Jana Riess: What ‘I’m Glad My Mom Died’ teaches us about former Latter-day Saints

Last year’s bestselling memoir of “a woman reckoning with love and violence” shows why many members typically end up leaving the faith: They just drift away.

(Courtesy Photo) "I'm Glad My Mom Died," by Jennette McCurdy.

Nickelodeon child star Jennette McCurdy’s “I’m Glad My Mom Died” — a harrowing story of Hollywood exploitation, eating disorders and a toxic relationship with her mother, who got her into show business — was one of the hottest new memoirs of 2022.

I’d heard about McCurdy’s book on a podcast, and though I’d never seen any of the television series McCurdy starred in and didn’t know much about her, I was drawn in because outlets like The Atlantic called it “a layered account of a woman reckoning with love and violence at once.”

It is that — and definitely worth a read. I’ll leave out the twists and turns McCurdy recounts in her memoir so you can read it for yourself without too many spoilers.

Here is one, however: McCurdy grew up a Latter-day Saint.

The faith angle is not a major focus of the book (or the publicity about it), though it’s an important thread in the early chapters, as Mormonism seems to have been important primarily in the early stages of McCurdy’s life.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was a refuge from her chaotic childhood. Church offered several hours of peace in a space that was clean and uncluttered — the opposite of the home she shared with her parents, grandparents and three brothers. She writes:

I love the smell of the chapel — pine-scented tile cleaner and a whiff of burlap. I love my primary classes and all the songs about faith and Jesus, like “I Hope They Call Me on a Mission” and “Book of Mormon Stories” and, my personal favorite, “Popcorn Popping,” which, come to think of it, I’m not sure has anything to do with faith or Jesus. (It’s about popcorn popping on an apricot tree.)

But more than anything, I love the escape. Church is a beautiful, peaceful, three-hour weekly reprieve from the place I hate most: home.

McCurdy was the one hustling her family out the door on Sundays, trying to make it to church on time without one crisis or another derailing things. Latter-day Saint faith was also a mild undercurrent the rest of the week. At her mother’s urging, she prayed to get an agent, folding her arms and starting out with “Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for this beautiful day and for all our many blessings” (could it be any more Mormon?) and carefully closing “in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”

After she turned 8 and was baptized, she began to hear a voice that she believed was the Holy Spirit, guiding her decisions.

I’ve complained before about how some memoirs by former Latter-day Saints get tiny details wrong, suggesting the influence of a ghostwriter. That’s not the case here. This is a legit Latter-day Saint childhood, down to the smallest details. In the audiobook, McCurdy even pronounces the name of the church magazine correctly (”En-SIGN, not “Ensun”) which is one of the main shibboleths of that era.

Why did she leave the church?

I was keenly interested to know why McCurdy, as an adult, left the faith. Was it the lure of “the world,” as many orthodox members want to paint other people’s decisions to leave — saying that she wasn’t able to resist the temptations of sex and drugs? Was it a generational aversion to the church’s stance on LGBTQ issues or women’s rights? Was it because her chief abuser was her mother, who was also a churchgoing Latter-day Saint?

It’s not a spoiler to say that we don’t really find out. McCurdy’s exit, like that of the many who leave Mormonism, didn’t seem to be a major decision point or cause of anguish. She stopped attending sacrament meetings in adolescence, possibly hastened by the judgmentalism of a few people at church. But she didn’t seem all that exercised by it, and it’s far from being the focal point of her story.

In a way, this is telegraphed early on. On her first day as a 12-year-old Beehive (as 12- and 13-year-old girls were labeled back then), she’s disappointed that she’s assigned to be the assistant secretary, “a position that doesn’t even exist,” she writes. Why hasn’t she been given a job with more responsibility?

Then a not-so-helpful fellow Beehive leans over to tell her it’s because her family members are second-class Latter-day Saints who will probably one day become “inactive,” which is “all but a cuss word in the Mormon church.” McCurdy resists this prognosis but can kind of see the point:

Even though I hate Makaylah and desperately want her to be wrong, I fear that she might be right. If I really think about it, there are already a few signs.

For as far back as I can remember, my family has never fit the bill of “First-Rate Mormons.” In every Latter-day Saint ward, there are the kinds of Mormons who have perfect attendance in seminary and are off-book for their Third Nephi verses. The kinds of Mormons who are trusted to bring the chicken potpie to the potluck, those clearly capable of that level of responsibility….

Then there is the next tier, “the kinds of Mormons who skimp on tithing and always show up 20 minutes late to service. … We, the McCurdys, are Second-Rate Mormons.”

She says she had always hoped they could reverse this status with some major milestone, like her older brother serving a mission or the family never skipping church. Sitting there in Beehives, however, she begins to realize that this may never happen.

Lessons for Latter-day Saints

So what can we learn from McCurdy’s story? For what it’s worth, I reached out to Simon & Schuster to interview McCurdy for this story, but the request was declined. So I am simply going by what is in the book and how it fits with what research tells us about the majority of people who leave Mormonism in the United States. And that boils down to three basic things.

• Most people who leave don’t start out with deep, entrenched support for church activity. They are converts or are part of families who are less than fully active. See this earlier column for more details, but the number to remember is that 4 out of 5 leave in adolescence or young adulthood. This means that most do not serve missions or get their endowments in the temple.

• There isn’t necessarily one clearly definable issue or breaking moment.

• They’re not particularly upset about leaving. It doesn’t define their experience in the way that the vocal minority who did grow up in fully active, orthodox families often have an emotionally wrenching time leaving the fold.

What’s unusual about McCurdy’s departure is that she wrote a memoir in which religion plays a part. Most ex-Latter-day Saint memoirs are written by the ones whose families were “all-in,” who are still trying to process their pain.

This is not to invalidate the experiences of the “all-in” minority, the ones who achieved many of the key church milestones (serving a mission, getting married in the temple) and left later in adulthood. It’s just that their stories are not like that of your average ex-Latter-day Saint, whose experience is more like McCurdy’s. They just drift away.

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)