Wow. Where do I begin? I loved this book and I couldn’t have read this at a better time. I recently finished Do Your Om Thing by Rebecca Pacheco, which dedicates an entire section of the book to meditation. What a stark contrast to Greetings from Utopia Park: Surviving a Transcendent Childhood by Claire Hoffmann.
Hoffman recounts her childhood in Fairfield, IA, which becomes an epicenter for the Maharishi movement of Transcendental Meditation (TM). Maharishi was a man, born Mahesh Varma in 1918-ish, who made his way to the U.S. from India in the late 1950s and started taking the world by storm. Promising world peace and inner bliss and enlightenment through meditation, Maharishi amassed a huge following. In the 1970s, Maharishi purchased the foreclosed Parsons College in Fairfield, IA and opened the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment. Fairfield soon became a hotspot for TM followers from all over world. Maharishi died in 2008, but TM is still practiced today. I provide all this background because it’s important to understand that a lot of people thought Maharishi was THE answer, which meant a lot of blind following and money-giving to his cause. And oh yeah, Maharishi believed, or at least told others, that the highest form of enlightenment would allow you to levitate. The Maharishi movement is fascinating, and if you have time I’d encourage you to do more research. It’s wildly bizarre.
The story is written from Hoffman’s perspective as she recounts her experiences as child and as a teenager. She also intersperses historical information about the Maharishi movement, which she weaves seamlessly into the story. It made the book feel both personal and informative. I’ve seen other reviews that criticize Hoffman for not denouncing TM or uncovering Maharishi as the scam artist he most definitely was, but this book is never a commentary on the Maharishi movement. This is Claire’s story.
The book begins before Claire’s family moves to Iowa as she recounts her family’s long history of struggles with addiction, abuse, and depression. In search of respite from all of these things, Claire’s mother moves her and her brother, Stacey, to Iowa. As a reader, you can sense there’s something weird about the movement, but because most of the story is told from Claire’s perspective as a young child, it’s not until later that she begins to see the cracks herself. She’s too doubtful for the “ru” (short for guru) crowd, but she’s definitely not a “townie.” Claire ends up leaving Iowa as a teenager and the timeline jumps to adulthood. The ending, which reflects on Claire’s practice of TM as an adult, isn’t fully satisfying, but I’m not sure it’s supposed to be.
I loved how relatable Hoffman is, even though my childhood and upbringing were wildly different than hers. And she excels at portraying the struggles of growing up. What pieces of our childhood make up who we are as adults? Do we get to choose? Her unique experience would say that despite our best efforts, we don’t really get to pick what sticks.
Overall, I immensely enjoyed reading this. Sometimes non-fiction has trouble keeping my attention and that was not the case here. I also liked how this made me reflect on my own life: would I have chosen the same path as Claire or her mother if I had the same circumstances? I’m not sure!
If you’re looking for something different, interested in cult-ish stuff, or enjoy a good memoir now and again, I think you’d like this one. I highly recommend. 5 out of 5 stars!