Mikel Jollett is the lead singer of Los Angeles-based rock band the Airborne Toxic Event, and he recently revealed that, as a child, he was imprisoned within the world of Synanon — one of the most notorious cults in American history.
The band released their self-titled debut album to some critical acclaim in 2008 — with the Guardian saying that it was “packed with widescreen rock of very high quality.” They subsequently released three more albums, to impressive sales, and are back with Hollywood Park.
Jollett is making headlines with the shocking personal story he has revealed in his new memoir, also titled Hollywood Park. The author-singer-songwriter has made the rounds of late, sharing his experience with the infamous Synanon cult as a child — and the damage left in the wake of his escape from the group.
Here’s what you need to know about Mikel Jollett and the shocking cult life he escaped but that continues to influence his music:
1. Jollett Escaped at the Age of 5 With His Mother From Synanon, a Cult That Forced Abortions & Vasectomies on Its Members & Even Tried to Kill an Attorney With a Rattlesnake
Jollett and his brother were born into a Synanon commune in Southern California and taken from their biological parents at 6 months old and placed into a communal home as “children of the universe,” he told People.
Synanon had more auspicious beginnings than other notorious American cults, like those started by Charles Manson and David Koresh. The group was started by recovering alcoholic Charles Dederich in 1958 as an alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous, which would welcome heroin addicts, according to the New York Times. The ostensible rehab program had morphed into a militant cult by the mid to late-1970s, however, with male members forced to undergo vasectomies and women encouraged to have abortions, Los Angeles Magazine reported.
In October 1977, attorney Paul Morantz was embroiled in a civil suit against the cult when he was introduced to Synanon’s violent side — the so-called Synanon Imperial Marines. He received an oddly shaped package in his front door’s mail slot. Inside it 4-1/2-foot rattlesnake, which promptly sank its fangs into his hand, Los Angeles Magazine reported.
Jollett was only truly introduced to his biological mother at age 5, when she became terrified by the cult’s growing violence and smuggled him and his 7-year-old brother out of the compound, he told the Los Angeles Daily News.
2. While in Hiding With His Mother, Jollett Claims, He & His Brother Lived on Rabbits They Raised & Butchered Themselves & He Witnessed Another Synanon Escapee Almost Beaten to Death
After their escape from the Synanon cult, Jollett and his brother had been so isolated that they didn’t know what a cheeseburger or a restaurant was, he told the Los Angeles Times. They hid out in Oregon for years and Jollett recalled at age 8 clubbing rabbits his family raised in their yard just so they could eat, according to Interview Magazine.
“Eight years old in the back yard with a hunting knife and a young rabbit bleeding on a tree, and I discovered this ache [that] was not only that of a kid who didn’t want to have to kill his dinner, but also that of someone who identified with that bunny,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
Before fleeing to Oregon, Jollett and his brother bore witness to Synanon’s wrath against another escaped member his family was rooming with, he told Interview. “One of my earliest memories is being told that I can’t go outside because the bad men are going to come take me away,” he told the outlet.
And his mother wasn’t making it up: One afternoon, he and his brother watched from the porch as Synanon members armed with clubs descended upon their roommate in the driveway, he told Interview. He and his brother hid on the porch to save themselves until the men went away, he told People.
3. He Is a Published Author & Music Critic Who Interviewed David Bowie & Had a Short Story Published Alongside Stephen King’s
Before launching the Airborne Toxic Event in 2003, Jollett wrote prose almost exclusively. He still focused largely on music though. As an editor at Los Angeles-based music and culture magazine Filter, he sat down for an interview with David Bowie. In his write-up of the interview, Jollett said that Bowie grinned at him and asked if he could read his notes … which were mostly gushing about the music legend’s new material.
Around that time, he picked up a guitar, however, and began expressing himself through the medium in which he’d find the most success. “I realize in a lot of ways it’s more in my DNA to be a musician than a writer,” he told the Charleston City Paper.
He & His Band Aren’t Shy About Confronting Critics Who Pan Their Music
Although the Airborne Toxic Event’s self-titled 2008 debut album was heralded by many critics, Pitchfork was hardly impressed. Reviewer Ian Cohen severely panned “The Airborne Toxic Event,” awarding it 1.6 out of 10 possible points.
Cohen called Jollett’s music “lock-limbed anti-rock” and said it sounded “more inspired by market research than actual inspiration.”
Jollett and his band responded in kind with a brutally sarcastic, 794-word open letter inviting him to a Los Angeles show and accusing him of misunderstanding the band’s music. “You’re wrong about our intentions, you’re wrong about how this band came together, you don’t seem to get the storytelling or the catharsis or the humor in the songs, and you clearly have some misconceptions about who we are as a band and who we are as people,” Jollett wrote.
The spat actually led to the debut record getting more attention, with online fans praising Jollett and Airborne Toxic Event for “standing up to indie snobbery ‘bullcrap,’” the Guardian reported.
5. Since the Death of George Floyd, Jolett Has Been Outspoken in Criticizing Police Violence & President Trump on Twitter
Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, Jollett hasn’t minced words on Twitter. From claiming that controversial Trump immigration adviser Stephen Miller becoming infected with coronavirus would be “a sign from God” to railing against Trump’s handling of the pandemic, his political sympathies are no secret.
After Trump threatened to label Antifa as a domestic terrorist organization, Jollett fired back with a Tweet that garnered more than 30,000 likes and 12,000 retweets. “Antifa isn’t an organization. Antifa has never killed a single person. Antifa simply means ‘anti-fascism,’ it’s a fairly small, highly decentralized movement. What Trump is trying to do is label anyone who speaks out against him a terrorist, which is what all dictators do,” Jollet wrote on June 1.
Jollett also pleaded with white protesters to protect those of color from the police, and to call out anyone co-opting the movement to cause property damage or violence.
Protests nationwide have erupted in violence from both police and rioters, with politicians and organizers accusing disparate groups — including Antifa and white supremacists — of infiltrating the protests and inciting chaos, according to the New York Times.