Mikel Jollett is a rock star: he’s the lead singer of the band the Airborne Toxic Event, and a newly minted memoirist. Hollywood Park is our Spotlight Pick for May and it’s an absolute page-turner. On the page he details his life growing up in one of America’s most dangerous and violent cults, escaping, meeting his parents for the first time, coming of age, and finding music.
We had the opportunity to chat with Jollett and we talked about the idea of "otherizing," the difference between writing songs and prose, Toni Morrison (who "has no holes in her game"), grief, and the note he wrote to himself after finishing Hollywood Park.
Al Woodworth, Amazon Book Review: Your memoir details your extreme childhood. You grew up in a dangerous cult and were surrounded by violence, addiction, and poverty—and yet the way you recount your childhood is still relatable. It's not hyperbolic, which makes it impossible to put down.
Mikel Jollett: There’s a lot of otherizing things that went on my life—whether it was a cult, or prison, or heroin addiction. But the issues are universal. The hard part about being in an orphanage in a cult is there is no one to talk to: you’re lonely, you're sad. The hard part about dealing with mental illness in a parent is no one is listening and you don't feel empathy. I think a lot of people go through these emotions. Even if you weren’t in a cult, you can still know those feelings.
When I started my memoir, I was helped by these big things because I knew I was messed up. There are plenty of people just quietly suffering, and are born into nice homes and nice neighborhoods and well-educated parents, who can’t express the hardship.
When did you decide to write a memoir?
When my dad died. I was so thoroughly confused. I just remember feeling like the laws of physics were suddenly changed. Every day I was baffled by how sad I was and couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that he was gone. I remember thinking: what’s next, gravity? What other major force of nature is suddenly going to be gone?
After a proper depression, I finally dusted myself off and I decided to write a book. I don’t think I initially set off to write the book I finished with—it changed as the book presented itself to me.
Your album has the same title. Were you working on both of them in concert?
I started writing songs first. I would dive into moments of my life, and get so into them that I sort of lost touch with reality. The book took me two and a half years to write—three with research—and there was a year in the middle of that period that I didn’t do anything except write. It was all I ever thought about for the longest time. I got so obsessed with writing songs from the perspective of the child that I was trying to bring to life every day.
You’ve been writing songs for decades. Is lyric writing different from writing prose—are you using a different part of your brain?
It is definitely a different part of your brain. For me, writing songs is almost physical—so much of it is about the delivery of your voice, the delivery of the melody. You can’t create an outline for a melody. It’s more like dunking a basketball: you develop certain muscles and there’s a certain ease to it after you've done it a thousand times. There are a lot of rules, but they become second nature. But then, of course, part of the rules is to violate some of the rules. It is a different muscle than writing prose, which I hadn’t really written in a decade. I was on the road, busy touring and in studios constantly, so I was mostly writing songs.
When I started to write the book, I remember sitting down and thinking about Hemingway, who said something like: "It's a bullfight between you and your typewriter." It took me awhile to get into the meat of the book.
You start the book from the voice of a child escaping a cult. With each section, and as you age, your voice changes. Why did you decide to write the book in different voices?
The really simple answer is that it just felt more alive. I started writing different voices to test out how I wanted the book to be. One was very much the adult writing voice—I’m forty looking back on my youth—and then I wrote one that was very absurdist, sort of like Still Life with Woodpecker with jokes about social media that asked a lot of existential questions. Then one day I gave myself an exercise to write in present tense, beginning the day I left the cult, Synanon. I set it aside, and when I went back and looked at it, I immediately knew that was the book I wanted to read. Toni Morrison talks about writing books and how you should write what no one else has written. And that young voice was the one I wanted to read.
As I continued to write, I knew the book needed to have different voices, so I gave each of the four sections their own voice—their own sentence structure, vocabulary, and attitudes towards the reader. I was trying to craft the book so that it was the emotional and psychological world of a child but in dialogue with the forty-year-old writer.
I think because of that dialogue and the frankness of the voices, I trusted you as the writer and you as the narrator sharing your truth.
Readers can sense bull. They can tell when you have an agenda, when you’re trying to make yourself look good, when you’re avoiding hard topics. You establish trust with the reader when you talk about difficult subjects.
I had some difficult relationships to write about, particularly my mother. Mary Karr says this wonderful thing: that with difficult relationships, try to see them the way God sees them. Write about them with great love. Even though there were many difficult things to write about my mother, I tried to do that with her. I tried not to cast her as a one-dimensional villain, because she’s not.
Was it hard to go back into the abuse, poverty, and violence of your childhood?
Yes. And it was an intellectual challenge as well. I wrote that first chapter and then it was like, "Okay, smart guy, how do you write a whole book?" Because you can’t just write, you have to think about sentences and word choice on every page.
Toni Morrison has this idea of re-memory, this notion that memories live inside places. If you go back to the place, the memories are still there and you can visit them. So that’s what I did: I went back to the places where the book is set. And so much came back to me, a lot more than I thought. It wasn't just the sights and sounds, it was entire attitudes I held. Almost like a smell that brings you back to your grandmother’s house. After spending a few hours at the high school track, the house I grew up in, or the old Synanon compound—I would come home and spend a few days writing about all the sights, sounds and smells. I wrote about what I felt, what happened there, what did I think happened, what had I imagined was happening, what did I get wrong? Then I would call peers and family—my mother, brother, other orphans from Synanon—to make sure I had a gut check on everything. When I went to write I had a forty-page document for each place that I could reference, which allowed me to concentrate on the narrative, the sentences, the structure.
Do you talk about your childhood often? When you were writing did you feel like you had to contend with the narratives that you had constructed and had been retelling for years?
I stopped telling the stories about where I was born around age 13. I got tired of the way people looked at me, like I was a wild dog off a leash. I didn’t want anyone’s pity, and I didn’t want to be characterized by my parents' decisions. Their choices are never ones that I would ever make.
What did you learn about yourself while writing this book?
I learned a lot about the important relationships in my life because they were so fertile to write about. I think I knew I was sad about Paul my whole life and then when I started writing about him, I realized how huge and important he was, how raw his death was—his disappearance and the mystery of it—and how messed up it was because we never processed it. He lived with us for five years and one day he was dead and we could never talk about it. His death became this weird instruction on how to handle the world. I learned the coping mechanism to invent the thing you want to be true and act as if it is true. Of course, that’s crazy and unhealthy. As I write about in the book, it is the creation of mask: we create our identities, we decide which traumas we are going to avoid, and what we present to the world. In this case, though, it was a more extreme version.
What is it like promoting your album and memoir right now?
I am incredibly proud of the book and the album. I worked so much harder than I could have ever imagined. So on the one hand there is this feeling of deep pride for my band and the work I did on the book and then sometimes it is just sheer terror. I have lived behind a mask for most of my life and presented a certain face to the world and there is a reason I did that. It's scary for me. I’m scared people are going to judge me or hate me—it’s not really rational. It is scary to think that someone is going to see your inner world, which is why we hide our inner worlds—that is the whole point.
What do you like to read, and what are you reading now?
I came to books outside of college. I never studied English, never took a writing class. In my mid-twenties I started with Vonnegut—and I read everything. I would read one book of an author's and then read all of their work. I read every word of Philip Roth, Alice Munro. I took the big Russians as a task because I didn’t want to be scared of them.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was huge for me. That one was like, "Oh, you think you’ve written a good book? You’re not done." There is poetry on every page, she has no holes in her game. She was a brilliant writer, thinker, a great teller of stories, and a great painter of themes. Toni Morrison has a wonderful way with language, every page is special. So, make every page special, and if it isn’t, then you’re not done. Toni Morrison never speaks down to a reader, which I like. You know she’s willing to probe the interior worlds of people. She’s not afraid to be mysterious and mystical and spiritual, and just weird, but all of it’s in the service of a story that comes to you like a puzzle, and then it’s put together. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is this beautiful aching sad tragedy of a tapestry. It’s obviously my favorite book.
Do you think you will write another book?
I think so. Writing a memoir was hard and more work than I thought it would be. I wrote a note to myself when I finished the book and the note was: Never forget how hard you worked. Never forget how much time it took. Never take for granted how much time it takes to do things that are worthwhile. Never forget that you did it and that you can do it again.
This interview was shortened and condensed for clarity.
Photo courtesy of Mikel Jollett
Mikel Jollett is the lead singer of the Airborne Toxic Event, and we chat with him about growing up in a cult, writing lyrics vs. prose, Toni Morrison, and more.