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Natalie’s Picks of the Week: Two Very Different Memoirs

This month, I have not one, but two picks for you. Both of my picks this week are memoirs, and that’s where the similarities end. For the reader, Jennette McCurdy’s memoir, I’M GLAD MY MOM DIED, and Vanessa Schneider’s memoir, MY COUSIN MARIA SCHNEIDER take very different turns.

Child actor Jennette McCurdy didn’t have the easiest upbringing. In I’m glad my mom died, she writes about her trauma-filled childhood, her problematic relationship with her mother, and how she’s repairing herself today.

From the very beginning, Jennette and her mother Debra had an unhealthy relationship. Jennette herself has described her relationship with her mother as abusive and “the heart beat of my life.” Based on Jennette’s descriptions, Debra McCurdy appears to suffer from untreated mental illness. Jennette, a born people-pleaser, atunes to her mother’s moods and will do anything to keep mommy “happy”.

Debra homeschooled Jennette and her three brothers while their father, Mark, worked two jobs to support the family. This included Debra’s parents, who moved in to help the family when Debra was diagnosed with stage-4 breast cancer (Jennette was two at the time) and never left.

Jennette is almost detached as she writes about her mother’s abusive behavior. After surviving a bout with cancer, which she brings up almost daily in all kinds of situations, Debra starts hoarding as a way to “hold onto the good things.” Jennette describes sleeping on a tri-fold Costco mat in the living room with her brothers because their rooms were over run with “stuff”; her grandparents slept on a couch. Jennette’s only respite is the time they spend at church: three clutter-free hours at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Debra lived vicariously through the acting career she practically forces on Jennette. That’s not the only thing Debra forces onto Jennette. When she starts developing breasts, Jennette and Debra collude to incorporate calorie restriction to keep Jennette looking like a child for as long as possible. This behavior evolves into anorexia first and then bulemia. Debra is so controlling and hands-on, she even showers Jennette until she is 16. I only knew Debra for 300 pages and even I was glad when Debra’s cancer returns (it’s not a spoiler if the book is called I’m glad my mom died) and she passes in 2013 when Jennette is 21.

Just because Debra is gone, that doesn’t mean Jennette is healed of the trauma. Not only can she still hear her mother’s voice in her head, but now, all of a sudden, Jennette is an adult and needs to figure out how to navigate the world without her mother. Left to her own devices, and still recovering from years of abuse, Jennette finds herself quite lost. Her road to recovery is fraught with setbacks, poor choices, and unhealthy relationships. However, through hard work and therapy, Jennette has learned to see her mother’s illness and start to heal from the years of abuse.

On the other side of the memoir spectrum is Vanessa Schneider’s My cousin Maria Schneider : a memoir, translated from French by Molly Ringwald. The late French actor Maria Schneider is perhaps best known for Last Tango in Paris. The film, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, was released in 1972 to international shock and acclaim. Maria Schneider, barely nineteen years old, played Jeanne opposite Marlon Brando’s Paul. Maria Schneider was never the same.

Written by Maria’s cousin, Vanessa Schneider, this concise memoir recounts the challenges of Vanessa and Maria’s overlapping lives, both of which were shaped by Maria’s fraught career. Vanessa writes of her beloved cousin’s highs and lows, and chronicles the lasting effects unchecked exploitation can have as it reverberates through both of their lives. 

While both these memoirs were very different, I enjoyed them both. Vanessa writes with such love, you can’t help falling in love with Maria as well. While Jennette writes with love as well, there’s also a desire to shine a light on the darkness so as to not repeat abusive patterns.

Jennette is doing her best to be nothing like Debra. Vanessa is doing her best to remember Maria for the person she was and not the character in which the industry cast her. Both women have accomplished their missions.

Categories: Books and More

Tags: Books and More

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