Sunday, February 19, 2017

Review of "Greetings from Utopia Park; Surviving a Transcendent Childhood" by Claire Hoffman

Greetings from Utopia Park; Surviving a Transcendent Childhood
by Claire Hoffman
(2016) HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 265 pages

Claire Hoffman offers a tender and honest memoir about her childhood in Transcendental Meditation’s mecca in Fairfield, Iowa. Born in 1977 to parents practicing Transcendental Meditation (TM), Claire lived in TM’s Iowa community from age 5-16. For those seeking a full exposé about TM's lifestyles, this would not be the story for you.

The preface opens with the author in present time, in her mid-thirties. As a successful journalist, she is a happily married young mother living away from cult origins. She returns to her former community to resolve what she labels as youthful cynicism. She wants to believe and thus registers for an advanced TM program to learn to fly. Belief versus cynicism is the thread winding through her narrative.

Clare then weaves a beautifully written story from 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. Initially they relocate from New York to the Florida home of Claire’s grandmother, then resettle in Fairfield, Iowa with Maharishi’s so-called “Ideal Society” outside his university. 

Young Claire eagerly anticipates enrolling in her third kindergarten that year to join classmates who share a lifestyle and 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 “Ru’s”, short for “Guroos”. 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 blend with other children who together sing Maharishi songs, learn their guru’s teachings interwoven with the three R’s, and receive grades for meditation.

When they move into one of two hundred 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 other childhood mishaps. She has a close brush with a man who befriends 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 describes her world as “binary”, divided between those who follow Maharishi’s teachings versus 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 her family’s struggles, Claire provides a brief overview of TM’s history and mentions Maharishi’s multibillion dollar global empire.

Their father becomes sober and reenters the lives of his now adolescent children to explain 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 for Maharishi school evaporates. She enrolls in Fairfield’s 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, sixteen 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 pursue mainstream education and lifestyle.

The story jumps forward fifteen years to find Claire, an accomplished professional, flipping perspective on her early years. 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 has a crisis of meaning in her seemingly mundane life. She misses her community and connection to a higher purpose. In an ironic twist, she writes 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 Transcendental Meditation, causing her to question her youthful cynicism. She feels that her negativity from a TM childhood should not interfere with celebrities’ benefitting from 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 her Wisdom”, she reveals her meditation mantra is “wisdom” which Bobby Roth verifies. Claire is surprised that it’s not a meaningless sound, but fails to mention TM’s touted meaningless sounds are derived from Hindu deities.

In the Epilogue she reflects that utopia didn’t exist, but the quest for bliss, satisfaction and inner peace were hard to relinquish. She states the TM Movement was not a failure, and that her community was not fooled. She acknowledges their sincere desire to build utopia and pursuit of a shared dream… “what mattered was the believing. The willingness to believe is everything.” 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.”

The author tenderly describes both idealism and frank details of destructive neglect in her childhood community. However, when summarizing TM’s scientific benefits, she does not question research methodology, nor mention alternatives.

In the acknowledgements 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.”

Claire’s humble and honest memoir is a quick read. I recommend “Greetings from Utopia Park” for one perspective on making sense of a confusing cult childhood.

As reviewer, I must state 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 personal 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 lured Claire back to the dissociative high of TM’s prolonged meditations 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. She glosses over mention of TM’s many costly add-ons and monastic programs. When reading that Claire’s daughter’s mantra is “wisdom”, I wondered - did the TM Movement change mantras from Sanskrit to English after Maharishi's death? Or only for Claire’s daughter? In either case, there is no magic.

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