How Escaping From a Cult as a Child Shaped The Airborne Toxic Event Frontman Mikel Jollett's Life

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Mikel Jollett found fame fronting the acclaimed rock and roll band The Airborne Toxic Event. He's active on social media, discussing on Twitter the state of the union and encouraging his followers to speak truth to power. He's a singer and songwriter with so many bright spots in his present. But he also has a dark past, as his earliest memories were formed when he was being raised inside a cult.

Jollett, who released his bestselling memoir, “Hollywood Park,” earlier this year, detailed how the first nearly four years of his life were spent inside the Synanon cult until, he, his brother and biological mother escaped to live with his grandparents in Oregon.

He told Inside Edition Digital one of his reasons for coming forward with his story in his book was to begin the “unpacking of all these different lies that I've been told throughout my life, and to give voice to this kid that I was, and my brother and I were, who never really had voices.”

Synanon was the notorious cult founded by founded by Charles E. Dederich Sr., known by many as "Chuck," first as a drug rehabilitation center, in 1958 in California.

“Synanon was a place that started for a bunch of dope fiends in the '60s to get clean off of heroin. That's really what it started as. So a bunch of guys that had been in AA, and they set up a place for everyone to live, because they wanted to help other addicts,” Jollett told Inside Edition Digital. “And they didn't think AA went far enough for heroin addicts, so they wanted to have a more intense version of that. That's what they did, and then it worked for a long time. A good 10, 15 years it helped a lot of people get clean of heroin. My dad was one of those people.”

His dad first entered Synanon after he was dropped off to get clean to help kick a heroin addiction.

“My dad had done some time in prison, and when he got out he had a heroin addiction that he'd established in jail,” he said. “He OD'd, and then someone dropped him off at Synanon, and then he got clean and he turned it around.”

Synanon did help his father get clean and it was inside the walls of the facility that Jollett’s biological parents met.

“He never went back on drugs, never went back to crime. He never got a parking ticket ... From that point on for the rest of his life, completely clean, which is insanely uncommon. The recidivism rate for ex-cons are so high, and that just didn't happen,” he said. “So Synanon was good at a few things.”

In the 1970s, Synanon became the Church of Synanon. It disbanded in 1991, but not before becoming, according to Gizmodo, one of the “most dangerous and violent cults America had ever seen.”

“Our religious posture is: Don’t mess with us,” Dederich once said. “You can get killed dead, literally dead.”

“Chuck [Dederich] started doing all this crazy stuff, like breaking up marriages and forcing vasectomies, forcing abortions, punishing people with violence, hoarding guns and weapons, and training these military type goons,” Jollett told Inside Edition Digital. “And it just went crazy. And then at some point a bunch of people figured that out and left, and escaped, because the whole thing kind of spiraled into madness.”

Everything changed at Synanon, Jollett said, when “lifestylers started moving in, the non-addicts, what they called ‘the squares,’ those were people, a lot of them were intellectuals and activists, and that's what my mom was.”

Jollett was born inside the walls of Synanon in May 1974. There, Jollett and his brother, Tony, were kept apart from each other and their parents. He only knew Tony as another face in the compound, and they were not told who their parents were. 

“We were essentially born in an orphanage inside a cult... We never saw our parents,” he said. “We were told that we didn't have parents. A lot of the book is about being from a place where there are no parents, because we didn't know what a mom or a dad or a grandma was. We didn't have Christmas or Passover or birthdays or any toys. So we were very much in this difficult situation. There was a lot of abuse.”

Since the children were always told that beyond the compound contained “bad men,” no one ever left and those that left were considered “Splitees” and “dirty splitees,” as Jollett put it, “cults are like this, anybody who leaves the cult questions the existence of the cult, because why would someone leave the cult?”

“Because the leader is right, and by leaving, you have now done violence against your allegiance, which is supposed to be to the cult,” he added.

But that changed when Jollett was about 4 and his brother was 7.

“One day this woman shows up with a shaved head, because everyone had shaved heads, and she's like, ‘I'm your mom.’ And we were like, ‘What's a mom?’ We didn't know what a mom was. But we had to escape, so we left with her,” he recalled. “We lived on the run for a while, and a lot of different things happened to us along the way."

Life outside Synanon was chaotic in its own way. Jollett's parents were separated and the men his mother dated had their own issues. His father's visits from Los Angeles were sporadic, but by the time he was 6, Jollett had reconnected with his father in a way that would prove significant. Ultimately, Jollett said, his father was his best friend. 

When his dad died in 2015, Jollett wrote “Hollywood Park” as a tribute to him.

“My dad died, I would just say, is probably that was the initiating event. It hit me really hard, and I was trying to figure out why it hit me so hard,” he said. “I had read ‘Between the World and Me,’ Ta-Nehisi Coates's book, which is the style of the book is that he writes it as a letter to his son. And I thought, ‘God, what a great idea.’ It was just such a brilliant book, and I thought, ‘Okay, how can I write about my experiences, maybe as a letter to my dad?’”

That story also became a dialogue between him and his younger self.

“That kid that I was, never had a voice. No one ever stopped and asked us how we felt about these events. We were just sort of treated as collateral ancillary objects,” he said.

But still, telling people about his past and where he spent his first four years was difficult. 

“I think [I was] maybe like around 10 years old, 11 years old, when people would say, ‘Oh, where are you from?’ And then you would sort of mention, ‘Well, I was born in this place called Synanon,’ and then you get these looks like you're this wild dog,” he recalled.

As a teenager, he moved to California to live with his dad and his stepmom. Though his path at first was rocky, Jollett was a straight A-student who eventually graduated Stanford with honors in 1996 and would go on to become a journalist.

“I wanted to go make my own mark on the world, and I didn't want to just be this kid from this weird place. So I just stopped talking about it completely. I never brought it up,” he said. “It's funny, when the book came out, I had friends that I've had for 20 years that came up to me in tears and were just like, ‘I had no idea that you went through all of this. Oh my God.’ I was just like, ‘How would you know? I wouldn't tell you. Of course you didn't know.’ Because it's like, I didn't want it to be the thing that defined me. I wanted to go make my own mark in the world.”

His mark came through in his work as both a journalist and then as a musician. The Airborne Toxic Event was formed in 2006 in Los Angeles. The band's forming came as Jollett dealt with a bad breakup and as he learned his stepmom, whom he calls mom, was battling cancer.

The band released their acclaimed debut in 2008 and it was propelled by the single “Sometime Around Midnight,” which U2 bassist Adam Clayton hailed as one of his favorite songs. The band has been a success ever since, playing sold-out gigs across the world and high profile global festivals such as California’s Coachella, Lollapalooza in Chicago, Japan’s Fuji Rock, as well as England’s Reading and Leeds.

“I'd say I'm pretty happy with my career, if that's what you're asking. My 12-year-old self is like, ‘This is awesome. You're like in a band, you're a singer in a rock band,’” he joked.

Yet, the rollercoaster ride of being a musician and finding success in it still wasn’t giving him the purpose for which he was yearning. Jollett, now a father of two children, says being a husband and dad is fulfilling in ways rock and roll never could.

“I think it wasn't until I realized that, that my life really became the thing that I wanted it to be, which it is now,” he said. “It's sort of like, no matter who you are, no matter where you're from, you can be born in an orphanage, you could be a successful musician, whatever it is. That the deepest drive we have as people, is for that kind of familial love, for these bonds of family that we were essentially born without, because we were born basically as orphans.”

Having lived through his upbringing, he says he wants the best for his children, and whatever they choose to be when they grow up is something he will support. And as for the ghosts of his past? “I think I am at peace with it,” he said, especially after the release of “Hollywood Park.”

“Everybody kind of knows my story now, and certainly the family have all seen ‘here's this book about all of us that I got to write.’ So they've sort of been forced to be asked about it, and forced to have lots of discussions about it,” he said.

As he continues to grow and unpack his life in both therapy and through his work, he come to a place of acceptance.

“I don't blame my folks,” he said of his early years. “I mean they were in a cult. Cults do bad things."

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