I won’t lie. I’d never heard of Airborne Toxic Event before picking this book up. Coincidentally, I’d been reading White Noise by Don DeLillo, which is about… an Airborne Toxic Event. Worlds collide… or something!
The word that comes up for me again and again with this book is heartbreaking, even towards the end when you know that hope and renewal are coming. Hope, in a way, is heartbreaking. The human experience is illustrated in Hollywood Park in a way that is difficult for memoirs to capture. We grow up with Mikel, meeting him at five years old, and following him on what seems like a hopeless and foreboding trajectory. Life is gritty and raw and children are defenseless at the hands of mentally ill adults. It’s a wonder any of them survive but surviving is not living, which is the theme at the heart of Hollywood Park.
I felt myself getting aggravated the same way I do when I watch Curb Your Enthusiasm. Everything is all wrong, everyone is all wrong and it’s totally preventable and only if people would just knock it off and get with the program already. Get that kid some therapy, I wanted to yell at every single adult in Mikel’s life. Yes, it would’ve been a very different book, or maybe no book at all if everyone did all things they were supposed to do to raise a well-adjusted human. Yes, I was very emotionally invested in this book, apparently.
Or is one of those times when we are supposed to say that these life experiences make you the person you are today, and you shouldn’t wish it any other way? I call bullshit. Is it really the fate of human beings to battle all kinds of demons and see if you can make it to the other side? I guess so but it’s still lame, even if it does make for a good story.
The ultimate reward in a memoir about the wretchedness of abuse and poverty is redemption, and Hollywood Park delivers that in spades. Jollett is rescued from a 70s California cult by his mother, but he is rescued from his mother by music, decent human beings and of course, love. Always love, right?
What sets this memoir apart from other memoirs is the way Jollett seems to be inviting the reader to walk alongside him as he travels the backroads of his memories, retracing his steps from the School, where the children of Synanon are housed through his tumultuous childhood in Oregon and California, to his comparatively normal life today. The book begins in the voice of a child and grows into the voice of hard-won adulthood.
More About Hollywood Park
From the publisher:
HOLLYWOOD PARK is a remarkable memoir of a tumultuous life. Mikel Jollett was born into one of the country’s most infamous cults, and subjected to a childhood filled with poverty, addiction, and emotional abuse. Yet, ultimately, his is a story of fierce love and family loyalty told in a raw, poetic voice that signals the emergence of a uniquely gifted writer. We were never young. We were just too afraid of ourselves. No one told us who we were or what we were or where all our parents went. They would arrive like ghosts, visiting us for a morning, an afternoon. They would sit with us or walk around the grounds, to laugh or cry or toss us in the air while we screamed. Then they’d disappear again, for weeks, for months, for years, leaving us alone with our memories and dreams, our questions and confusion. … So begins Hollywood Park, Mikel Jollett’s remarkable memoir. His story opens in an experimental commune in California, which later morphed into the Church of Synanon, one of the country’s most infamous and dangerous cults. Per the leader’s mandate, all children, including Jollett and his older brother, were separated from their parents when they were six months old, and handed over to the cult’s “School.” After spending years in what was essentially an orphanage, Mikel escaped the cult one morning with his mother and older brother. But in many ways, life outside Synanon was even harder and more erratic. In his raw, poetic and powerful voice, Jollett portrays a childhood filled with abject poverty, trauma, emotional abuse, delinquency and the lure of drugs and alcohol. Raised by a clinically depressed mother, tormented by his angry older brother, subjected to the unpredictability of troubled step-fathers and longing for contact with his father, a former heroin addict and ex-con, Jollett slowly, often painfully, builds a life that leads him to Stanford University and, eventually, to finding his voice as a writer and musician. Hollywood Park is told at first through the limited perspective of a child, and then broadens as Jollett begins to understand the world around him. Although Mikel Jollett’s story is filled with heartbreak, it is ultimately an unforgettable portrayal of love at its fiercest and most loyal.