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Born into a cult, singer Mikel Jollett is reaching out to students about turning their own trauma into art

The Airborne Toxic Event frontman will speak at Harvard and Williams about drawing purpose from the worst of times

Mikel Jollett is the lead singer of Airborne Toxic Event.Dove Shore

To Mikel Jollett, there’s a very simple reason why so many people who have been traumatized become performers.

“Because you have to hide your trauma from everyone,” he says. “So you perform. Some people become really funny. Some become good at tasks — ‘I better make people like me, because they’re not gonna like me for myself.’”

For Jollett, the trauma of his upbringing in a cult — we’ll get to that shortly — eventually inspired his creative work as the frontman for the Airborne Toxic Event, the sweeping, soul-searching indie rock band that launched in Los Angeles in 2006. Jollett, who studied social psychology at Stanford, brings his new talk, “Trauma and Creativity,” to Harvard University and Williams College on Monday and Tuesday.


Jollett’s best-selling 2020 memoir, “Hollywood Park,” revealed his childhood struggle to overcome the “wreckage,” as he puts it, from his parents’ involvement with Synanon, the alternative community that originated in the 1950s as a drug rehabilitation program. By the time of Jollett’s birth — he’s 48 — his parents were required to relinquish him and his older brother, Tony, to a team of caretakers, in what amounted to an orphanage for children whose parents were still living.

Later, after both of his parents left the group, he lived with his mother and an alcoholic stepfather on the edge of poverty in Oregon. When he could, he visited his father, a recovering heroin addict, in Southern California.

At a young age, Jollett discovered the music of the Cure, the willfully strange and morose New Wave band.

“We lived in this rain-drenched, backwater place,” he recalls. “It was dreary, always cold. We were broke, white-trash kids.

“And here comes this very cultured, high-concept group from England, singing about how angry they are.” The first line on the band’s 1982 album, “Pornography,” he recalls, begins, “It doesn’t matter if we all die.”


“You’ve got to remember that a lot of the music at the time was about winning, about how badass you are,” Jollett says with a laugh. “We were losers. But they were, like, elegant losers, right? They were alienated and misunderstood, which is exactly how I felt.”

Now married with two young children, Jollett has been honing his thoughts on how he survived the trauma of his boyhood by channeling it through artistic expression. The conversations he’ll bring to Massachusetts are the first in what he hopes will be an ongoing project.

The talks were organized by Steven Fein, a professor of psychology at Williams who has known Jollett for years, through their mutual connection to a mentor, Stanford emeritus professor Claude Steele.

Fein says he first heard the Airborne Toxic Event — named for the environmental crisis in Don DeLillo’s “White Noise” — on the radio over a decade ago. Their music, he says, “stopped me in my tracks.”

An occasional cohost with rock critic Dave Marsh on his satellite radio show about Bruce Springsteen, Fein invited Jollett’s band to appear as guests, and a friendship took hold. Jollett, a one-time rock journalist himself, has spent plenty of time thinking about Springsteen; he recently teased a new song for his band’s next album called “My Own Thunder Road.”

As part of a Williams team that brings lecturers to campus, Fein polled students on what issues they’d most like to hear about.


“By far, the number one topic was mental health,” he says. “There wasn’t even a close second.”

It’s “absolutely a crisis” for the current generation of young adults, he says. Gun violence, political turmoil, the climate crisis, the psychological toll of social media — students have an unfortunate range of reasons to feel traumatized.

Fein is confident that Jollett can make his unusual childhood circumstances relatable.

“He’s certainly smart, worldly, and grounded enough to understand how unique they are,” Fein says. “But we all carry all kinds of baggage. I’m sure he’s going to craft what he says in a way that reflects the universal nature of it.

“People deal with loss, loneliness, lack of empathy. These are things that students are dealing with, and the pandemic only exacerbated them.” Jollett’s bottom line, Fein says, “is that you can take all the negativity and trauma and turn it into something purposeful.”

The singer is well aware of the fascination many have with the mind-set that lures people into cults. As he explains in his book, he’d prefer to leave aside the sensationalism as much as possible.

“If you didn’t know anything about Synanon and you Googled it, the first things that come up are about how violent the place was,” he says. “It’s not really true. On the cult spectrum, it wasn’t that violent. Look at Waco, or the Peoples Temple of Jonestown.

“The real violence was more like emotional violence — the separation of kids from their parents.”


His own parents, he says, were initially unaware they were in a cult.

“They were making decisions based on the information they had at the time,” he says. Like so many people who fall into group thinking, “they were just human beings like you and me, walking down the street, trying to figure out their lives.”

His father, who died in 2015, was desperate to find help to kick his drug habit. His mother, a free-speech activist at Berkeley, had experienced the state crackdown on student protests in the ‘60s.

“She saw tanks on University Avenue, tear gas,” Jollett says. “She thought the world was falling apart because of Vietnam. And she was kind of half-right.”

Whatever the trauma, Jollett says, for those suffering, “there’s a relief to see it in the daylight.” That’s what he means by turning your experience into your purpose — finding a way to process it through creativity.

“And for something that felt unspeakable, now you can look at it. Now I can have some perspective, like, ‘Ah, that’s a thing that happened. Isn’t life strange?’”


Mikel Jollett in conversation with Dr. Charles A. Nelson III, professor of pediatrics and neuroscience. At Gutman Conference Center, Harvard University, 6 Appian Way, Cambridge. April 3 at 4:30 p.m. Free and open to the public. RSVP at

At ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance, Williams College, 1000 Main St., Williamstown. April 4 at 7:30 p.m. Free and open to the public.


James Sullivan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.