Claire Hoffman grew up in Fairfield, Iowa, not on a farm, but in the Transcendental Meditation world created by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at the defunct Parsons College campus. Maharishi is credited with bringing meditation to the attention of the West, jump-started by the interest of the Beatles. Their time visiting him in India was limited, apparently by Maharishi's untoward interest in Mia Farrow. Despite that accusation, he was stunningly successful in his efforts over the course of his lifetime, though I thought of TM as having waned in the 1980s.
The author's mother was serious about meditation and when her marriage ended, she and her two children moved to Fairfield. Maharishi lived in Europe, but was seen by the community via closed circuit transmission. He told the community that if enough people were meditating in a single location, that would bring in an era of world peace (the Maharishi effect). He said everyone would live 200 percent of life: 100 percent spiritual success, and 100 percent material success. He made sure that he prospered as well, charging ever greater fees for courses for spiritual improvement, school fees, rent, and more. Claire's family was forever struggling financially, as her mother worked at whatever artistic endeavor she could find within the community, but never shared in that great prosperity.
Claire became disenchanted in this community of believers at the accumulation of revelations and realizations. At age 10 she learned that despite the expensive courses in flying, no one actually flies. Her mother told her that there were three stages of flying: hopping, hovering, and flying and that no one in Fairfield had gotten beyond being a good hopper. One day in 1989 the community leader gathered all the students together to deliver the message that the dawn of the age of enlightenment had occurred because of the daily practice of meditation by students. World peace was at hand as evidenced by the tearing down of the wall in Berlin. In this moment as a sixth grade student, she recognized the absurdity of this claim and ever afterwards, felt herself to be outside it all. Maharishi's declaration that doors must not open to the south so as to be more aligned with nature is an example of his requirements that became increasingly odd, as well as expensive to implement.
When her mother could no longer afford the Maharishi school, Claire attended the local high school and began to plot her escape from the community. She succeeded in extricating herself, becoming well educated and she writes for the LA Times, The New Yorker, and other publications. As an adult with a family, she felt an emptiness and yes, took a flying course herself. She has a balanced (or is it conflicted?) view of the TM world. In her epilogue she recognizes that Maharishi's utopia and bringing world peace through meditation was a fantasy, but the quest for enlightenment and inner peace was a quest worth pursuing. She says the believing in this fantasy was what mattered. I find that an uncomfortable concept. Having misguided beliefs that are easily recognized as fantasy can veer into dangerous territory. Maharishi had enough power to convince people to change the entrances of buildings so that none opened to the south. What else might he have done?
Today the campus of Maharishi's university seems like a relic from another era. It is not a utopia and 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. And yet they seem awfully happy, like old sweethearts still in love, fifty years later.
Claire Hoffman, Greetings from Utopia Park, Harper, 2016, 288 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the public library and from Amazon.