Book Review: Greetings from Utopia Park
About the Book:
In this engrossing memoir, Claire Hoffman recounts the remarkable years she spent growing up in an increasingly isolated meditation community in the American heartland.
When Claire Hoffman’s alcoholic father abandons his family, his struggling wife, Liz, tells five-year-old Claire and her seven-year-old brother, Stacey, that they are going to heaven—Iowa—to live in Maharishi’s national headquarters for Heaven on Earth. For Claire’s mother, Transcendental Meditation—Maharishi’s method of meditation and his approach to living the fullest possible life—promises world peace and Enlightenment just as their family is falling apart.
At first this secluded utopia offers warmth and support, and makes these outsiders feel calm, secure, and connected to the world. At the Maharishi School, Claire learns Maharishi’s philosophy for living and meditates with her class. With the promise of peace and Enlightenment constantly on the horizon, every day is infused with magic and meaning. But as Claire and Stacey mature, their adolescent skepticism kicks in, drawing them away from the community and into delinquency and drugs. To save herself, Claire moves to California to live with her father, breaking from Maharishi completely. After she works for a decade in journalism and academia, the challenges of adulthood propel her back to Iowa, where she reexamines her spiritual upbringing and tries to reconnect with the magic of her childhood.
Greetings from Utopia Park takes us deep into a complex, unusual world, illuminating its joys and comforts as well as its disturbing problems. While there is no utopia on earth, Hoffman finds, there are noble goals worth striving for: believing in belief itself, finding inner peace, and reaching a firm understanding that there is a larger fabric of the universe to which we all belong.
My review: 3 stars.
I can’t quite remember the first memoir that I devoured, making me a lifetime lover of the genre, but I enjoy reading stories of people’s lives, maybe because it makes me think in greater depth about my own life and blessings. In any case, I enjoyed this book for the most part because of the memoir aspect and that the experience of the author is so vastly different from anything I know about life.
I’m mildly interested in communes, cults, and compounds– not in a want to join them sort of way, but more that people are so dedicated and involved with a belief system that they break off from the mainstream to immerse themselves in it. The whole idea of living in a transcendent, meditation-obsessed place as a child is an interesting contrast- kids are supposed to be wild, play around, explore and so on, but the author was in a place where quietness and reflection were valued. Like other memoirs about bizarre childhoods ( Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls kept coming to mind when reading), this memoir definitely highlighted how wacky it can be for a kid when their parent(s)’ self-interests and obsessions become the thing that defines your life.
As a person who does yoga and is trying to build a meditation practice, I enjoyed learning about this extreme meditation practice. I like reading about people who have committed their lives to the cause and taking it to extremes. It made feel similar to how I felt when watching the movie Somm— that people are so into and aware of one single subject/cause that they devote their life to it. The memoir is not entirely about that, but more the author’s perspective on that and the effect it has on her life going forward as an adult. I thought she gave enough perspective to me as the reader to try to understand the people who took on transcendental meditation, though the book is less about that, and more about the author’s experience growing up in that environment.
The middle section was a bit slow for me and I enjoyed the author’s recollections as a younger child than her experiences as an adolescent. I think this may because we are often more perceptive when we’re younger, so I felt like some of her observations and memories from that time were more pronounced than in her teen years when she was maybe a bit more self-aware and paying less attention to the various things going on around her.
As part of the TLC Book Tour of this book, I was provided an advanced copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.