Jun 11, 2016

In this portrait of TM, Utopia hard to find

Terry Byrne
June 11, 2016

Greetings from Utopia Park: Surviving a Transcendent Childhood, by  Claire Hoffman, (Harper)

Much has been written about Catholic guilt or lapsed faith, Jews rejecting traditions, the brainwashing of disaffected Muslim youth. As children, we have little choice in our indoctrination.

But imagine being raised by a consciousness-raising hippie learning to levitate.

Claire Hoffman’s gripping memoir, Greetings From Utopia Park (Harper, 262 pp., *** out of four stars), is a deep dive into mysticism and skepticism. The well-credentialed journalist with a master’s in religion received her first mantra at age 3 and estimates spending 2,200 hours practicing Transcendental Meditation as a direct descendant of one of founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s pupils.

Hoffman grew up in Utopia Park, essentially a trailer park in the shadow of the Maharishi’s glittering university in Fairfield, Iowa, where thousands flocked for enlightenment in the 1980s. She attended its insular school, where meditation was graded, clothes in colors darker than a leaf were discouraged, and the top achievement was "yogic flying" (no wires).

A rigorous storyteller, Hoffman weaves a world that's part Harry Potter, part Tommy’s Holiday Camp by The Who (magician Doug Henning pitches a $1.5 billion Veda Land theme park) and a whiff of Dirty Dancing. The plot's fit for cinema: After her playful playwright-alcoholic father abandons the family, her stoic mom relies on art, admirers and blind faith for survival. But “Nature Support” (money) is elusive in the meditators' cultish caste system. Their “Heaven on Earth” proves a minefield of anxiety, deception, drugs, possible child molesters.

And rebellion. Hoffman's idol wasn’t the yogi but Marilyn Monroe. When Mom leaves her and her brother alone in their on-campus trailer to practice advanced techniques in the nearby "domes," the sibs get busy "jacking up the air-conditioning, making ... a forbidden non-Ayurvedic snack and turning on a (racy) movie.”

Immersed 24/7, the young Hoffman felt branded by TM. She was an outsider among both taunting “townies” and her "guru" peers because of nagging doubts. That dissociation invigorates her writing. She goes from picturing “the whole planet becoming like a Care Bears cartoon” to a near-bursting of the bliss bubble.

While exposing the machinations of TM’s “man behind the curtain,” Hoffman taps her inner power — like Dorothy in Oz — to find her own way “om.”

Hoffman's tale also gets trippy. She decodes The Beatles’ Sexy Sadie — first titled “Maharishi,” written by a disillusioned John, censored by die-hard George. She describes Maharishi’s wealthy inner circle, his “108s” (108 is a sacred Hindu number), then I check the page number: 108. In a tough test of the tenets of her upbringing, she takes readers along for a levitation lesson.

And what about those mantras? Is it a myth that each one is unique? What if they're all the same?

The suspense nearly kills.


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