Book Review: Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett

Book Review: Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett

Amelia Valente, Chief Editor

Among the many novels I chose to read this year was Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett. Hollywood Park is a memoir that begins as the story of a boy’s resilience and ends with a man’s eventual healing in the face of unimaginable childhood trauma. Jollett spent the first five years of his life in a place called Synanon, which was a drug rehabilitation program that, over time, descended into a violent and deadly cult where children were taken from their parents, abused, neglected, and raised in an institutional setting by members of the Synanon community. Despite escaping the cult with his brother and birth-mother and relocating to rural Oregon, Jollett found himself in the throes of an even more tumultuous life marked by poverty, addiction, loneliness, and emotional abuse. With severe depression and an ambiguous psychological diagnosis, Jollett’s birth-mother was incapable of adequately parenting and caring for him and his brother. She neglected his most basic needs, constantly invalidated his feelings and traumatic experiences, and forced him into the inappropriate and emotionally-taxing role of  her caretaker at just six years old. Early in life, Jollett internalized the idea that he wasn’t important: that for a reason unknown to him, he didn’t deserve comfort, safety, or empathy, and, therefore, was not worthy of love. At eleven years old, he left to live in Los Angeles with his dad, a former Synanon member, recovering addict, and ex-con and his wife, Bonnie, one of Mikel’s caretakers at Synanon with whom he had his first experience of some form of maternal love. From spending days with his father at the beach and at Hollywood Park, the horse race track in Inglewood, California, Mikel learned what it meant to be part of a family, what it felt like to be truly loved and cared for, and what it was like to have someone rooting for him as he navigated the world as a teenager, trying desperately not to succumb to the addiction that had plagued his father and brother. After dedicating himself to his studies, Jollett attended Stanford University, worked as a journalist, and eventually started his own indie rock band called The Airborne Toxic Event. After seeking therapy for his childhood trauma and surviving the devastating loss of his father to illness, Mikel Jollett, now 49 years old, lives with his wife and their two young children.

Overall, I loved this book and consider it one of my favorites. I read Hollywood Park in its audio format, and the emotional impact was heightened as a result of it being narrated by the author and including his original music. Memoirs are not a genre that I typically choose to read, however, I was struck by how forthcoming, honest, and vulnerable Jollett was when writing about deeply personal and traumatic experiences from his life. Some important themes that are explored in this book include trauma, the power of addiction, forgiveness, and family. Living in Synanon as a child was a profoundly lonely experience, as parents would only visit their children briefly a few times a year. Because of this, Mikel, like many other kids, spent the first formative years of his life without a family or a sense of belonging. By the end of the novel, Mikel comes to define family, not only as something that ensues from marriages and blood-lines, but also as something that can be chosen and created by love, shared experiences, and empathy.

Although Hollywood Park is a memoir written in first person, Jollett makes use of unique stylistic elements such as varied narrative voices and magical realism that elevate this novel from a linear autobiography to a compelling and poignant story about trauma, family, growth, and healing. In the first few chapters of the novel, Jollett recounts his early experiences from the perspective of his younger self in a child-like voice. Through unconventional vocabulary and a stream-of-consciousness style, Jollett is able to engage readers and offer insight into his mind and psyche as a child. For example, during this part of the memoir, Jollett refers to his mother’s severe depression as the “deep-russian”(Jollett 19), and he calls his father’s motorcycle a “moto-cycle”(Jollett 31). These misspellings and quirks in speech highlight the simple and innocent nature of childhood, while also reflecting the curiosity, naivety, and confusion that a young child experiences as they enter a world that is largely unknown to them. As the story progresses, so does Jollett’s voice as he seamlessly transitions into a new, mature tone that reflects the knowledge and wisdom he has gained from new experiences. This narrative technique and difference in perspective illustrates to readers the main purpose of this novel: to give young Mikel the platform to tell his story and give a voice to the child who was never allowed the space to understand or process his trauma. Every time that his mother invalidated his feelings, neglected his needs, or forced him to share in her skewed version of reality, Jollett retreated further into himself and turned his shame and anger inward. Ultimately, this novel serves as a way for Jollett to find the voice that he lost as a child, and by channeling it into his writing, he is able to help heal the most vulnerable part of himself.

As well as utilizing multiple narrative voices, Jollett also employs magical realism, which is another element that is uncommon in memoirs. Through fantastical imagery such as towering castles in the sky and dream-like scenarios of him talking to deceased family members, Jollett is able to highlight his vivid imagination as a child and give readers valuable insight into how children process and protect themselves from trauma. Oftentimes, when children are traumatized or abused, they use their creativity and imagination as a way of coping because they don’t have the capacity to process what’s happening to them on an intellectual level. Because of my interest in psychology, I found Jollett’s emotional journey fascinating, and his memoir definitely gave me a broader understanding of developmental psychology and how trauma can greatly impact a child’s ability to form their own identity and develop healthy relationships.

Hollywood Park is beautifully written and lyrical, but more than that, it is engaging and thought-provoking, allowing readers to become deeply emotionally invested in the author’s journey from childhood to adulthood. Each person Jollett introduces to us becomes a fully-formed and complex character in his memoir, and each person plays an important role either in the development of his trauma, the process of  his healing, or both. Jollett’s poetic writing and emotional honesty coupled with his psychological insights regarding trauma, addiction, and mental illness make for a powerful and captivating story that stays with you long after you finish reading.

Hollywood Park is available in print, e-Book, and audio format. There is also a companion album of the same name that serves as a soundtrack for the book.  Click the link for original music written by Mikel Jollett and preformed by his band, The Airborne Toxic Event.