From The Wall Street Journal:
The story begins in 1979, when (Mikel) Jollett is 5 and living on a farm-like compound in Northern California with other children and a few female caretakers. Every person Mr. Jollett ever sees has been shorn of hair. A woman with a shaved head who cries a lot visits occasionally. “I’ve been told this woman’s name is ‘Mom,’ ” Mr. Jollett writes, in an opening chapter that attempts to capture his childhood perspective. “I know the word is supposed to have some kind of special meaning.”
One night, this woman spirits him and his older brother, Tony, away from the compound. Mr. Jollett later learns that the place is a cult called Synanon, where former alcoholics and drug addicts (including, at one point, Mr. Jollett’s father) came to get clean and to try to create a utopia.
The price is those you love: Parents must give up children; husbands and wives must divorce; and no one can be more important than dear leader, in this case a false prophet with a penchant for violence. Some who leave the cult, the author reports, find their dogs hanging from trees. Others disappear and are presumed murdered. Mr. Jollett reports witnessing an escaped Synanon member being beaten by cult thugs. This would be a horrific scene for anyone to see, let alone a young child. Mom’s solution is to tell Mr. Jollett he never saw it and is thus not entitled to feel fear or anguish. “Do feelings exist if no one sees them?” Mr. Jollett wonders.
The boys are moved to Salem, Ore. They grow up hungry, dirty, cold. Mom has them raise rabbits so they can eat; by age 6, Mr. Jollett is required to defrost the creatures’ water bowls before dawn, and to learn to kill them. He receives guidance from a lover of his mother’s, a gentle alcoholic who teaches him to fish and engenders in him a love of running. One day, with no proof, she tells the boys he’s dead. The boys never see him again, leaving Mr. Jollett racked with sadness.
Meanwhile, Dad has been clean for years and is managing a mechanic shop. He lives in Southern California with a fellow ex-Synanon member—a woman who cared for Mr. Jollett at Synanon, a woman the author loved and still does. By the time he is 7, Mr. Jollett and his brother are spending summers in SoCal—where, Mr. Jollett says, “We fight less. We eat more. We lie with eyes closed in the sun thinking of precisely nothing.” He recalls going to the beach and standing in “the soft waves as they pour over us and Dad, shirtless and tan in the sun, standing still like an anchor in the water.” They go to horse races at Hollywood Park, where, feeling Dad’s hand on his shoulder, Mr. Jollett is overwhelmed by what it is “to be a son, to have a father, to be out at the track, with the men all trying their luck.”
Then it’s back to Oregon, to “moldy bread and four-day-old rabbit”; to Mom telling Mr. Jollett he’s fat and figuratively scratching off whatever healing has occurred when he’s away from her. Teachers tell her that Mr. Jollett, a straight-A student, should skip a grade; Mom won’t have it, and by age 10, Mr. Jollett understands why. “I know it’s my job to take care of Mom and that all boys are supposed to take care of their mothers because that was the reason they were born,” he writes.
As he gets older, Mr. Jollett tries to thrash his way out. He ditches school and crashes a Honda XR80 motorcycle. He becomes obsessed with David Bowie, picks up a broken guitar and beats on it. He takes up track in high school and earns a full-ride scholarship to Stanford, where he wins Pac-10 honors and runs the third fastest 10,000-meter time in the nation. It should be sunshine from here on out, but the damage inflicted by Mom has Mr. Jollett pushing women he loves away and occasionally wondering whether he should stick around this world at all.
It can sound airy to say, “Music saved my life.” In Mr. Jollett’s case, it seems also to be true. In his early 20s, living in L.A. and writing for a music magazine, he finds himself interviewing his hero Bowie. He gets up the gumption to ask, how does Bowie write songs? Mr. Jollett confesses that he’s written a few hundred; that his “deepest wish” is to perform for an audience. But the interviewer admits to the rock star: “So many things I thought were good, including parts of myself, turned out to be more complicated, more broken. And I can barely remember having a thought where love is just love, where there is peace and I feel like I deserve it, before all this contradiction in me came about.”
“Write about the contradiction then,” Bowie says.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)