’m surrounded by now have restored my faith in it.

Do you feel like you’ve recovered from what you’ve went through? When I think about my own recovery, sometimes I feel healed, and sometimes I feel like I’m just performing being healed.

My mind just went: Is it possible to be so full of sh-t that you can’t see when you’re full of sh-t? And then I was like: No, I think I’ve done too much therapy for that. I consider myself fully recovered from eating disorders, and I’m really, really proud of that. And yet, I think that elements of my relationship with my mom will always be something that I’m exploring in some way, whether that’s just subconsciously kicking around or whether that’s creatively. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It doesn’t feel re-traumatizing for me to explore that relationship creatively.

There’s so much pain in this book, but you write about it with such grace and humor. How did you get that idea?

The friendship I share with my brothers is a source of great camaraderie, support and love. He was a great grandfather who gave me lots of support and love. And, weirdly, entertainment. Books, movies, and television can offer a great deal of comfort and relief. That’s especially important for people who grew up in dysfunctional or lonely environments.

Did you have any books you used as a guideline in writing your book?

I struggle with books about writing, but I loved Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle. Her ability to weave humor and tell it in such a clear, colorful way is remarkable.

Let’s say your book gets turned into a show, and there’s a 7-year-old actor who’s going to play young you. Would you offer any advice?

First, I’d make sure the set has a child psychologist present to help her. But I would also talk to her like she’s a person, while also respecting that she’s a child. In my experience as a child actor, people either talked to you like you’re dumber than you are, or they talked to you like you’re an adult. Both of these are not respectful. My hope would be that any child actor doesn’t lose their—this term is so overused but—authentic self. That’s the thing that gets rattled if you lose sight of it: who you are underneath the characters and lights and red carpets.

How did you surprise yourself when all this stuff vanished?

You naturally have many opinions because you were young and are constantly in the public eye. The most potent for me was my mom’s opinion, which was so in my ear that I couldn’t identify what I wanted or even needed at any given moment. It was time to quit. I quit acting. I wasn’t on social media for years. My recovery was my priority. This was the moment I began to feel connected to myself again and to identify my needs and wants. Although it sounds simple, this was a difficult process for me.

Is Hollywood changing in regards to body positivity? Your book was a refreshing look at diet culture within the entertainment industry.

I don’t blame anyone for any of their comments that reinforced my disordered eating if they had good intentions and just thought they were saying something nice. There were many comments that I was uncomfortable with.

Beyond the specifics of what you went through, do you think it’s still a problem more endemically?

The best path for me has always been to work on myself personally, and then I feel like I’m able to brave whatever “society” throws at me. My hope is for people to continue to work on their mental health. It’s something each person has control over.

This sounds like your boundaries are strong.

I don’t think people talk about boundaries enough. It was something I heard a lot in therapy. It was then that I thought, “What are the boundaries people talk about?” I didn’t know how to implement one. Learning to gracefully set boundaries took lots of trial and error.

Do you plan to write more books?

I’m working on a novel and a collection of essays now. I just had to do them one after another. It’s been nice to have two projects at the same time, so I’m avoiding burnout on both of them.

What does it feel like to be on the brink of publishing your memoir?

Six years was spent putting in effort and time on these topics. However, the results were not as clear-cut. It was through that work that I got to the point where it felt possible to explore the subject creatively. So ultimately, what wound up on the page, that’s all stuff that I really believe in and stand by. So, I’m confident. It makes me feel confident.

This interview was condensed to make it more concise and easier for you.

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