Greetings from Utopia Park

Greetings from Utopia ParkClaire Hoffman received her first mantra when she was just 3 years old. Her mother practiced Transcendental Meditation and brought up Claire and her brother, Stacey, to do the same. Periods of meditation, often during quiet play, were part of Claire’s life from her earliest years. It was an oasis of piece in an otherwise chaotic children.

When Claire 5 years old, her alcoholic father abandoned the family and Claire’s mother decided to move to Fairfield, Iowa, home of the headquarters for Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s training center and community for the study of TM. Early on, Claire and her brother, Stacey, attended the local public school, where they were mocked for their association with the gurus. But eventually, they were able to move to Utopia Park itself and attend the Maharishi’s school.

In this memoir, Hoffman recounts her experiences, both good and bad, as part of the Maharishi’s community. She delves into the background of the movement and attempts to put some of her experiences in context, but, for the most part, this is her own personal story, focused on her own early embrace of the “magic” of TM, her eventual disenchantment at the reality, and her later attempt to incorporate the good of the movement into her own adult life.

In many respects, Hoffman’s story is not so different from that of any child brought up in a tight-knit religious community. She starts out accepting what she’s told, begins to have questions, starts to rebel, and then figures out her own way.

As an adult, Hoffman recognizes the flaws in some of what she was taught. For example, as the TM community in Iowa grew, it became more commercial and less accessible to those unable to spend large amounts of money. And a lot of the practices she’d heard about, such as flying, weren’t as spectacular as she’d assumed they were. But she’s also able to acknowledge that some of the practices do have something to offer, even if they don’t make logical sense. The flying lessons that she scoffed at once she learned flying was little more than hopping resonate more once she takes a class herself and experiences a feeling she can’t explain as she coasts across the room in a meditative state.

I find people’s religious experiences fascinating in general, whether they are from my own Christian faith or another spiritual practice. And I could relate to Hoffman’s mix and skepticism and belief. I think any belief system invites both, and anyone who’s going to be part of a spiritual community needs to figure out for herself how to balance those.

However, with that said, I didn’t find this as engaging as, for example, Elisabeth Esther’s Girl at the End of the World, about escaping a Christian cult founded by her grandfather. I think, perhaps, Hoffman’s ambivalence caused the book to lack energy and passion. Of course, I wouldn’t want her to manufacture passion she doesn’t feel, but I wonder if broadening the story more, to include people who were still all-in or fully out of the community might have added that energy. As it was, this memoir good enough to keep my interest for a day but doesn’t leave me with much to chew on after.

I received an e-galley of this book for review consideration from HarperCollins via Edelweiss.

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6 Responses to Greetings from Utopia Park

  1. Elle says:

    Have I recommended Samantha Field’s blog to you before? I recommend it to half the people I meet, so it’s possible (if so, sorry). She’s brilliant on escaping fundamentalism/spiritual abuse: http://samanthapfield.com/

  2. I’m like you in finding people’s religious experiences fascinating, no matter where they’re coming from. I particularly find it fascinating that no matter where you start, you end up having to go through the process of doubt and critique in reference to your childhood beliefs. We’d like to be able to raise our children with the “truth” from the get-go, but it just never works out that way. Truth, in the end, is not something you can teach someone. It’s something each of us has to learn on our own, in our own way. I grew up a conservative Christian and have a very different view of the universe now (or at least what feels to ME like a very different view), but I am grateful for the things I learned as a child, both for the things I “kept” and those that simply gave me something to push against, to figure out what I truly believe in my heart.

    • Teresa says:

      I think that period of questioning or doubting is important to making a belief system stronger–at least it has been for me. My Christianity is very different from the more conservative version I experienced when I was younger, but I took a lot of good things from those earlier beliefs and have incorporated my new thinking into it.

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