‘We were abused, we were abandoned’: the rock star who grew up in a cult

Susannah Goldsbrough
·9 min read
'You become a writer to insulate yourself from overwhelming emotions': musician Mikel Jollett
'You become a writer to insulate yourself from overwhelming emotions': musician Mikel Jollett

Mikel Jollett has a remarkable memory. He can conjure up episodes from the early years of his childhood in astonishing detail: the colour of the blackberry bushes behind the barn of his childhood home in Salem, Oregon, the expression on his stepfather’s face as he explained how to slaughter a baby rabbit, the blue handle of the hatchet he used to dig the grave for the uneaten bits of the carcass.

It’s probably not uncommon for a singer-songwriter like Jollett, whose memoir Hollywood Park is out in the UK on Thursday, to have a good eye for an image. The lyrics he writes for his indie rock band, The Airborne Toxic Event, known for their unusual blend of orchestral arrangements and rock ‘n roll, often circle around a particular image, pinning us to a moment with splinters of detail: a place, a drink, a dress. But in Jollett’s case, there’s more to memory than artistry.

“One of things I learned in therapy” he tells me from his home in Silver Lake, California, pausing to chuckle at the inadvertent pretension of the phrase, “is that you know an event was traumatic because you remember it so well. I don’t remember everything about my childhood but what I do… that’s trauma.”

Synanon women, protesting by shaving their heads in Oakland, California - Bettmann
Synanon women, protesting by shaving their heads in Oakland, California - Bettmann

Six months after his birth, Jollett and his older brother Tony were taken away from their parents and put into what was effectively an orphanage. Jollett’s parents were members of Synanon, the infamous Californian commune that grew from a drug rehabilitation programme in the late Sixties to a full-blown cult by the mid Seventies (his father was a recovering heroin addict; his mother was a social worker who became strongly politicized as a student at Berkeley in the Sixties).

Jollett is thus a member of that strange and particular group of celebrities who were raised in cults – actor Joaquin Phoenix and his siblings and actress Rose McGowan all grew up in communes run by Children of God; actress Winona Ryder grew up in another California commune known as the Rainbow family.

Video: Rose McGown on the ‘dangerous cult’ of Hollywood

The abuses perpetrated by the cult’s leaders were not confined to the forced communal raising of children. Synanon became notorious for forced divorces, abortions and vasectomies. It was eventually shut down in the early Nineties amid convictions for terrorism and murder. In one infamous crime, Synanon members place a de-rattled rattle snake in the mailbox of a lawyer who had successfully sued the group on behalf of people being held there against their will. He was bitten and hospitalized for six days.

When Jollett was five, his mother took her sons and fled the cult, fearing its increasing violence. Nevertheless, Jollett has been dealing with the psychological and emotional fallout from those first five years of separation ever since.

Although his lyrics have occasionally alluded to Synanon, Hollywood Park is the first time he has spoken at length of his early experiences. He spent six months “world building” – visiting all the places in the book, talking to contemporaries to try and access his earliest memories – and then another two and half years writing.

Reading the precisely crafted, emotionally-sucker-punching prose and speaking to Jollett himself, it’s hard to reconcile this thoughtful, measured husband and father of two with the befuddled child who had never been in a car until the strange woman who he had been taught to call “mum” strapped him into hers in the middle of the night.

That’s at least in part a coping strategy. “You probably become a writer as a way to insulate yourself from overwhelming emotions” he concedes cheerfully.

He’s also spent years confronting and working through the attachment issues, self-loathing and fury that were the legacy of his early years. But they will never melt away entirely.

Of Synanon, he says: “There’s a lot of anger and feeling of loss and disappointment. We were abused, we were abandoned.”

“To this day I still have to have arguments with people who were there who, to this day, will act like it wasn’t a big deal to be taken from your parents and raised by strangers. There’s this kind of ‘what are you complaining about?’ attitude from the older generation of Synanon people, which is infuriating. I still get so angry… these are the same people who’ll criticise Donald Trump for his separation policy of separating children at the border even though that’s precisely what they did to their children.”

But the traumas of Jollett’s childhood did not end at Synanon. After fleeing Santa Monica, his mother took her sons to Salem, where Jollett would live until his early teens. As she is revealed to the reader in the book – though mediated through the double gaze of Jollet the child and Jollett the writer; the one compliant and adoring; the other honest but not unkind – his mother appears emotionally abusive, incapable of providing the affection, empathy and security her vulnerable children crave.

Mikel Jollett (r) and The Airborne Toxic Event in 2008 - Jeff Kravitz
Mikel Jollett (r) and The Airborne Toxic Event in 2008 - Jeff Kravitz

She presented them with a string of stepfathers (“Instant family. Just add water” is his dry comment), who range from a loving alcoholic to a violent sex addicts. There wasn’t always enough food, hence the rabbit slaughtering behind the barn. “I think there was an ache that I felt in that moment, at eight years old, in the backyard, standing there with a hunting knife, and it wasn’t just the feeling of a kid who didn’t want to kill his dinner, although that was true too because that was never fun.

“But I was also someone who identified with the bunny. We [Jollett and Tony] were trapped and beaten and eviscerated and pinned for someone else’s consumption – just like the bunnies.”

As a 19-year-old at Stanford University, Jollett wrote a letter to his mother telling her he wanted to break off contact for a while; they’ve been largely estranged ever since. Part of him, he says, still craves accountability. “I think when you’ve been hurt by a parent there’s always a part of you that wishes that they’d see it some day, like really see it. It’s a somewhat childish wish and in the case of my mother it’s beyond her capabilities… But I’d be lying if I said that there isn’t a child in me that wants her to read the book and say ‘My God, I’m so sorry. But the adult in me knows that’s never going to happen.”

If Hollywood Park is an indictment of Jollett’s mother, it’s also a love letter to his father, who died in 2015. He moved to LA to live with him (and his much loved stepmother) as a young teenager, finding with them a completely unfamiliar warmth and security.

“We were always told my father was a lout and a jerk. But then along he comes and he’s just the warmest, the kindest, the funniest guy. He’s so interested in our feelings and ‘how was our day?’ and ‘who did we talk to?’ and ‘what friends did we make?’ and ‘what would we like for dinner?’. He was this big, massive Italian guy and was so full of love.”

Despite, or perhaps because, of Synanon, family is clearly everything to Jollett. His relationship with his brother is painstakingly traced out through the book, from deep animosity and occasional violence to the deep and abiding closeness they have reached today. Tony struggled with addiction for years; in one of the most touching episodes of the book, Jollett gets a phone call from him in which he says he’s considering suicide and drives through the night to find him.

“I had one of those crappy little grey brick phones” he suddenly seems to recall as he tells me about it, the trauma once again asserting itself in the detail. He got there in time and Tony’s now 13 years sober. “His joke is ‘People say baking is my crack, people say muffins are my crack, you know what my crack was? Crack.’” Jollett chuckles.

The Airborne Toxic Event, which grew out of the eclectic, intellectual LA indie scene (the name is a reference to Dan DeLillo’s novel White Noise ) released their sixth album earlier this year, as a companion piece to Jollett’s memoir. They have, of course, had to put touring on hold and Jollett speaks with fondness and concern of the all venues he has gigged that are currently collapsing under the weight of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We came up playing smaller venues and grew to larger ones over time, in every city we’ve played the 50 capacity venue and the 5000 capacity venue, we’ve played everything from Barfly to Shepherd’s Bush and there's so many people – security, bartenders – and I don’t how how they’re coping. It’s like if you’re a yoghurt company and suddenly you can’t sell yoghurt. What do you do?”

For now though, he’s enjoying the unprecedented time at home with his children. They’re three and nine-months, ages at which he himself was wandering parentless through Synanon. I wonder if the experience of fatherhood has in any way altered the way he looks back on that time.

Synanon Founder Charles E. Dederich in 1968  - Getty
Synanon Founder Charles E. Dederich in 1968 - Getty

“I’ve talked about this with some of the other Synanon kids who’ve become parents and we agree: our acceptance of what our parents put us through seems insane to us now, in a way it didn’t before we had kids.

“Before it just looked kind of bad like, ‘why would you do that? That’s kind of crazy’ but then you have a kid and you love them so much and you probably pick up them up 20 times a day and you’re just their person all day, all day, everyday and the idea that at six months old, they’re old enough to be on their own, it feel likes madness. Saying now we’re going take this relationship, end it and give this child over to a stranger.

“It's hard enough not to know who’s with my child for 5 minutes, so the idea of doing that 24 hours a day and ‘oh yeah I’m going to see them every two weeks for a few hours’, it feels like utter insanity.

“My children are the thing I love most in the world. We were swimming in Hawaii recently and when I saw what I thought was a shark – it turned out to be a rock – just my first instinct was to put my body between my kid and I. And to take that most powerful of human instincts and to just flout it? That’s how powerful cults are.”

Hollywood Park is published on October 1. Visit the Telegraph Bookshop to order your copy for £9.99.