When now-acclaimed journalist Claire Hoffman was five-years-old, her mother, seeking a peace and stability that her alcoholic husband could not provide, informed Claire and her older brother that they’d be moving to the heartland of America to be a part of Heaven on Earth. Indian Transcendental Meditation guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was building a national headquarters in Fairfield, Iowa: a 272-acre campus promising the individual enlightenments which would fuel world peace. TM had been blossoming in the West for decades by now, spurred by followers like The Beatles, and offered Claire’s destitute mother a new start after her husband left a note and some cash in exchange for his freedom.
Many local Iowans clash with this bourgeoning community of outsiders, making attendance at the public school difficult for Claire and her brother, but once an anonymous donor pays the tuition the coveted Maharishi school, they join in meditation practice and study of Maharishi’s principals for living. This secluded utopia quenches the family’s need for warmth and support for some time, as the campus steadily grows throughout the 1980s and ’90s. But as Claire and her brother grow into adolescence, skepticism draws them in (as do rebellion and drugs), and Claire begins to peel back the veneer of the utopia, revealing layers of sickness and danger.
Eventually, Claire moves to California with her father and breaks from Maharishi completely. A decade later, after making a name for herself in journalism and starting a family, she begins to feel exhausted by cynicism and anxiety, and finds herself longing for the days of magic-filled, peace-driven work within a strong community. She returns to her hometown in pursuit of TM’s highest form of meditation–levitation–and comes away with a deeper understanding about her own childhood, family, and spirituality.
Ultimately, I appreciate Greetings from Utopia Park for its clear-eyed look into two opposing realities. On the one hand, the human needs for belonging and meaning are among our strongest quests, and we are capable of powerful, noble and creative works of peace. On the other, we mortals are supremely vulnerable to exclusionary group-think, and our saints fall all too often into sin. The book is one woman’s response to the question of how then, to navigate these opposing forces, using our intellect without getting crushed by cynicism, and building independence while belonging to something greater.