Today’s rock music doesn’t hold much interest for me but, while listening to NPR, I heard about a new book called “Hollywood Park” (Celadon Press). It’s a memoir written by 47-year-old Mikel Jollett, frontman for a group called Airborne Toxic Event, an indie rock band (whose name some readers may recognize as a tribute to Don DeLillo’s book “White Noise”). I like memoirs and, needing a good read to take my mind off politics, COVID-19 and other absurdities, I gave it a shot. All I can say is, “Thanks, NPR!” I can’t remember ever reading a book like this one.
Mikel’s life story is incredible; a perfect example of truth being stranger than fiction. He was born and brought up in the children’s quarters at Synanon, a commune dedicated to rehabilitating drug addicts. It flourished from 1958-1991, but eventually transformed into a controlling and violent cult and charges of attempted murder and terrorism led to its closure. “Hollywood Park” is a highly emotional account of a tormented youth, but with the help of music, therapy and love, it ends up being a story of redemption. It may not be for all tastes, but if you’re a fan of Mary Karr’s “The Liar’s Club,” Jeanette Wall’s “The Glass Castle” or Tara Westover’s “Educated,” this is the book for you…
The Synanon building predated the famous pier in Santa Monica, Calif., and it also had a location nearby in Venice. Children of members were taken from their parents within 6 months of their birth and sent to live in communal quarters to become “Children of the Universe.” In the first chapter of the book Mikel, 5, and his brother Tony, 7, are sleeping soundly when their mother, an extreme narcissist, wakes them and drives them to her parents’ house up the coast. This begins a lifetime struggle to heal from the devastating fallout of a decision his parents made before he was born. “We were just kids and we were not told any truth at all,” Mikel writes. “We were told we were in a ‘school’ – lie. We were told we had good lives – lie. We were told our parents loved us, and that may have been true, but the person for whom I felt the most love was Bonnie, one of the designated caregivers who raised me.” Mikel and Tony spend their childhood often shuffling between their mother’s home in Oregon during the school year and their father’s place in L.A. in the summers. After being whisked away from Synanon, when Mikel is a little older, he and Tony show up at their father’s house and find Bonnie there. The couple maintain a relationship that becomes one of the most stable in young Mikel’s life.
The bubble Mikel grew up in was very constrictive. Not only did he not know what a cheeseburger was – or even a restaurant, for that matter – Mikel says he wasn’t really sure what a family was. His mother’s first long-term partner, Paul, loved Mikel and Tony but he was constantly broke both financially and emotionally. A gentle alcoholic, who couldn’t control his disease, Paul teaches Mikel to fish and instills in him a love of running. One day, with no proof, Mom tells the boys he’s dead and they never see him again. Mikel grieves this loss for years.
When they’re in the cold and moldy Oregon house, they raised rabbits in the backyard for food. “Eight years old in the backyard with a hunting knife and a young rabbit bleeding on a tree,” Mikel says, “and I discovered this ache [that] was not only that of a kid who didn’t want to have to kill his dinner but also that of someone who identified with that bunny.” Mikel’s mother told him that he was destined for great things. “I was told I was going to save the world, I was going to be president, I was going to be the next Martin Luther King Jr. and so on. When you grow up hearing that so often, you slide into a role as the superchild, the achiever child. What was left for my brother? He became the scapegoat, the one who messed up.” Tony went through years of addiction and mental-health struggles, but today is sober and stable.
Teachers tell Mikel’s mother that he’s a straight-A student, and he should skip a grade; Mom won’t agree, and by age 10, Mikel knows why. “I know it’s my job to take care of Mom and that all boys are supposed to take care of their mothers because that was the reason they were born,” he writes.
As he gets older, Mikel tries to outrun his past. He ditches school and crashes a Honda XR80 motorcycle. He becomes obsessed with David Bowie, picks up a broken guitar and beats on it. He says, however, that two other family members pushed him to work toward something even better than success. “My father always maintained that Synanon saved his life, got him off heroin … And I think that’s true, that it did save a lot of addicts’ lives. Unfortunately, it also ruined the lives of many others.” The book’s title, “Hollywood Park,” refers to the horse track where their father would take Mikel and Tony for father-son gambling outings. “What that track meant to me was a lesson in how to be a man,” says Mikel. “We didn’t have many examples of how to live in a world with men, so we really treasured those afternoons with our dad.”
The other important influence was his maternal grandfather, the Dutchman who welcomed his daughter and her two small sons back into his home after they fled the commune. “My grandfather taught me that love, not pain, is the most useful thing.”
Mikel decides to take school more seriously and takes up track, earning a full-ride scholarship to Stanford, where he wins runs the third fastest 10,000-meter time in the nation. It ought to be alright from here on out, but the damage caused by Mom has Mikel ruining any chance at love and occasionally wondering whether he should stick around this world at all.
Luckily Mikel also had music in his life and a talent for it. In his early 20s, living in L.A. and writing for a music magazine, he finds himself interviewing his hero Bowie. He gets up the nerve to ask, how does Bowie write songs? Mikel confesses that he’s written a few hundred; that his “deepest wish” is to perform for an audience, but admits that he’s too complicated and shattered to pursue his dreams. “I can barely remember having a thought where love is just love, where there is peace” he tells Bowie, who convinces him to write about his pain. And he does, turning that pain into beauty. In 2006 he punk-rocks a band together – The Airborne Toxic Event – and their debut album sells more than half a million copies; there have been five more albums since.
Exploring issues of addiction, mental health and much more, Mikel looks objectively at his childhood, how he was raised, and his relationship with his parents in this detailed account of his life. With the assistance of a therapist, he learned to understand the neglect and abuse he experienced and how it shaped him, and he embraced the fact that this did not have to determine his life going forward.
Mikel’s process of working through feelings of anger, loneliness, pride, and confusion to better understand his family and himself is inspiring. But where “Hollywood Park” succeeds the most is in its sympathetic depiction of the suffering and struggle of others with addiction: those we tend to marginalize; those scarcely holding on. Mikel’s life story demonstrates that you can recover from trauma and find sustainable meaning in life. Most importantly, it shows that whether suffering is redemptive or pointless, the pain is the constant. Conquering it is managing it.