This blog first appeared on Huffington Post, November 2, 2016.
I was raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, about 95 miles northeast of Fairfield, home to Maharishi University of Management and the backdrop for Claire Hoffman’s memoir, Greetings from Utopia: Surviving a Transcendent Childhood (Harper, $16.45).
I didn’t go looking for Hoffman’s book, which was released in June. I was researching literary agents when I stumbled upon it. The title drew me in, and I was hopeful that it was a book about growing up at the center of the Transcendental Meditation (TM) community in my native Iowa.
In my thirties, I romanticized about life in Fairfield’s meditation community. I stood on the Maharishi University campus, wondering what my life would be like if I studied there. I pressed friends who had learned TM — and those I met over the years who had lived in Fairfield. But I had never met anyone who had grown up attending Maharishi until I opened Hoffman’s memoir.
Beyond hoping Hoffman’s book would be well written (it is), I also hoped she wouldn’t sugarcoat her experience nor be too negative about it.
She didn’t — and she wasn’t.
This is an honest and sincere — compelling and engaging — book about life in a community that most of us know nothing about. I’m grateful she took the time to write it, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to interview her.
This is the first book for Hoffman, 39, who now lives in Los Angeles and writes on a variety of subjects for national magazines. Here the mother of “two super-spirited and delightful daughters” talks about Greetings from Utopia.
When did you know that you had to write this book?
I could trace it all the way back to being a teenager, living in Utopia Park, and reading This Boy’s Life, the Tobias Wolff memoir. I felt at once like I was inside his story, but also that his was so different than mine, and I wanted to tell mine.
Another moment came later, as a young reporter in my twenties when I heard that Maharishi’s top donor was accusing him of stealing $100 million and saying that Maharishi was a fraud—the bizarreness of the world I came from and the complicated questions it stirred up for me felt like something I wanted to chronicle.
But, really, the inciting moment when I started writing the book, that moment came after having my first daughter. I was overwhelmed by a nostalgia and longing for the magic utopianism that I had grown up with and that I had left behind. I felt empty and frustrated with my own cynicism. And I felt like there was something really universal about that feeling and the journey that I then went on—the road to making peace with the past, taking the ideas that I treasured from my childhood and letting the rest go. So I would say the decision to write the book was a long simmering one, but those were the flashpoints.
What motivated you to write it? What was your intent?
Ultimately, I wanted to portray this really special world that I grew up in, with its warts and its beauty and the complexity of all that. Being a writer and a journalist, it is hard not to have gone through what I went through and not want to tell that story. Of course, I wrote the book because I felt I had a unique experience with universal implications. It is sort of in my DNA to want to chronicle the world I’m observing and, man, this was quite a world.
How long did it take you to write the book?
That’s a complicated question. I can say that after I sold the proposal for the book it took me 18 months. Or I could say I’ve been stopping and starting some version of this project for 10 years. So it was at once very long and kind of short.
What was it like for you to write it?
Writing this book was the hardest thing I’ve ever done and maybe that means I’ve had an easy life, because in the end that hardest thing was something that I loved. And I want to do more of. Going back in time both as a journalist and a memoirist and trying to piece together that experience was unlike anything I had done before. Trying to balance my subjectivity with the memories and artifacts of others in the Movement was just really wonderful and challenging for me. I loved it. I felt like I got the rare opportunity to go back in time to my childhood.
How has the book been received?
Overall, the response has been really positive, more so than I expected. I have gotten such beautiful letters, both from other kids who grew up in this community as well as meditators from my mom’s generation. And people from other religious traditions that felt a connection to that experience of loving and leaving the faith of your childhood. That said, I’ve gotten some vicious and unkind letters and had people close to me say very cruel things and that has sucked, I will admit it. I worked really hard to be fair in the book and generous and empathetic to the motivations of those around me. But in the end, you can’t please everybody. That certainly wasn’t my intention.
You appear to have always been an observer – is that accurate?
Yes. It is a blessing and a curse. At the party but not of the party. Oh, well.
Now that the book is out, what is it like to be on the other side of the notebook? To be the author and not the interviewer?
I’m trying to be cool about it. Obviously, I’m interested in the story of the Movement and Fairfield, since I wrote a book about it. But there’s also the journalist in me that always wants to hear other people’s stories and to move away from talking about me. Luckily, it is the universal part of this book that I really care about — the parts that are meaningful to many people and not so much the details of me. I like talking about the ideas and not so much the details.
Today, how would you summarize your feelings toward Iowa? Fairfield? TM?
Oh, you know, complicated. At once admiring and alienated. I still meditate every day, as does my mother. Many of the letters I’ve gotten have been so beautiful and encouraging, and that makes me feel really connected to the people there.
My mom still lives in Fairfield, and I like to go back to visit her. There’s so much about that town and that community that I treasure — there’s no place like home. That doesn’t mean there isn’t stuff that I question happening there or that I haven’t gotten some deeply insulting letters from people who live there and think Maharishi was a god on earth and I’m idiot for writing a book. But, you know, it is my town and my community, too, so I get to have a voice.
Was it challenging to figure out how to end the book?
Yes, it was hard. There are many chapters from that third section that I deleted in the last months before handing it in. It was hard for me to write about myself and the people I care about in the present day. I also felt like one of the big ideas that had emerged from the book was that black-and-white conclusions are wrong — so how do I write a conclusion for that book? In the end, I felt like a fantasy was the perfect way to end a book on growing up in a utopian trailer park. It made a kind of sense to me.
What’s your hope for the book—and for your readers?
I would like readers to come away from the book understanding that intention and belief are extremely powerful. That while skepticism is healthy and protective, that also stepping outside of skepticism is transformative. I want people to see how really smart people can believe really wild things and that those beliefs can build a tangible reality experienced by many. I want people to stop seeing these questions of belief and faith and doubt as black or white, but more gray and nuanced. And that while meditation is an amazing tool, it isn’t everything and as soon as you make something the be-all/end-all, people start acting crazy! Those are a few of the big ideas that I hope readers connect with and ruminate over afterward.