Metaphorical Reality: A Conversation with Mikel Jollett

Mikel Jollett was born in an experimental commune in Southern California called Synanon. Started as a drug rehabilitation program, it later morphed into one of the most notorious cults America has ever seen. When the community became violent, his mother fled the group with Jollett and his older brother. Raised in abject poverty and fighting the lure of drugs and delinquency, Jollett escaped with the help of his estranged father. He went on to attend Stanford University, before becoming an on-air columnist for NPR’s All Things Considered, an Editor-at-Large for Men’s Health, and an editor at Filter Magazine. After McSweeney’s published his short story “The Crack,” he was accepted to Yaddo artists’ community, but ultimately decided to pursue music instead. He named his band Airborne Toxic Event after a section of Don DeLillo’s White Noise and quickly built a loyal fan base.

In Mikel Jollett’s memoir Hollywood Park, the space carved out by unanswered questions looms large. “We were never young. We were just too afraid of ourselves,” Jollett writes at the opening of the memoir. What follows is not just the story of Jollett and his family’s escape from Synanon, a violent drug-rehabilitation-program-turned-alternative-living-community, but a sweeping and beautiful memoir that follows Jollett into early adulthood. 

Below, I spoke with Jollett about writing from the perspective of his younger self, shifting between writing music and writing prose, and the boundaries of memory.


Emma Grillo: Could you start by describing Hollywood Park in your own words?

Mikel Jollett: Yeah. About five years ago my dad died, and it hit me really hard cause he was like my best friend. I spent about nine months being really depressed, hardly left the house, and I put on a bunch of weight and I cried every day. It was like my whole world had been kind of destroyed by this thing. And it was really confusing. And that was the thing I think, for me—it wasn’t just that I was sad, but that I was just baffled. I was baffled by how sad I was. I remember thinking “what’s next, gravity?” Like the laws of physics didn’t make sense. So when I sort of came to and sort of came out of it, I decided I wanted to write a book. Originally I was gonna write a short book that was kind of about my father’s life and had some family lore in it and what not. Maybe a little about his death. And every time I tried to tell the story I kept having to start at earlier and earlier points. It would be like, father died and it hit me really hard. Well, why did it hit you really hard? Well, he was like my best friend. Oh really, your dad was your best friend? Well yeah, he was like the first person I ever trusted. Really, why was he the first person you ever trusted? Well, you see, I was born in a cult, and we were in an orphanage in a cult. Wait, what? Each question begat another question, and then eventually I realized I just needed to start with my earliest memories. And then I started doing that, and I decided on this voice which the book starts in. The book’s in four different voices, one for each section. And the first voice is that of a precocious five year old in conversation with a 40-year-old writer. That’s probably the best way to put it. It’s not just a five year old, there’s also an element of a sort of ontological relationship to the person writing the book as well. And then over time, as I wrote the book, it felt like I was giving voice to this child who never had a voice, who had gone through all these experiences and had very strong emotions and very strong memories and had been told his whole life they were one thing, but then they were this other thing. So it sort of felt like I was finally giving that kid who had been through all this stuff a voice. And so then that’s what I try to do in the following sections, which have the voice change and mature as I grow older.

EG: What was it like to go back and write from such a young voice? I definitely felt that shift reading the books. As a reader, you almost feel like you mature with the voice. Could you talk a little bit about that?

MJ: It was really hard. I had written the book originally in a different voice. Well, I wrote it originally in six different voices. My process is a really long and convoluted one. Before I sat down to write it, I took about 100,000 words of notes. I did a bunch of interviews, I did a bunch of stuff where I went to a bunch of different locations and did what I like to call a “brain dump”—I just wrote about the locations and the memories and the people and sights and sounds and sensations affiliated with them. And then I sat down to write, and I really sort of struggled for the voice. And I wrote the first chapter probably six different times in six different voices. One of which was just the voice of a, you know, 40-year-old memoirist, starting at my father’s funeral and then looking backwards, like, “hi I’m 40, here’s my life.” One of them was just kind of like, absurdist, “Still Life with Woodpecker,” kind of gonzo voice. And then I had written this one that was like, just put me in your head on the day you left Synanon. Just put me in that kid’s head. And I sat and I wrote it, and then I kind of set it aside, and it wasn’t until about a month later that I went back and I read all six, the chapter in six different voices, and it was like, the third one. I was like, that’s the one I want to read, that’s the book I want to read. And then as a writer, it was really hard, cause it was like every day I had to go through the exercise of trying to recreate the world of this child. I couldn’t just sit down and start for the most part. I usually had to really get myself into the mindset and really try to remember the sights and sounds and feelings and attitudes around each scene, and diagram each scene. I mean I don’t know how nerdy you want this to be. For each scene, once I found the voice, I would map out the physical reality and then the emotional attitudinal reality. And then there was [the question of “what was my imagination at the time?” Like what was happening physically, what was happening around me, what’s the setting and the kind of attitudes that everyone had about each other and the relationships, and then there was, I feel like you really know someone if you know their imagination. Like that’s how you really know a human, when you know what they dream about and what they think is happening. So then it would be like ok, so what did you imagine was happening to you at the time? In this scene, you’re being told by your mother that you’re safe when you know you’re not. But what did you imagine? At the time I imagined that I needed to fly. And in that case it was like fly up into the clouds, into like a stone tower, which is like a really strong image I always had as a kid. And I think we forget that. We forget that children have really complex metaphorical worlds. And we think of kids as being not as bright because they’re not as good at communicating, and certainly not as good at manipulating as adults are. But I think that children have really complicated and complex emotional and metaphorical imaginative worlds. And so then I diagrammed all of this. And then the fourth reality is the ontological, metaphorical reality. What is happening in this scene that is in dialogue with the person writing this book, the man that’s sitting here writing the book, and how are those two in dialogue. In different voices those things peek through more and more. In the first section, it’s mostly one and two, although it’s some three and four, and in the second section there’s a lot of two and three, and then by the end it’s almost all four. Each one I gave a different grammatical structure and a different sentence structure and a different vocabulary, too. I tried to recreate [my experiences], so when I read it, [I asked myself], does this feel like how that felt? Do I have the feeling that this is what it felt like at six years old to go through this, at ten years old to go through this, at twenty years old to go through this. And you know, in terms of all these things, sights, sounds, emotions, attitudes, the reality of my imagination at the time, and then, of course, the ontological reality of that person in dialogue with the person trying to write a narrative about it now. 

EG: You mentioned you did a lot of interviews. Did you have any diaries you were looking back on? What was your personal research process?

MJ: I did have some diaries from college. From my childhood, not as such. It was a lot of conversations, endless conversations with my brother, endless conversations with people like Judy Mueller, who was at the school in Synanon. Bonnie, my mom Bonnie, who was obviously at the school in Synanon. With Phil Ritter, who was our roommate in Berkeley after we escaped Synanon, which I write about in the book, my interviews with him. Anything that felt like there might be a competing narrative or I wasn’t totally sure about, I wanted to make sure. The things I was sure about I just wrote, and I wrote about from my own experience and my own memory. Anything that I felt like, “this is contentious,” or anything I felt like I didn’t remember well but knew I needed to write about, I would sort of find… And what’s funny is that a lot of the details were right! And I’d be like, how did I fucking remember that? How did I know about this specific, like the Sedan that my grandfather was in when we left? I don’t remember talking about that with anyone, but I just knew that it was a white station wagon. And as it turns out, that was exactly right. My aunt confirmed, and my brother. Stuff like that. What I found was, you know it’s a memoir, and memoir is different from an autobiography. And autobiography is sort of like here, I’m an important human and here’s my memoirs! And a memoir, I think—ok, stick with me on this thought, it’s kind of a thorny one—anyone who says they remember everything exactly as it happens is full of shit. It just doesn’t happen. Memory is a fog, and it stretches certain moments and it compresses others and it colors everything and it’s dangerous to pretend to be too sure about it. So I feel like there’s a couple ways to engage the fog of memory, and one of them is to simply state “My memory is a fog, and here’s how it comes to me and here’s all of the ways I’m interrogating it.” There’s some memoirists who do that, [who] I think are great, and I love them and admire the memoirists who do that. I think that’s one good way to do it. Another way to go, a full 180 from that, is to present on page one how highly subjective this is. Like one of my favorite memoirs opens with—God I wish I had the author in front of me right now—but the line is something like, “my earliest memory is of a time before I was born.” Just to like let the reader in on page one just how subjective it is. And for me, I kind of chose this alternate route, which is to give the facts as I understood them, even if they’re wrong, and let the reader follow the journey of discovery. So in the book I say things that are demonstrably wrong. There’s like my five-year-old self saying stuff that the reader is like, no, that’s not right! That’s wrong, what are you doing? Some of that was the magical world of children, like you’re not sure if you can’t fly. You’re not sure if animals can talk, like, you don’t know, you’re five years old. And I think some of it is the wholesale acceptance of the narratives that adults were telling us. And I later realized that these are the kinds of narratives that were common in abusive homes, and I had already internalized them at a really young age. You know, that we had been abandoned, we’d been neglected, we were abused, we were in an orphanage in a cult, and no one told us these things. No one told us what happened, no one said, oh I’m really glad you got out of the orphanage, that must have been hard for you. We were told, you were in a great school! Aren’t you happy? And we were like no, that wasn’t a school and no, I’m not happy, but there was no way to say it cause we didn’t, there wasn’t the… I’m trying to explain, but it was almost like there weren’t the means by which we had the right to our own narrative. I felt like, when writing the book, [I had to] just present that process of going from being completely in the dark, completely unempowered, to my own narrative, to how it came to me in my life, which was like this puzzle I had to piece together over a lifetime.

EG: In conjunction with the memoir, you’re releasing an album with the same name with your band, The Airborne Toxic Event,. When did you decide to have the album also be a part of the book release? 

MJ: I’d say about halfway through. I was writing a bunch of songs that were kind of about this. I was just so in it, you know? I was writing 12 hours a day and working on so many different things, I was just so in it. So, about halfway through, I was like, we should have this be a thing. So from that moment it was about three years of work to completion. I’d been writing a bunch of songs about my dad’s early life, and they were from my dad’s perspective. “Brother How Was the War?,” and “Hollywood Park,” and “Carry Me” are all songs from my dad’s life, written from his perspective. And some are written from our perspective as [children], and some are written from my perspective as an adult dealing with my father’s death. Concept records, like The Wall by Pink Floyd or Final Cut by Pink Floyd or The Monitor by Titus Andronicus, it’s this weaving together of this private narrative—in Roger Waters’s case, it was the anguish at the loss of his dad, right? His dad died in World War II and he always had this psychological trauma because of it. So he’s weaving that together with the historical thing of, like, World War II and the tanks and the battles and the air raids and what it was like to be in England when it was being bombed, with the adult dealing with the psychological trauma as a child, that he experienced as a child—like what does the adult look like? That’s exactly what I was going for in Hollywood Park, weaving together the political reality of the free speech movement and the human potential movement and Synanon and Vietnam and being on the run from those things, with the psychological trauma of what we went through as children, to the adult trying to navigate the world of adult relationships carrying around that trauma. There’s a thing that I discovered, which is that if you search for truths you’ll be awarded with originality. The more that you’re just looking for truth, the gift you get is originality. Every time I got stuck, I just found that honesty was the answer. Honesty was the way out of the problem. Just be honest: what happened? Cause the story would demand, like, alright, now this huge thing needs to happen. But the reality was, no, this very small thing happened, but it was hugely important, and it’s really complicated as to why. And then it would be like well, write about that. And just trust that the reader is going to understand the importance of that small detail.

EG: What was it like going between different forms of writing? Were there things that you found were easier to express in memoir versus song?

MJ: I would say that they were just very different. Writing the book was like, it was like crossing the Atlantic in a bathtub, it just took forever. It was so much more work than I thought it would be. If I had known how much work it was gonna be, I probably wouldn’t have done it. But I did about halfway through realize that maybe there was something really special about what I was writing, and that if I really, really, really, really were to work on it, I could go on this remarkable journey, but it was gonna require a lot of me. So I kind of re-dedicated myself to it two or three different times, cause it was just so exhausting. Sometimes it kind of felt like building the locked towers in the basement. Under your house you have these huge, ornate [towers]. No one had read it but my wife, she was like my sounding board—I didn’t have an agent, I didn’t have a publisher, I didn’t have an editor. I was just writing alone. For years. The completed book that is the book isn’t that different from my Microsoft Word document. And it was just like trying to create the thing, and then terribly nerve-wracking when I sent it out to some friends to read, or sent it out to some people. Like, oh my god, years of work, and just wondering what they’re gonna think, and did I do the thing I thought I was doing, and all that kind of stuff. Whereas song writing, you know, I’d been a songwriter for 10 years. I’ve played lots of shows and festivals, so I kind of had a sense that the songs were…I really liked the songs and the band liked the songs and I kind of knew that other people might like them too, cause they just kind of had an energy to them and I had a confidence about it. Whereas I hadn’t written a word in a decade. It’d been a decade since I published “The Crack,” which is the short story I published in McSweeney’s. Since then I literally hadn’t written a word. So it was just like this whole new experience, to go from not having written a word to spending three years locked in a room writing every day.

EG: What is it like to write about people who you know will probably end up reading the book as well, like your close family members?

MJ: My brother was the person I was most nervous about. I was terrified when I gave him the book. I said ok, buckle up, don’t pull any punches here, just get ready for this book! I stayed close. I called him a lot. I was terrified about what he was gonna think, and then he read it, and he called me, and I came over to the house and we talked for a long time in the kitchen, and he said he loved it. He said, “Listen, all these things happened. I understand why I don’t always come off great in this book, but then you know, neither do you! It’s like you’re kind of putting your own stuff out there as well, so it’s fair game.” He said he just felt it was very accurate. He was whatever the opposite of small and petty is. He was large-hearted and generous and kind and supportive. He cried, and he told me he loved me and he was proud of me and he was proud of the book, and even though there was a lot of pain in it, it captured the truth of what we went through. I think for my brother and me, there’s always been this feeling and we’ve always said it to each other through the years. We used to always say that nobody understands what we went through. Nobody, except you. We’d say nobody understands us but you. Cause it’s a really complex thing. We were orphans, sort of, we were abused and neglected, sort of, I mean we certainly were those things. And then we were sort of not really given a right to our narrative. And then we were also just very poor which is hard in its own way. And we had this difficult relationship, particularly with our mom. And our father was the one we worshipped from afar, but he was sort of flawed, but in some really wonderful ways, and was really just kind. And the push and pull of all those things is a hard thing to capture. So I think he felt that it was all there in the book, and he was tremendously, just very proud and generous. And then Bonnie of course cried and cried. The Synanon people, I had a bunch of peers from Synanon read it and they all said they felt it captured a lot of their journey, and they were just very happy about it and proud of it. It’s been great so far, in terms of all of that. The relationship with my mom is tough to write about. Mary Karr says when you have fraught relationships it’s important to write about them with great love. I tried to do that. Even now it’s hard to speak publicly about her, because I think the truth is a part of me always feels defensive about her. Like I have to guard her the way a boxer guards a broken rib. She caused us a lot of pain, but I really don’t think she did it on purpose. Just because a parent struggles with mental illness doesn’t mean they ever intended to hurt their children. I don’t think she intended to hurt us, it just kind of worked out that way. I tried to allow for the struggles that she was going through, that she was facing, so that the reader would get a real sense of the tragedies that had befallen her and not just try to make her some one-dimensional monstrous person, which she isn’t. 

EG: Storytelling, from the stories that your dad and his family told about their family lore to the stories that were told in different meetings, was such a big theme in the book and in your life. Did you feel that coming through?

MJ: Yeah. It’s funny, having grown up in AA meetings, I feel like it really teaches you how to tell a story. It’s like, there are some world-class story tellers that are not giving TED Talks, they’re sharing at the basement of the Catholic Church right now. They really know how to give a story with beginning, middle, and end, and visceral details and jokes. I feel like witnessing so much of this growing up, so many of these gray old addicts telling stories about being drunk or using drugs or whatever it was, and then finding a new way of thinking about their lives, there are all these wonderful redemption stories in AA and Al-Anon and CA and NA, all these programs that I’ve been on the periphery of my whole life. They’re tremendous storytellers. If you want to be a writer, you can do a lot worse than spending all your time in AA. 

EG: What advice would you give to young writers?

MJ: That it’s a long road and to let it be one, and that’s ok. It’s ok to not be that good at it yet. Everybody’s wondering if they’re Mozart. There’s this sense of the wunderkind that permeates our culture. The person who the first time they ever tried something they were amazing at it. What I would tell anyone is no, you don’t [have it]. But you can develop it. You’re not going to be that good at this right now. But then you can be pretty good at it, and then you can be very good at it, and then you can be great at it. And the road that takes you there is writing a million pages. And between now and those million pages of writing you’re gonna get better. And just keep getting better, keep getting better. It’s not a natural ability; it’s an ability that you develop. Over time, talent and work are indistinguishable. 


Emma Grillo


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