Book Review - Greetings from Utopia Park; Surviving a Transcendent Childhood
ICSA Today 8, (2), 2017, 22-24
Greetings from Utopia Park; Surviving a Transcendent Childhood
HarperCollins, 2016. ISBN-10: 0062338846; ISBN-13: 978-0062338846 (hardcover). $15.46 (Amazon.com) (paperback, $11.04; Kindle, $10.99). 288 pages.
Review by Gina Catena
Claire Hoffman offers a tender and honest memoir about her childhood in Transcendental Meditation’s (TM’s) mecca in Fairfield, Iowa. Born in 1977 to parents who were practicing TM, Claire lived in TM’s Iowa community from age 5 to age 16. This story is not a full exposé of TM lifestyles.
The Preface opens with the author in present time, in her mid-30s. As a successful journalist, she is a happily married young mother living away from her cult origins. She returns to her former community to resolve what she labels as “youthful cynicism.” She wants to believe. Belief versus cynicism is the thread winding through this narrative.
Clare then weaves a beautifully written story beginning with the 1970’s seduction of her hippy parents by the Beatles’ guru during TM’s heyday. The young adults find Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s promise of inner tranquility, world peace, and eventually, a community with other meditators to be a welcome respite from their own abusive childhoods. Claire is their second child. When her father stops practicing TM, succumbs to alcoholism and abandons his young family in New York City, her mother lacks the means to support her children. They initially relocate from New York to the the Florida home of Claire’s grandmother, then resettle in Maharishi’s so-called Ideal Society, with his university, in Fairfield, Iowa.
Young Claire eagerly anticipates enrolling in her third kindergarten that year to join classmates who also practice TM’s childhood mantra meditation, or Word of Wisdom—she quickly learns she will not attend Maharishi’s private school because the private tuition is prohibitive. Instead, she and her brother attend a local public school where classmates taunt them as ‘rus, short for gurus. An anonymous sponsor eventually enables Claire and her brother to attend Maharishi’s school. She happily dons the requisite blue jumper and bow tie to instantly bond with the other children who together sing Maharishi songs, learn the guru’s teachings interwoven with the three Rs, and receive grades for meditation.
When they move into one of 200 dilapidated trailer homes in Utopia Park, Claire and her brother merge with a close-knit subculture of unsupervised children who create excitement while parents daily attend hours of group (Program) meditation. A few unusual childhood deaths provide a shadowy backdrop to childhood mishaps. There is one close brush with a man who befriends many children and targets Claire alone for physical exploration; she runs from his apartment while he showers with the bathroom door open. She mentions others’ stories of wild teenage explorations, fathers who have affairs with teenage babysitters, and easy access to recreational drugs. She calls her world “binary,” divided between those who follow Maharishi’s teachings and those who are not to be trusted. Their mother struggles financially through a series of jobs with meditator companies and a series of heartbreaks with sequential boyfriends. In contrast to their life of struggle, Claire provides a brief overview of TM’s history and casually mentions Maharishi’s multibillion-dollar global empire.
Their father becomes sober and reenters their life to explain to his now-adolescent children that they live in a cult. Her father is a writer who encourages his children to express themselves. As Claire prepares to enter high school, her anonymous sponsorship evaporates. She enrolls in public high school along with other TM kids who are stigmatized because their families cannot afford Maharishi School. She finds her way with townie teens. After a drug-laden party at an abandoned rock quarry, 16-year-old Claire can no longer tolerate the confusing lifestyle. She apologizes to her mother and joins her father in California to finish school and obtain a mainstream education.
The story jumps forward 15 years to find Claire, an accomplished professional, flipping her perspective on her early years. She has a crisis of meaning in her seemingly mundane life. She holds a faculty position with the University of California and has published articles in The New York Times, Washington Post, and Rolling Stone. With a supportive husband and crying baby, Claire misses her community and connection to a higher purpose. In an ironic twist, she misses the safety of her childhood community.
TM luminaries David Lynch and Bobby Roth invite Claire to meetings in Los Angeles with Hollywood celebrities recently recruited to TM. She questions her youthful cynicism, feeling that her negativity about a TM childhood should not prevent celebrities from benefitting with TM. Lynch and Roth meet individually with Claire, tempting her back to her roots. The memoir concludes as it began. Claire attends advanced meditation retreats and returns to her childhood home to learn TM’s advanced meditation to fly, bouncing on high-density foam. She experiences the inner bliss that initially captivated her mother. However, she fails to mention the $5,000 price tag for TM’s advanced flying program; she does not disclose her mystical meditation mantra nor advanced techniques. When Claire's daughter learns her Word of Wisdom mantra, she reveals that the meditation mantra is wisdom. which Bobby Roth verifies. Claire is surprised the word is not a meaningless sound, but she fails to mention that TM’s touted meaningless-sound mantras are derived from Hindu deities.
In the Epilogue, Claire reflects that, even though utopia didn’t exist—her community was not fooled about that—the quest for bliss, satisfaction, and inner peace was hard to relinquish, and the TM movement was not a failure. She acknowledges a sincere desire to build utopia and their pursuit of a shared dream… “what mattered was the believing. The willingness to believe is everything” (p. 259). She admits that today
...one of the hardest things to see are the staff members who have worked there for decades, giving their time and their lives to a cause that is no longer there. Their guru is dead and the fortune he amassed from his followers is being fought over in Indian probate court. (p. 260)
The author deserves credit for humility and honesty in this well-written narrative, as she tenderly describes both idealism and frank details of destructive neglect in her childhood community. However, when summarizing TM’s benefits, she does not question research methodology, nor mention alternative practices.
In the Acknowledgments section, Claire thanks lifelong friends, alluding to other experiences, “I know you all have different lenses with which you view our shared past but I hope you recognize the one you read here.” She thanks Bobby Roth for “his openhearted invitation to me to keep Transcendental Meditation in my life, despite my cynical and questioning heart. It is in many ways thanks to him that I still practice - and enjoy - meditation today.” She is grateful for her mother’s love and hard work to raise her children, stating that this memoir “is really just a bumbling, inept love letter to her and to the religious experience, even though it may not always feel like it.”
The book is a quick read, and I recommend Greetings from Utopia Park for one perspective on making sense of a confusing cult childhood.
As reviewer, I must reveal my inherent bias. I was also raised in TM. My conclusions differ from those expressed by Claire Hoffman in Greetings from Utopia Park. Claire and I share many connections, much as would distant cousins in a small community. Some TM kids, now adults, tell me Claire’s story mirrors their own. Others share more gruesome tales. Unlike Claire Hoffman, who concludes with an upbeat note about TM, my own cynicism remains unabated even as I love people from my past. I suspect that Bobby Roth and David Lynch may have lured Claire back to TM’s dissociative high because her journalistic skill risked exposing their organization. In this memoir, Claire does not reveal TM’s mystical mantras nor the price tag of TM’s advanced programs, thus sheltering key first steps to cult indoctrination. When Claire’s daughter revealed her mantra to be wisdom, I wondered: Did the TM movement change the mantras from Sanskrit to English after Maharishi's death? Or only for Claire’s daughter? In either case, there is no magic.
 The reviewer has granted ICSA Today one-time-use copyright for publication and ICSA website and otherwise retains full copyright of the review.
About the Reviewer
Gina Catena, MS, was raised in the Transcendental Meditation (TM) group as an early “child of the Age of Enlightenment.” She married and was a parent in the group until the age of 30. After 22 years of childhood and young adulthood enmeshed in the TM culture, Ms. Catena left the group with three children and obtained an education and career while integrating into mainstream culture. She lives with ongoing cult influence through three generations of her immediate family. She contributed to Child of the Cult by Nori Muster. Ms. Catena is also working on several projects about family influence in cults. She obtained a Master of Science (MS) degree from the University of California at San Francisco, a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Art History, and a Bachelor of Science (BS) in Nursing, with a minor in psychology. She is now a certified nurse-midwife (CNM) and nurse practitioner (NP).