I’ll never forget any of the numerous times that well-meaning people have said to me “Oh, I’m sure your dad meant well” or “Yeah, my dad spanked me once or twice but I couldn’t imagine not talking to him again because of it” or “What if he dies? What then? Won’t you regret not talking to him?” In the beginning, I didn’t have stock answers. Eventually they formed from the repetitive explanation that was always demanded when the subject of family came up. Once I discovered people didn’t actually enjoy honesty about family, the stock answers became more creative and revealing: “Yeah, my dad once told me that no one would go on a reading tour with me unless they wanted to use me as a used condom.” “You know Epstein? Imagine he was your dad.” Or the honest answer to the what if: “I was beaten by a mobster and then cut out my dad four months later because I realized he had sexually abused me.” Once people break through their discomfort, they inevitably just have to say, “Yeah, you’re right. Your dad fucking blows.”
iCarly actress and recent author Jennette McCurdy has fallen into the discourse machine, with people ripping her truth limb from limb with judgment, for her new memoir out through Simon & Schuster I’m Glad My Mom Died. The book caused a stir for a multitude of reasons, such as details of behavior on the iCarly set such as underage drinking and weirdly sexually charged favoritism. Yet the most controversial by far has been that McCurdy is beyond blunt about her relationship with her deceased mother. The title is to the point, and the cover features a joyous McCurdy holding her mother’s urn. It’s by far one of the most unique and incredible memoir covers in existence. Yet like any moment a survivor speaks up, people seem confident in their entitlement to their opinions, arguments, and “I’m just saying” moments.
Certainly Gustavo* [survivors names have been changed to protect their identities], who remains estranged from his mother and had been estranged from his now dead father, was impacted by McCurdy’s book. He told the Observer that “I know for a fact that I’m tweeting that book cover the day my mom passes. Now that’s harsh, and I probably shouldn’t even think that, but the truth is seeing someone confront something like this in such a stark, and brave manner has given me the strength to say ‘you know what, maybe it wasn’t all my fault. Maybe I shouldn’t be sad about the loneliness.’”
There are many things driving the public reaction. First and foremost, Jennette McCurdy does not match the public’s perception of a childhood abuse survivor. The longterm life problems associated with child abuse survivors is cemented in the public mind, even worse for survivors of sexual abuse. According to a 2014 study done by the Australian government, the long term mental health problems associated with childhood abuse and neglect (one rarely can occur without the other) are but not limited to “personality disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative disorders, depression, anxiety disorders and psychosis.” It would be fascinating to see the public react to a tell-all from another former Nickelodeon star Amanda Bynes for example, given that the public’s perception of her was shattered by their lack of empathy for her very public pain.
I spoke with adults who are estranged from their families, most initiated by the child, about how they viewed themselves before cutting out their parents versus how they viewed themselves after. The contrast was stark and grim. Lucy*, like McCurdy, is also glad her abusive mom died. When describing how having her mom in her life impacted her, she told the Observer, “I was a self loathing sack of shit and every time I would allow them back into my life I would spiral and suffer mentally.” Victoria*, who experiences a one-sided estrangement where she cut off her mom yet her mother continues to assert contact occasionally also described a severe and disorganized pre-estrangement experience. She opened up to the Observer while confessing, “At 15 or 16, I developed an eating disorder in part to cope with what was happening around me. I directly link that particular issue to my problems with my mother. I also had anger issues as a result, and a horrible temper that seemed to directly result from the abuse. It was really bad. My self esteem took a huge hit and I was pretty miserable all the time back then.”
The way survivors talk about themselves after cutting out a parent or having an abusive parent die — which is more or less the same emotional experience — is key in understanding the importance of cutting out an abusive parent. George*, who doesn’t talk to his father yet speaks to other family members, when speaking on post-estrangement identity told the Observer, “It’s been an ongoing process of rethinking everything that’s happened and reclaiming my identity. I have so much compassion for myself and everything I went through.” I know after I cut out my own father in 2019 my whole life got better. I know it’s because I had agency for the first time in my life and could finally be the one in charge of who I was going to be. That is liberation.
The rates of suicidality are extremely high among survivors of childhood abuse, with a 2014 study from the University of Manchester cementing that abuse in early life is directly linked to suicide in later adulthood, with their analysis of 68 studies between their university and University of South Wales finding that suicide attempts were three times more likely for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, two and a half times more likely for those who experienced physical abuse, and two and a half times more likely for those who experienced emotional abuse or neglect. The reason this must be emphasized is there are dire risks the media, the culture, and audiences of celebritydom have to consider when they actively deny, stigmatize, or degrade the words of survivors about their own experiences.
An Access Online news flash on McCurdy’s appearance on Good Morning America carries the headline Jennette McCurdy Admits She Misses Her Mom ‘At Times’ Despite Experiencing Alleged Abuse. This headline ignores the fact that the interviewer asked a leading question, prompting McCurdy to “admit” to missing her Mom. It also instills disbelief in her narrative. The use of the word alleged, which is often used to protect objectivity in times of ongoing legal battles, does not need to be applied to a survivor’s words when the perpetrator is in the grave. There is no reason for “alleged” except to imply that McCurdy might be dishonest.
It shows a complete lack of empathy, nuance, and understanding. There is an odd mourning that happens after you cut out a parent and Jennette is literally mourning an abusive parent. It makes sense she misses her mom sometimes. I cry whenever Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffet’s “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” comes on the radio. Just because your parents were abusive doesn’t mean there won’t be leftover complex feelings when they’re gone, whether by choice or by death. Lucy* said on the subject that “There’s a strange guilt that comes with cutting a parent off. No matter how abusive they were, there is always a sort of warped feeling of love there.” Just because your parents abused you doesn’t mean some part of you doesn’t love them. At the same time, complete anger and hatred towards abusive parents is also entirely valid; people are allowed to not love abusive parents. Jennette McCurdy is allowed to miss her mom and not love her, she’s also allowed to say she misses her, did love her, and still recognize her mom abused her.
What is notable about that GMA interview is what McCurdy said as it went on. “I wouldn’t have written the book if she was alive. I would still have my identity dictated by her.” She continues proudly “That kind of honesty has been truly liberating for me and has led me to a life of fulfillment and authenticity, that I hope for everybody. So I hope that people take away the honesty and are maybe inspired to share some of those uncomfortable truths about themselves.” The experience of speaking out is fundamental to healing from childhood abuse and trauma, and not a task for the light-hearted. Survivors often are discredited by family members, by the public, and local authorities.
It also cannot be lost on anyone that issues around self-identity pop up for all child abuse survivors because the foundation of a sense of self is a key understanding that you are loved and safe. Without feeling loved and safe, that is extremely marred. George*, when recounting to the Observer how he viewed himself as a person before cutting out his father said “Honestly I didn’t have much of an identity. I learned to be whatever they needed me to be.” The identity formation that estranged children go through when they are finally out of their parents’ grasp might even be understood as a second puberty, a second coming, a second chance at a self.
When Gustavo* was asked the same he responded with “I’m lonely at times, but the burden of having someone who was by all accounts supposed to love you be cruel to you was a lot to handle. Ending my relationship with my mother was the right decision.” No one makes the choice to cut out their parents lightly, responding in any way that is less than affirmative to someone cutting out a parent is telling an abused child that you may not be a person they can be safe with. Even an adult will feel this.
In a defining text in the field Trauma and Recovery, author and psychotherapist Dr. Judith Herman writes “the survivor tells the story of the trauma. She tells it completely, in depth and in detail. This work of reconstruction actually transforms the traumatic memory, so that it can be integrated into the survivor’s life story.” When what happened to you occurred at such a young age; it is easy to be told by everyone in society to not trust your own reality. Not just your family and friends, who may be too shocked to bear the truth, but by the perceptions of family and how family “should be” that are so emphasized within society, which only leads to abused children wondering what was wrong with them that they were not gifted with that type of family. A cycle of self blame. Recognition that the abuse occurred, that it happened to you, that it wasn’t your fault, and it isn’t your shame to bear is key in the healing of trauma.
Jennette McCurdy waited till her mom died to talk about how abusive she was, and I don’t blame her one bit. I don’t blame her for writing a memoir she made money off of, it’s certainly better than every navel-gazing book by conservative politicians that get pushed out from every Big Five publisher. In Trauma and Recovery Herman wrote, “The survivor is called up to articulate the values and beliefs that she once held and that the trauma destroyed.” If McCurdy’s mother had been alive at the time of the book, it certainly would have shattered her family dynamic as her mother would continue to exist within it. I know this because I cut out my father and did publicly discuss it in depth. It did mutate, strain, and wreck my other family relationships.
Last I checked, McCurdy’s brother has publicly stated support for his sister. If their mother was alive, as McCurdy said her identity would be “dictated” by her, so one might assume if her mother was alive he might not have been able to state support so publicly. I know this is true because I would not be able to write this piece if I was still in contact with my father but surely it is a piece that must be written by someone. Just as McCurdy’s book must be written by someone. Why? It must be done because there is someone out there right now who truly believes that life will never be any different. They truly believe that they will live under their parent’s thumb, never have the life they wanted, not trust their own agency, their own minds, and people like Jennette exist to tell them: You are not wrong, you can trust yourself. You can do this too.
It is not shocking that some people are reacting negatively to McCurdy’s memoir partially because the parent in question is a mother, and the Mother Figure has held back the conversations around child abuse for generations. This is not to discount abusive fathers, I had one; however, abused children of evil men can be picked out of any crowd at any given time. It is rare that survivors of abuse at the hands of mothers are given the same empathy because their experience of their mother is being placed against public perception of what a mother should be. Due to the misogyny inherent within our cultural understanding of family, to be anything less than a perfect mother is to be seen as a bad woman, so people are more hesitant to accuse a mother of abuse and very quick to discredit the children who live with them, eat meals with them, came from them directly.
On the subject of the Mother Figure, Victoria* summed it up: “People still really inherently believe a mother can only be a good parent, even if flawed, and that attitude bleeds into how they react to hearing that I really truly hate my mother for abusing my father and I. People have delegitimized or questioned the severity of the abuse, significant others have pushed me to reconcile with her, and that kind of thing. I have very little doubt that if my father were the abuser, the reactions would be very different.“
When we allow survivors’ stories to be debated, even those being confessed in a tell-all memoir when a parent-figure is long-dead and not actually known as a real person to the public, that’s a problem. People did not know McCurdy’s mother yet their belief in the Mother Figure is so strong that they would rather deny one person’s true life testimony than bear to face the truth. What is the truth? It is a fact that millions of children in the United States, billions globally, do not have agency over their own lives, trust in their own experiences, and so many are failed yearly. The answer does not lie in state agencies, but in trusting children. Trusting as a cultural habit, a knee-jerk understanding. Trusting children who speak up early, trusting those who speak up later. Those who speak underage about their experiences, those who wait till their parents are long dead. It is the lack of trust and continued discreditation in the child and their understanding of their world that allows so many children to go on being neglected, abused, and inevitably falling into a cycle of self-blame, self-hatred, and self-destruction.
McCurdy had to write the book for her. She had to write this to heal and she needs people to accept it. To not debate it. To not argue about what defines abuse in childhood or if children can be trusted because if that is still where we are in 2022, the problem of American childhood will never be solved.
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