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Hollywood Park: A Memoir

Review

Hollywood Park: A Memoir

Mikel Jollett’s mother arrived at the School in the middle of the night to take him home. Home was not a concept that four-year-old Mikel or his almost seven-year-old brother, Tony, knew anything about, having lived at the Synanon School without their parents their whole life. “Mom” was a title given to a woman who occasionally visited, and “Dad” was the fascinating blur of a man who rode up on his motorcycle once or twice a year. Life in the Synanon cult was lonely, confusing and violent, but as Jollett’s frank and compelling memoir recounts, life after Synanon was often lonely, confusing and violent as well.

HOLLYWOOD PARK isn’t an examination of this infamous cult. Instead it focuses on the lives lived around Synanon --- what came before for Jollett’s parents and grandparents and what came afterwards for his family. Most importantly, it is about coming to terms with trauma and finding creative and meaningful paths to healing and understanding.

"HOLLYWOOD PARK is a moving portrait of surviving trauma, as well as an honest and personal tale of family and self, loss and growth, frustration and creativity."

While their exit from Synanon brought Jollett and his brother into contact with their extended family, real schools, and a childhood complete with bicycles, skateboards and adventures, this world was also one of upheaval, loss, pain, addiction and, over time, terrible realizations. The adjustment to life outside Synanon was difficult for the boys. They witnessed a horrific act of violence and ended up fleeing California for Oregon with their mother. There she tried to put the past behind her and find a husband who she thought would complete her family. But her dreams of marriage were thwarted for a long time by her own inherited trauma and the mental illness from which she seemed to suffer.

Much of HOLLYWOOD PARK is about Jollett’s coming to terms with his feelings for his mother, and his anger and frustration toward the person who meant to protect him but instead often put him in harm’s way or neglected his needs altogether. On the other hand, Jollett’s relationship with his father and stepmother grow more reliable and supportive over the years. His father, Jim, a recovering addict and ex-con, turns out to be the source of his strength and the most interesting figure in the book.

Not all of Jollett’s family problems connect to Synanon, but the cult looms large as a presence here. The poverty and abuse Jollett experiences while in his mother’s care is painful to read about, and while his story of overcoming so much is inspiring, it is also heartbreaking because Tony struggles mightily. Even as Jollett himself finds remarkable success in many endeavors, his relationships are fraught and often fragile. The outlets he finds over the years --- running, writing and especially music --- are serendipitous and lovingly described here.

Jollett’s writing style is interesting. His vocabulary and wording change over the course of the book, growing with him as he ages and comes to better understand the world around him. In the beginning, for example, he writes as a young boy trying to understand his mother’s “deep Russian,” which he later learns is called “depression.” This stylistic choice is a bit jarring at first, and perhaps not really necessary. It is a relief when the young narrator outgrows this and adopts a more mature mode of expression. The struggle Jollett has with his mother --- her choices, her abilities, her love, her illness --- weighs heavily throughout the memoir and seem sadly unresolved, which sometimes threatens to bog down an otherwise absorbing book.

HOLLYWOOD PARK is a moving portrait of surviving trauma, as well as an honest and personal tale of family and self, loss and growth, frustration and creativity.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on May 29, 2020

Hollywood Park: A Memoir
by Mikel Jollett

  • Publication Date: May 26, 2020
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Celadon Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250621569
  • ISBN-13: 9781250621566