Cult life and Family Disfunction; Mikel Jollett’s Journey Courageously Revealed in Hollywood Park


My Review:

You won’t want to put down this honest, revealing, and incredible memoir, Hollywood Park as it follows Mikel Jollett from a commune turned cult in the 1970s to current day.  Mikel and his older brother, Tony were born into Synanon, a cult that initially helped addicts like their father, but was ultimately shut down decades later due to violent criminal activities and legal problems. All the children living there were abandoned by parents, fending for themselves and having nothing of their own.  Mikel’s mother escaped with Mikel and Tony, ready to make a fresh start, but it was not easy.

They went to live with the grandparents, and Mikel, young and hopeful, tried to have an open mind and understand his world.  He was an old soul and was caring toward the woman who called herself Mom.  In Synanon, Mikel was a baby and did have a caregiver he adored, but his older brother had been left without a mother for 7 years, and did not form an attachment with anybody.  He was not well adjusted, exhibited bad behavior and had impulse control issues. Their mother had erratic behavior, showed signs of depression and mental illness.  When she and her kids moved on from her parents and were on their own, she shacked up with multiple men, some abusive and poor role models, yet Mikel looked to each of them as a new father figure.

Mikel’s real father was a drug addict, an ex-con and a philanderer and his mother reminded him of this as she brought these different men in and out of their lives throughout his childhood.  Mikel spent the summers with his real father and they developed a wonderful and loving father/son relationship.  Amidst all the upheaval, poverty and abuse he experienced during the times with his mother and brother, this connection to his biological father helped him make sense of his world and grounded him.

About Jollett’s father…”this flawed, angry, funny, wise, and affectionate man is on my side no matter where I go or what I do.  It’s the greatest gift anyone has ever given me.”

The family relationships were very difficult to navigate and more often than not, there was disaster, destruction and emotional overload.  From living on government assistance, being forced to kill rabbits for food and witnessing people getting beat up for leaving the cult, Jollett and his brother suffered greatly without any emotional support or therapy.

Once an adult, Mikel Jollett spent a precious afternoon with his idol, David Bowie, while he was working for a magazine focused on music, and Bowie gave him some advice about writing.  He told him to write about the contradiction.  I believe Jollett did this beautifully and from the heart.

Today Jollett is a writer and a musician, his brother a successful businessman and a father.  It is amazing to me that he and his brother survived all the poverty, addiction and neglect.  Jollett persevered and he also learned the power of love and family.

Hollywood Park  brought so many tears, I was crying for all Mikel Jollett lost, a great hope for his future, his honesty and his kind heart.  This is a powerful story – a must read!

Q & A with Mikel Jollett (excerpts courtesy of Celadon Books)

Q:  Throughout the book, your relationship with your once-removed father develops into a very deep and meaningful connection, which helped you though some dark times.  How does it feel to be able to remember him through this book?

A:  Someone once said that the great thing about writing a memoir is you get to hang out with people who aren’t around anymore. I think that’s true. My dad was my best friend, and when he died, it completely derailed my life. It wasn’t just sad, it was confusing. No one tells you that about grief. Or at least no one told me. Just how disorienting it is. And it’s probably the reason I started writing the book: because I couldn’t think about anything else. I was just baffled by how sad I was, how much it felt like the world was actually ending. I emerge from a very deep depression which I hardly left the house for about six months. I’ve put on weight, hadn’t written word or a single song. I cried every day and spent so much time just questioning who I was in the world with out this guy who was the first person I ever trusted. And I all I wanted to do was write about it because it helped me to understand it.

The irony of course was that I’ve been told so many terrible things about him at a very young age. He was a heroin addict, and ex-con who’d done years in prison. He “left my mother for a tramp.” That was a common refrain. But none of it turned out to matter. He was clean by the time I was born, and all I ever knew once I got to spend time with him was this guy who would do anything for me. He was affectionate. He took me and my brother everywhere. He cared so deeply about our basic happiness. He had a great laugh and quiet wisdom about him. He never cared what I became in life…The people we publicly celebrate and the ones we secretly love the most are rarely the same.

Q:  The book paints a picture of a very complicated relationship with your mother. What was it like to revisit those memories from our childhood?

A:  It was difficult, eye-opening, a struggle. I think my mother really tried her best to outrun her demons. It just didn’t work. She joined the commune which became a cult out of a deep (and I believe, sincere) desire to change the world. She was part of the free-speech movement of Berkeley, attending sit-ins and marches and eventually taking the final step of trying to create a utopian society in Synanon. ..It all came crashing down, spectacularly so…with its devolution into mind control, child-abuse, paranoia, and violence. So again it felt like growing up in the wreckage of something, in this case the field dreams of the sixties, to be broken and alone and hiding out in some backwater place in Oregon raising rabbits and eating government cheese to survive…..

It’s hard to speak publicly about these things because a part of me will always feel defensive of her… Yes she caused us a lot of pain but I truly don’t think she did it on purpose. Just because a parent struggles with mental illness, it doesn’t mean they ever intended to hurt their children. And I don’t believe she intended to hurt us.

Having said that, writing about this time helped me to unpack the false negatives I’d been taught about our lives. We were unsafe, unheard, neglected, angry, sad, and constantly being told a story about her life instead. That she was a perpetual victim. That our value as human beings revolves around our ability to be caretakers of her (at least for me) and later, to become something “important” that she could brag about. I later learned that these precise dynamics are common among the children of people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It was a relief to learn this as an adult: that these relationships between people with NPD and their children hew to very specific patterns. It was a eureka moment to discover it, to give this vague and troubling thing a name…

Q:  Did writing Hollywood Park change any of your perceptions about your family?  Did you come to any insights that surprised you?

A:  I came to understand my brother much better.  He was always the angry one.  I was the good one.  Those were our roles.  He resisted all parenting, broke all rules, was the classic “scapegoat” child one reads about in books on dysfunctional families.  He became an alcoholic at 13, a drug addict by 15, and eventually moved on to heroin, crack, you name it.  I think I resented all this as a child.  But revisiting it with the perspective of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (and the fact that we were orphans), I came to empathize with him.  His story as a child is so incredibly sad.  He was made into an orphan at six months old and lived alone as one until he was 7.  It’s like he was just abandoned on a playground. We escaped the cult early one morning with a woman we hardly knew (people told us she was our “mom” but since no one knew their parents, the term didn’t have any particular meaning), then spent a while on the run, trying to avoid violent goons that Synanon sent…No one ever asked us how we felt about anything…His journey took some amazing turns and now, as men, I admire him so much…

Some answers have been abbreviated due to space restrictions.  To see Celadon’s interview with Mikel Jollett in its entirety, please visit Celadon Books website.

Interesting article about Synanon

More About Hollywood Park Book Events

Goodreads Summary



About the Author:

Mikel Jollett is the frontman of the indie band The Airborne Toxic Event. Prior to forming the band, Jollett graduated with honors from Stanford University. He was an on-air columnist for NPR’s All Things Considered, an editor-at-large for Men’s Health and an editor at Filter magazine. His fiction has been published in McSweeney’s.



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