Rocker Mikel Jollett's Memoir Is 'Primal Scream' About Childhood in Synanon Cult
The frontman for The Airborne Toxic Event explores what it was like to heal — and raise children—after he escaped the violent Synanon cult
For readers, Hollywood Park is a powerful memoir about one man's journey after he escapes a violent cult as a child.
For author Mikel Jollett, the frontman for the indie band The Airborne Toxic Event, his book is a "primal scream."
"Sometimes I think about this book as this primal scream, this assertion: 'This happened. Stop telling me this didn't happen, because this happened.'" Jollett, 45, tells PEOPLE about the abuse he and many other children experienced while growing up in the "school" of the infamous Synanon cult.
"I became very interested in the idea of buried history, all the ways that we as children were told things that were patently untrue, and that we believed them," says Jollett, whose book will publish on May 26, just after the same-titled album. "And probing into this world of the traumatized child. What is mysterious about this? In what ways are we just wrong? What lies did we believe wholeheartedly?"
First touted as a rehabilitation center for addicts when it was founded in 1958, Synanon helped thousands get sober and amassed $30 million or more in assets. But, in the late '70s, the California-based organization became synonymous with violence.
The founder, Charles Dederich, ordered his cult followers to divorce and swap partners, with more than 200 couples complying. He also forced women to have abortions and almost 200 men had vasectomies after Dederich forbade any more children.
"I am not bound by the rules," Dederich said, according to a 1978 PEOPLE story. "I make them."
In 1980, the cult leader received widespread attention when he pleaded no contest to charges of assault and conspiracy to commit murder after he and two other Synanon members attempted to kill Paul Morantz, a lawyer who had successfully sued Synanon, by putting a four-and-a-half foot rattlesnake in his mailbox.
Children Were 'Gaslit to Hell'
Jollett and his older brother Tony were taken from their parents — his father a recovered addict and former convict, his mother an anti-government activist from Berkeley — when they were just 6 months old. As such they were just like the many other children born into the cult.
Jollett believes the violence to which adults were subjected has received widespread attention. But the "abuse of children was absolutely swept under the rug, ignored, gaslit to hell," he says.
Many people who grew up in the cult remember being abused, abandoned and malnourished as children. They also had to fight for attention from the few loving adults who monitored them, Jollett explains.
"Our parents weren't bad people, they didn't choose to turn their children into orphans. They didn't know," he says. "Whose fault is it? I don't know. Maybe it's the leader's fault. Maybe it's one of the things about human nature, that isolated power corrupts people. The leader, Chuck Dederich, decided we wouldn't have parents, and then we just didn't."
Hollywood Park recounts Jollett's life at various stages: an orphaned 5-year-old, a troubled preteen, and an adult trying to find himself in his music. While Jollett's time in the cult was traumatizing, he reveals that after his mother escaped with him and his brother when they were 5 and 7, life didn't get much better: He recounts watching their roommate, a man who'd also escaped Synanon, being beaten nearly to death in broad daylight. Jollett, then just a little boy, hid to save himself.
The musician also remembers the period with his mother and brother in Oregon, where they went to hide. Poor and, at one point, subsisting mostly off of rabbits they raised and butchered in their backyard, Jollett was unable to process the trauma he'd experienced, according to the book. Jollett says his feelings were not validated by his mother, who instead relied on him for comfort. ("There was no soft place to land, there was no one really caring about us," he explains.)
"You put stress on a family, unpredictable things happen, and children tend to take on different roles," Jollett says. "In the case of my brother, he became the scapegoat. He became the one to blame, he was the angry one. Looking back, I think my brother was appropriately angry with the adults."
Both boys had to navigate poverty and abuse, but Jollett's experience was vastly different from his brother's.
"At that age, my response was to become the super kid. It was like, 'Nothing ever gets to me. I'm going to rise up above all this kind of stuff, and I'm going to take care of everyone. I'm going to get up at 5:00, I'm going to feed the rabbits, I'm going to make myself breakfast, I'm going to make myself lunch, I'm going to walk to school.'"
He continues: "'I'm going to make sure my mom's okay, because she's crying in the room.'"
Dad Becomes Hero — and Unlikely Role Model
Jollett's father, though not in his life in the beginning, emerges as the hero in the book. The musician was careful in his portrayal of his mother, whom he feared would come across as a one-dimensional villain.
"Mary Karr likes to say, 'You have to write about difficult relationships with great love.' And that you should try to see people the way God sees them. And I really try to do that," Jollett says. "I think the insight for me was I always loved her, she just wasn't very good at loving me."
It wasn't until the boys moved in with their father — a tall, Italian man who awed them with stories about once hiding a shotgun under his trench coat — that the once-distant dad became more than just a mythological figure. Before moving in, Jollett had always considered his dad a "badass," a "criminal," a "pirate."
"It wasn't like Godfather, it was like Pirates of Penzance," Jollett explains. "'Ha, ha! We're going to pillage the town! Here we go!' And we sort of took that on, and it's sad because it's not a real portrait of a man, it's a child's imagination of a man."
After reconnecting with his father, Jollett — who didn't understand what a "mother" and "father" were while living in Synanon — finally had a loving, real-life dad and mom. (He considers his dad's partner, Bonnie, his mother.)
"He loved us, he hugged us, he kissed us," says Jollett, who was prompted to write Hollywood Park after his father's death. "He was just this big, masculine, Italian, strong guy that loved his boys. And that was great. It was a gift."
Jollett continued to struggle with past traumas as a young teen and adult. Tony, always angry as a child, sank into addiction at an early age and went to rehab. (He is now sober.)
"[Tony] went to rehab at a young age, and I think it scared me," Jollett says. "Then my dad became extremely interested in my life. And I think he saw I might be going down that path, too. And he started saying, 'Don't be like me. What is this thing that you think you're doing? It's not good.' I think he recognized, 'Oh, is this one going to become an addict, too?'"
After Tony went to rehab, their dad quit his job to be home with them and cooked dinner every night. For Jollett, experiencing his dad's love was a life-changing experience. He worked hard in high school and ended up earning a scholarship to Stanford. Jollett also healed by opening himself up to therapy, music and, eventually, love. (Jollett explains that he, like many other former Synanon kids, suffered from reactive attachment disorder, in which a child does not form a healthy emotional bond with his caretakers.)
Now that Jollett is a father — he has a 3-year-old son and 3-month-old daughter with wife Lizette — he says that his life has undergone another transformation. Fatherhood has made him more cognizant of how much trauma he experienced as a child, as it has for other former Synanon kids who have become parents.
"All of us started having kids, and I think as parents we were like, 'Holy s---, what? I'm not doing that. That's crazy,'" says Jollett, reflecting back on cult-members giving their children away at 6 months old. "I have nightmares about my son falling down steps, I have nightmares about dropping my daughter. Let alone, 'Okay, here you go stranger I've never met, take care of my kid. I'll see you in a few weeks for three hours,' Or in some cases, 'I'll see you in six months,' in some cases, five years. It just seems monstrous."
In contrast, Jollett's goals as a parent are simple.
"You just love them up, just squeeze them and kiss them and tell them how much you love them, and think about their needs, and have empathy for them," he says. "I can't tell you how many times a day I pick up my kid. I comfort him if he hurts his knee or my daughter when she cries, whatever it is. That's our job, to love this [child] fiercely and protect it. And they didn't do that."
Hollywood Park goes on sale on May 26.