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Mikel Jollett's stirring memoir 'Hollywood Park' redefines family

a devil's bookshelf

5/5 Blue Devils 

I gravitate toward books about families. Family is a shared identity amongst independent people. Families represent a number of individuals connected by blood, marriage or other ties, all of which are interwoven. No matter the connections, every family can feel an immense range of emotion toward one another, from fierce allegiance to neglect or even a blend of the two across generations. Both fiction and non-fiction stories are energized when writers test the boundaries of family, and use this essentially universal experience as a launch pad for thought. Mikel Jollett’s “Hollywood Park” shows that a family is not only a concept but also an experience, which requires work and communication. 

The memoir begins in Synanon, an infamous cult founded in the late 1950s. Jollett was separated from his parents at six-months-old, and placed into The School of Synanon. His parents were also members of Synanon, but at The School, children lived and learned apart from parental figures, encouraged to become “children of the universe,” led by adults known as Demonstrators. This cult started with the goal of drug rehabilitation, but this supportive mission led to divisive, unsustainable and violent practices. Although all of Mikel’s immediate family members were also Synanon members, the cult’s beliefs, determined and enforced by founder Charles E. Dederich Sr., prevented familial unity. Once Jollett shares this extraordinarily unconventional experience as the genesis of his memoir, he guides readers alongside him into the great unknown of the world outside of Synanon.

Jollett emphasizes that his life has been a balancing act between control and chaos. As he describes positive developments in his teen years, Jollett explains how he channeled his energy into running track and field, sharing new music with friends and earning fantastic grades, which earn him a scholarship to Stanford University. These seemingly typical activities are more than just hobbies and passions. For Jollett, these were intentional decisions. A throughline of the memoir is Jollett’s fear of simply becoming another man outrunning the law and pressing pause on life, like his very own father: a man whose love rescued young Jollett, but a man Jollett does not want to be. This nagging paranoia pushes him to escape his life’s predicted path with courage and determination. 

As Jollett follows his dream to enter the music world with his writing skills, he interviews his larger-than-life idols, David Bowie and Robert Smith of The Cure. While he creates his own music, following in their footsteps, he also becomes the frontman for his very own band, The Airborne Toxic Event. As Jollett continually defies the odds of what he believes to be his own life prophecy, readers learn that this memoir is about a perpetual escape from Synanon. Jollett is consistently challenging the confinement of his youth and the past that still haunts him. 

Although it is an incredible story, Mikel Jollett’s successful escape from Synanon’s imprint is not a common feat. For example, Tony, his older brother, experienced almost seven years of Synanon. Throughout the memoir, readers learn that these additional years of captivity created a grave difference in Tony’s growth compared to Mikel. While Mikel saw hope as he emerged from Synanon, Tony was entangled in a negative, self-deprecating mindset, unsure of how to be normal or how to properly segment his life into two worlds — inside and outside Synanon. The two brothers have a tumultuous relationship throughout the memoir, but their familial tie is ever-present and always of utmost importance. 

As a candid writer, Jollett is honest from the outset that neither one of his parents is perfect. Most strikingly, his father is a heroic mentor whose various faults are never hidden. The title of the memoir is based on the racetrack in California where Mikel and his father spent time together, cheering on horses fiercely riding ahead with their own unbridled joy. Furthermore, the emotional abuse caused by Jollett’s mother is overwhelming, yet, in scenes where she appears, he always prioritizes her humanity. Jollett’s mother works in a mental hospital, but her own mental turmoil (diagnosed as narcissistic personality disorder/borderline personality disorder) is left unsolved for much of the book. Through this one subplot, Jollett explores how his mother’s confidence in her academic knowledge of psychology and determination to help others often allows her to ignore her own health. Perhaps an even more painful truth, her compartmentalization of emotion and inability to confront these feelings forces her to devalue the struggles of her sons. Here, the memoir exposes a difficult truth that few come to terms with: families or family members can also be dangerous, and the only thing ensuring one’s survival is appropriate distance. 

One of the most gripping elements of the memoir is Jollett’s voice. He narrates his childhood with a childlike voice, and gradually builds a new tone reflective of the wisdom and experience he gains. In the first section of the book, ‘Escape,’ Jollett uses unconventional vocabulary and emphasizes imagination. This naive voice is not annoying, overly juvenile or repetitive, but instead a voice that illuminates the ways our childlike brains function. Instead of describing his mother’s crippling depression, he calls it her “deep-russian.” Rather than stating that his Dutch grandparents are from the Netherlands, he simply calls their home “Dutch.” These little quirks in speech make for an engaging read that exposes the innocent mistakes we all once made. Some carry on throughout the memoir, like never referring to a relative or a friend as a “drug addict” and choosing the term Dope Fiend instead.

Part of the reason why I picked up this book is because I was intrigued by cults. I have watched multiple TV series about cults, but I had not yet read a book of a firsthand account. This initial, more surface-level interest was a motivating factor for me, but “Hollywood Park” is much more than a commune-centered narrative. A discussion of Synanon is never suppressed in the memoir, and it would be impossible to learn about Jollett’s life without it, but this book is not limited to a prescriptive cult plot. Jollet leaps out of these early years of isolation, literally and figuratively, yearning for a future in which he is the director. Cult survivors are often described for their vulnerability, but Jollett’s story shows that this archetype is extremely limiting.

As I closed the cover of this memoir, after developing an attachment to the people and the prose, I immediately knew this was worth 5/5 Blue Devils. I urge you to start off 2021 with this powerful and poignant read. Jollett’s perseverance is a timely message as those around us generate resolutions, work to conquer fears and strive to achieve personal missions in the new year.

Bates Crawford is a Trinity junior. Her book column, “A Devil’s Bookshelf,” runs bimonthly and she rates reads on a 0-5 Blue Devil scale. Bates recommends books to her fellow students for free-time reading when (or if) they have spare time in their busy Duke lives.

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