This article includes references to eating disorders and emotional abuse.
Former actress and New York Times bestselling writer Jennette McCurdy reflected on her growth while healing from abuse, stressed the importance of self-compassion and assessed the role of humor as a coping tool during a Q&A event hosted by the Stanford Speakers Bureau on Friday evening.
McCurdy rose to fame in 2007 as an actress playing Sam Puckett in the Nickelodeon sitcom iCarly, landing four Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards and appearing in several other films and television series. Her memoir, “I’m Glad My Mom Died,” was released in August and recounts both McCurdy’s experiences as a young actress and her strained relationship with her abusive, deceased mother.
The event, attended by a few hundred students, was moderated by Maija Cruz ’12, a life and well-being coach at Vaden Health Services interested in social justice and holistic wellness. Cruz and McCurdy delved into stories from McCurdy’s memoir and discussed the lessons related to wellness and growth that could resonate with students in the Stanford community.
McCurdy touched on the transformations she experienced after her mother’s death as she worked through the trauma she faced from her mother, whom McCurdy described as a narcissistic abuser. McCurdy’s memoir is divided into two sections, “Before” and “After,” which recount the former actor’s life experiences before and after her mother’s death, respectively.
“Everything in my life felt like that clench for control, and I think it all revolved around my mom, and then when she died, the journey became about acceptance, which to me is kind of the opposite of control,” McCurdy said. “And acceptance feels like permission in an odd way.”
McCurdy’s mother, who battled with cancer throughout McCurdy’s youth, pushed McCurdy to pursue professional acting as a child and taught her to restrict how many calories she ate at the age of 11. Shortly after, McCurdy developed eating disorders, including anorexia and bulimia.
McCurdy described the harmful impact that experiencing her mother’s narcissistic abuse had on building functional relationships and underscored the importance of boundaries in both relationships and personal wellbeing.
“I’ve been there, in dysfunctional relationships where I felt that — it was what I grew up believing — ‘Oh, if they want this boundary that’s bad. That means I’m not good enough. That means we’re not close enough,’” McCurdy said. “And I thought boundaries meant distance from a person, and my therapist said, ‘Boundaries don’t distance intimacy, they cultivate it.’ And that changed my life.”
McCurdy also described the important but nuanced role that humor plays in her growth and writing. She said that when her mother was diagnosed with cancer for the second time she turned to humor as a defensive mechanism and has since grown to deploy it as a tool of healing and coping.
“I was using [humor] to keep people further away. I was using it to keep avoiding myself,” McCurdy said. “And then eventually, after my mom died, when I started therapy and started getting more intimate with myself and my pain, I was able to find a sense of humor that feels more authentic to me. It feels more genuine.”
McCurdy emphasized the importance of self-compassion when facing stressful environments and transitions, including while healing from trauma and carving out one’s identity.
Cruz noted that many members of the Stanford community, an elite academic circle, resonated with McCurdy’s descriptions of intense pressure and uncertainty.
“I think particularly in an environment where we’ve got a lot of students who work really hard to get into this elite space, this elite institution, but then there’s a ton of pressure to constantly perform,” Cruz said.
McCurdy asked the members of the audience, “You guys feel that? You feel a lot of pressure?” Students snapped, clapped and nodded in agreement.
McCurdy offered grounding advice for students in the audience, acknowledging the challenges and pressure that she said accompanied her early 20s.
“Something that really helped me, that I didn’t hear until years later, I was probably 25 when I heard this, ‘If it’s not ‘hell yes’, it’s a no,’” McCurdy said. “I really stand by that advice.”
As for McCurdy’s future endeavors, she said that she has found a fulfillment in her writing that she had never before experienced as an actress.
“I had crippling self-doubt for years, but I’m ultimately grateful that I chose to deal with the self-doubt each day, because I knew that what I was pursuing was ultimately more fulfilling to me, regardless of the outcome,” she said.