Reviews

Carol Es: Shrapnel in the San Fernando Valley

 

“A Los Angeles artist revisits her volatile life as a Scientologist rocker in this debut memoir.

“Es grew up moving around the San Fernando Valley, switching neighborhoods on the whims of her unstable mother—a woman suffering from bipolar disorder who was prone to violent outbursts and suicide attempts. The author’s father, relatively more stable, was nonetheless known for brandishing a gun in public. From her preteen years, Es sought companionship in her brother Mike’s pot-smoking garage band. This incited her obsession with drums; introduced her to a relative of John Travolta’s and thus Scientology; and also led to the loss of her virginity, which offers some of the memoir’s most heart-wrenching, affecting passages. By age 15, Es was working for her family’s business but not “exactly” living at home or going to school. This unconventional upbringing, reminiscent of those found in dark and quirky autobiographies like Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors, takes up the book’s first half. But in recounting her adult life, Es truly taps into intriguing self-reflection. She writes of the moderate success that her band, The Extinct, attained by touring with comedian Pauly Shore and of her brainwashing in Scientology. Being “in a band made up of Scientologists? It’s a cult within a cult,” she writes. Even as it became apparent that she had major health issues and had inherited her mother’s mental instability, the author refused to seek care, opting for a Scientologist’s self-reliance. She provides engrossing details about cults, playing with the peculiar vocabulary of Scientology to craft hilarious and terrifying illustrations of people constructing their own realities. (One memorable fight with a boyfriend named Peaches ended with Es screaming “REFUND CYCLE,” apparently violent words considered a “high crime.”) After her break with the church, the author eventually found stability in a new relationship and her art (samples of which are scattered throughout the book) as well as the voice she used to tell her story, which is simultaneously acerbic, warm, and funny.

“A captivating account filled with sharp perspectives on mental illness, childhood trauma, Scientology, and art.”

-Kirkus Reviews

. . . . .

“In Shrapnel in the San Fernando Valley Carol Es has written about her life, but in doing so she’s also written about life as that thing we all share, our essence blasted across the stars. It’s all here, and after reading it, you may just come away changed.

“Shrapnel in the San Fernando Valley is life, brothers and sisters. Life and love and survival, and I will testify here and now that I could not stop turning the pages. I could not put it down. I didn’t want to put it down. Some people have an inherent knowledge of things, you dig, a free and unobstructed view of what we call the big picture, and Carol Es is one of those people. Her book is as insightful, funny, horrifying, and beautiful, like life itself.

“The book is a guided tour through a Tilt-A-Whirl life that takes so many turns that you may find yourself looking up from the pages and wondering how the hell one person managed to fit them all into 40-odd years. And many of them are odd years indeed, from her rootless, abusive childhood through serious and successful careers in music and art, much of which was achieved while being involved in a notoriously destructive mind-control cult. See what I mean?

“We all want to live. We want to do something. We don’t want our lives to pass by without notice or event. But “living” usually means enduring our share of pain or humiliation or suffering, and for some mysterious, inbred genetic reason, we here in the West don’t want to talk about or hear about or read about anything like that. Not that we need to dwell on our suffering, or celebrate it like some kind of county fair blue ribbon winning mincemeat pie. But we would all be better off if we acknowledged it, rather than avoided it or turned a blind eye to it or pretended it didn’t exist. If we embrace our pain and see at it for what it is, we can bounce off of it in a hundred different directions. We can rise above it, we can grapple with it, we can learn from it, we can burn it to the ground and piss on the ashes. We can do anything.

“Carol Es brings the dark side to Shrapnel in the San Fernando Valley, yes. There is pain. There is suffering. There’s no getting around it. She presents it straight up. No padding, no parachute, no dancing around the hard stuff. But there is much more to her story than darkness. Carol is looking the big bad wolf straight in the eye, and it is liberating. When you dare to deal with truth, you are free. Free to find the humor that is just underneath everything and the joy that comes with taking the bumpy ride.”

-Michael Phillips, Author of Riding Out the Dumb Silence

. . . . .

“Carol’s deeply moving and inspiring story sheds light on the resiliency of the human spirit to overcome profound childhood sexual abuse and neglect.  With her raw, truthful, and at times humorous voice, she illustrates the insidiousness of unquestioned authority and takes us on her harrowing journey towards the restoration of her reality and emotional freedom.” 

-Magen Todd, Ph.D., CSAT, Trauma Specialist

. . . . .

“May you live in interesting times.

“This saying, perhaps mistakenly attributed to the Chinese, is meant to be a curse. Who, especially an artist, would want to live in any other times? Ask Carol Es, she’ll let you know why.

“Throughout Shrapnel in the San Fernando Valley, Es is seemingly strapped to a spinning wheel, while a blindfolded carny throws knives at her, knives tipped with the poison of her off kilter family, sexual assault, Scientology and abusive relationships. Most of this takes place before she is fifteen.

“Es takes us through all this with a singular voice, full of humour and warmth. We are pulling for her when her band full of Scientologists seems on the brink of success but keeps imploding with backstabbing and infighting. We are pulling for her when she develops debilitating health troubles, when she finally breaks from Scientology and we are certainly pulling for her when her art career starts to take flight with the help of a new stable and healthy personal relationship.

“Shrapnel in the San Fernando Valley is eerily timely, it shows us the struggle a female artist has weaving through the minefield of a male dominated world; some with an offered hand that seems to offer help, but Es shows us the hand that they keep behind their backs, holding those poisoned knives.

“Carol Es painstakingly shows us her “interesting times” in this stunning memoir, and we close the book, thankful to return to our boring lives and hoping Es finds a perfect boredom she can call her own. (less)ecause if we’re lucky, life isn’t all one thing. It isn’t just a dull slog through it all or stepping onto a stage to accept your Oscar or the ripe breath of your boss on your neck. Life is a distillation of everything, all of it. And the final product is worth surviving and celebrating.”

-Stephen Hines, Author of The Late Season

. . . . .

“With her strong voice and talent for descriptive experiences, Carol Es’s writing is raw and original, giving you a sense that you are right there with her. Definitely a memoir to be enjoyed!”

-Nancy Many, Author of My Billion Year Contact: Memoir of a Former Scientologist

. . . . .

“The embroidered words ‘My Grace is sufficient for thee’ hang over my desk as I write this review. I’m not religious but I suppose that line resonates with me because it proclaims the transformative power of weakness which is really the axis upon which all great art revolves. From our pain, beauty flows.

“In this absorbing memoir (I started in the bright, morning light and finished in darkness), Carol Es rather courageously articulates a catalogue of trauma and abuse that, paradoxically, empowers her not simply to survive but to nurture, to create, to love. Despite her demons (or, perhaps, emboldened by them), she escapes the suffocating cult-grip of Scientology while also forging an acclaimed career as an artist and now writer in the process. Yes, the narrative of family dysfunction, addiction, depression, etc can seem like tired ground in trendy confessional memoirs but there is a lot of meat to chew on here. Her exposé of Scientology’s grim ruthlessness and control is a story in itself (and a brave one given their reputation for revenge) but, within that, are searingly painful episodes of abuse, betrayal and illness and, within that, equally compelling moments of love, poignancy and humour. Within these narratives, still further tangents. Like life itself, these contrasting episodes grind and scrape like tectonic plates but that is what gives the book authenticity. Life is chaos; moments of grace crash into numbing despair and Es often writes like a 3 am phone call or a handbrake turn. Instability and potential freefall haunt every corner. Like Charles Bukowski’s ‘Ham on Rye’, this book had so many moments like half-remembered fragments of my own childhood. She talks of watching the fish in a hospital aquarium and thinking about death. I’m sure I’ve been there, too. I know the bedrooms, the lighting, the scents and sidewalks she described. Nothing here felt contrived. Many of her experiences felt like my own life and, in her pain, I felt oddly strengthened. Such is the power of fine art at its finest.”

-Robin Cracknell, Photographer/Artist

. . . . .

“This has got to be one of the most detailed and emotionally powerful books of not only an ex-Scientologist, but of a survivor in general. Having overcome so much hardship and struggles in her life, author Carol Es has delivered an emotionally driven, informative and down to earth retelling of the events that shaped her life, and her journey to overcome those experiences.

“While I will reiterate that his novel has some powerful themes and stories that can be triggering for some (and should not be read by anyone who is triggered by these stories or children), the story is one everyone should get an opportunity to read. The life led by the author has elements many people can find a way to relate to. Whether it’s the abuses she survived, the indoctrination in Scientology, (one of the biggest cults currently running in the world), a troubled childhood and family life and coming to terms with that while dealing with loss, the highs and lows of the music industry, and even those struggling with autoimmune illnesses like MS and Lupus, this novel has something most readers will be able to relate to and identify with.

“…This is a must read novel of 2019. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say it’s a top contender for best nonfiction and top read of 2019 on my website. It’s has humor infused in a natural way, while also incorporating emotionally charged stories that not only showcase the worst of humanity, but also shows the power of resilience and fighting for a brighter, better tomorrow. An in-depth analysis of Scientology as well, viewers of the show conducted by former Scientologist Leah Remini or former scientologists themselves will be shocked, surprised and relieved to see someone give such an accurate and powerful account of what life in this organization is truly like. If you enjoy powerful memoirs, real life accounts of life inside of a cult and stories of overcoming great odds to find a brighter future, then grab your copy of Carol Es’s novel “Shrapnel in the San Fernando Valley” 

-Anthony Avina, Book Reviewer and Author

. . . . .

“Shrapnel in San Fernando Valley is an important book for all women, men, and especially artists because it has a lot to with courage and endurance, which is something that we all need every single day.

“The tone is straight forward, sometimes brutal and even crazy funny as the author struggles and manages to draw some conclusions. Carol makes some brilliant statements as she is resurfacing after a truly rough start.

“Her memoir is also peppered with beautiful ink drawings that perfectly describe her feelings without being too detailed.

“I read the book with an increasing sense of curiosity. In the first part, Carol Es sets the stage as she describes her troubled relationship with a mentally unstable mom, a favored spoiled brother, and a father who speaks to the dog more than to anyone else in the family. Her nutty parents fought constantly and moved to a different city almost every year since day 1. Her sense of self becomes shattered as a result, unable to grow roots, longing to belong.

“Carol Es’s nascent selfhood becomes obscured and overridden by the calamities of a family life bereft of stability, peace and empathy. These difficulties groom the author into becoming a highly receptive candidate for Scientology’s indoctrination which affords a semblance of structure, community, trust and empowerment.

“Her observations and conclusions are right on and often humorous in spite of the seriousness of certain situations throughout the book.

“A self-taught artist and unnoticed from the start, Carol chooses to learn drumming, which is in itself quite cathartic. Drawing and reading also help to ease her unquiet mind. She first encounters Scientology while sneaking into her brother’s cave used for band practices and pot smoking. A couple of young band members, somewhat related to a famous actor, are already involved in it. She needs to become a better drummer than most boys in order to get accepted as a musician or even to practice with any band. Carol eventually reaches a certain degree of notoriety as a musician and even starts to make money drumming as she plays important venues in a band that is gaining traction within the L.A. music scene.

“It is only after several years of studying and practicing Scientology that she realizes that the Church is nothing more of a cult than a philosophy, and not necessarily the only life-narrative.

“Carol eventually stands on her own after uncovering several flaws and lies as she questions the Church that kept her from expressing her truth. As in any cult, questioning means doubting, therefore dangerous to the wellbeing of the group. The truth is muffled and literally accepted line by line, otherwise you risk excommunication.

“Carol resurfaces through the muck as a lotus. She finds love as she accepts herself as a gifted artist and as a survivor, because that is exactly what she is.

“Only after the death of both her parents can she start to speak about what once was and who she has become, finally standing on her own, as a productive painter and writer.

“I find myself talking about Shrapnel in San Fernando Valley to most because it is simply a success story. It inspires pure courage!

“Truly recommended.

-Jocelyne Desforges, Artist

. . . . .

“You’ll find yourself rooting for Carol Es all the way through this hair-raising account of a brutally dysfunctional childhood, a bewildering adolescence of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, and an early adulthood oppressed by the manipulative wiles and practices of the so-called “church” of Scientology. You’ll be rooting for her because, despite all the evils that befall her, she remains herself—perhaps curiously—an innocent. More than that, you’ll be rooting for her because you know that she’s a survivor: she’s writing this book, after all. And because she has the admirable pluck of a survivor. And you’ll be rooting for her because, with her unsparing, caustic sense of the absurdity of it all, she manages to make her journey so thoroughly compelling. (I was about to say “entertaining” but that’s the wrong word. No one is entertained by such a nightmare. Her writing is entertaining, not the story that she tells). Victims are hard to sympathize with when they’re sorry for themselves. Not the case with Carol. If she errs anywhere, it’s with self-blame rather than self-pity; but even that she does with bemused, self-deprecating humor. Oh, and Carol’s wry take on the events of her life is reflected not only in her pithy writing, but also in the dozens of drawings that appear on many of the pages of her book. Known chiefly as a visual artist, Carol makes drawings that divert and compensate for all the horror with their innocence and whimsy. “Shrapnel” is a rewarding—and yes, damnit—an entertaining read!”

-Peter Clothier, Author of The Pilgrim’s Staff