Cynthia Friedman (managing director): On the cover of her new memoir, writer, director, and former actress Jennette McCurdy stands in a bright yellow frame, dressed in pink, holding a pink urn overflowing with pink confetti. The image is as provocative as the title: I’m Glad My Mom Died. I knew as soon as I saw it that I wanted to read it.
For much of the book—through McCurdy’s upbringing and twenties—her life and purpose revolve around her mom. Six-year-old McCurdy thrills at their close connection. At that age, she feels frustrated that her dad and brothers seem oblivious to subtle changes in her mom’s mood and mannerisms. She alone jumps up to do what will make her mom happy, and she feels a sense of accomplishment for nailing it most of the time.
Amidst accounts of narcissistic personality disorder, McCurdy’s clarity and perspective feel unique. Writing as her younger self, she often observes, without any judgment, the distance between what she wants and what she does—that is, what her mom wants. She hates having butterfly clips in her hair, but her mom loves it, so she wears them. She hates acting—being on stage makes her feel exposed and deeply uncomfortable—but she goes through intensive training, grueling background roles, and a career in the field to please her mother.
Her mom’s influence only gets darker as the book goes on. She introduces pre-teen McCurdy to anorexia, and the two share restrictive eating practices for years. When doctors and classmates’ parents air their concern, she feigns innocence. A few years later, when she finds out that McCurdy has been lying to her about having a boyfriend, she lashes out in classic abusive fashion: with 37 missed calls and a string of emails full of accusations and name-calling.
When—halfway through the book—her mother passes away, McCurdy turns to alcohol to cope with the sudden void at the center of her life. Yet, despite the heaviness of the subject material, McCurdy’s candidness and sharp humor make the book easy to read and hard to put down.
For many readers, the intensity of McCurdy’s experiences will resonate on subtler levels. The deference to someone else’s desires, big or small, prevents a young person from learning about their own instincts—a crucial step in the development of a sense of self. Later on in the book, through the intervention of a caring partner, McCurdy begins (and then quits, and later takes back up) therapy. For anyone who is also doing that sort of hard introspective work, this memoir may be a useful companion
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): An acquaintance of mine once suggested that all of us aging leftists have a favorite Communist-ruled country. He explained that he was especially fond of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and showed me his belt buckle with the nation’s state seal. I couldn’t contest his point. I, too, had long maintained a special interest in and even affection for the GDR. I had even visited with my then-five-year-old son in the summer of 1989—not knowing that the Berlin Wall would fall just months later, and the GDR would soon be no more.
Since then, the country has been written about almost exclusively as a gray, joyless police state in which everyone spied on everyone else and couldn’t wait to join the West. Katja Hoyer’s Beyond the Wall is the first English-language book for the general readership to give a full picture of life in East Germany. Hoyer—herself an Ossi, or former citizen of the GDR—refuses to accept the West German version of events. In her view, the GDR, though imperfect, nevertheless provided its citizens with a decent life over the 41 years of its existence. Almost no country in the world did more for its women; the vast majority of women in the GDR were working by 1989, thanks in part to the availability of free daycare. Social mobility was also high since the working class had access to a college education. And unlike capitalist countries, the GDR did not later cut back on these subsidies for education, childcare, or housing, a decision that—combined with the withdrawal of Soviet resources—eventually led to financial woes. In short, Hoyer argues, it was socialism that killed socialism in the GDR.
Hoyer does not deny the harsh realities of many aspects of life in the GDR. The two men who led the country through almost all of its history, Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker, fought against the Nazis and lived through the Stalinist era of communism, and their fear and suspicion informed the state’s extensive security apparatus. But Hoyer shows that the security forces were not as large as is commonly believed, and that popular voluntary organizations assisted them in their work. Even while dissent was growing in the country’s final years, she argues, “attempts to open up the GDR were by no means attempts to destroy it—on the contrary, many young intellectuals and workers saw it as a means to strengthen the state and socialism.”
Beyond the Wall is a much-needed corrective to the self-congratulatory attitude of most Western historians who have written about East Germany. Indeed, socialism failed and failed miserably. But as Hoyer shows, its failure was, in many ways, a noble one.
Aparna Gopalan (news editor): A few weekends ago, I binged the 2021 Netflix show Maid, which follows 25-year-old Alex as she flees her abusive boyfriend, moves into a domestic violence shelter, and begins working as a house cleaner to support herself and her daughter.
The show’s unflinching depiction of gendered poverty has been correctly lauded. Alex’s desperation is palpable as she battles abusive men, backbreaking work, and a broken welfare system trying to take away her agency. A particularly affecting motif includes Alex’s bank balance popping up on the screen and starting to tick down everytime she fills a few dollars of gas in her car, purchases cleaning supplies for work, or gets her kid a dollar store mermaid doll. Indeed, throughout the first episode it was that ticking bank balance, rather than even Alex herself, that seemed to be the true protagonist, so riveting did I find it, so harrowing its slow decline from $18 to 35 cents.
However, eventually this unflinching portrait of poverty . . . flinches. Even this has been celebrated by reviewers, who give the show props for finding a way to be “gritty” without devolving into misery-porn. But as a longtime student of racial capitalism, and a true cynic, I was less than convinced when—after attuning us to the vice grip of poverty on Alex’s life—the show suddenly lifts all such mundane constraints in the final few episodes. After struggling to arrest her fall with a tattered social safety net, Alex suddenly finds individual success. After losing her job as a maid, she quickly gains a rich patron. Her child starts attending an elite preschool, even though Alex is shown to be unable to afford residence in the school’s very wealthy catchment area. The domestic violence shelter provides her a phone with seemingly unlimited minutes that she can use to apply to college. When Alex’s unstable mother is admitted to a psych ward, no insurance statements populate the screen.
Normally, I would’ve been fine with all this; I don’t usually need to see a character’s bank balance to care about their story. But it was jarring to see Maid so completely abandon its dark, sociological beginnings in favor of a fairy-tale resolution. The showrunners seemed to be saying, “look, you get our point. Being a poor single mother and living through domestic violence is tough. Now wouldn’t you like to see Alex happy?” And don’t get me wrong: I’m glad Alex got a happy ending. But somewhere along the way, Maid went from showing us the ravages of structural injustice to telling us that (white) women can overcome even this if they really believe in themselves. So while I recommend Maid for its Barbara-Ehrenreichian first half, beware the Hallmark card ending.