Most people might remember the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi as the guru who hosted the Beatles, Mia Farrow and Mike Love, among others, on their ill-fated excursion to India in 1967. But for Claire Hoffman, a Rolling Stone contributor and author of the memoir Greetings From Utopia Park: Surviving a Transcendent Childhood, the Maharishi was the all-powerful leader of the Midwestern community where she was born and raised — albeit a figurehead she’d never met. “He was always this Wizard of Oz-type character,” she says from her home in Los Angeles, where she now lives with her husband and two young children. “He was this giant broadcast face speaking do us in the dome.”
The Golden Domes she remembers were giant edifices for group meditation, the centerpieces of Maharishi International University (now Maharishi University of Management), located on a sprawling campus in Fairfield, Iowa, that had once been home to a Presbyterian college. The Maharishi had taken it over as his center of western operations in the 1970s, a place to host thousands of visiting followers in group meditation — which, they believed, might bring about world peace — and a permanent home to hundreds of others.
But as Hoffman recounts, Transcendental Meditation, which had begun as a movement that propagated twice-daily, 20-minute meditations as a way to tune out the frantic aspects of modern American life, developed into a top-down organization that recommended expensive classes, house-brand vitamins and moving into Utopia Park, a trailer encampment near campus. In return for their devotion and sacrifice, the Maharishi’s followers — mostly disaffected youth of the 1960s, like Hoffman’s parents — would attain “200 percent of life”: absolute spiritual happiness and material success.
Of course, this didn’t usually happen. In her memoir, Hoffman describes her initial fascination with TM. Her earliest memories are of keeping out of her mother’s way while she meditated, and, as a child, learning to meditate herself. “Meditation for me at the time was a subtle alternate reality to which I liked to escape,” she writes. “A small secret door that would take me away from the world around me.”
But the realities of her early life were often harsh: an alcoholic father that left five-year-old Hoffman, her mother and her brother with less than $50 in New York City; a mother struggling to support the family on hourly wages from the natural food store after their return to Fairfield; a community so trusting they allowed the neighborhood kids to congregate at the home of a pedophile while the parents attended evening meditation; parents forced to choose between expensive tuition at the Maharishi’s private school, or to let their children be teased and bullied at the public school in town.
Watching her mother struggle, Hoffman began to doubt that the TM movement could fulfill its promises to followers, and questions about the Maharishi’s claims began to surface. “A disaffected follower had accused him of fraudulent practices, saying the mantra didn’t work, that it didn’t make you Enlightened,” she writes. “I thought of the dark fairy tale about the emperor with no clothes.” Her doubt would eventually lead her to the University of Chicago Divinity School and the Columbia School of Journalism, and to writing about other fringe sects like Scientology and Fundamentalist Mormons. “It was really powerful for me to see other religious groups,” she says. “The beliefs that people have, no matter how unusual or strange, can really shape your reality. That was something I knew so personally.”
When she finally felt ready to investigate the faith that had shaped her own upbringing, a follow-the-money investigation into the practices of the TM movement, Hoffman found her editor was pushing her to make a pronouncement she wasn’t entirely comfortable with: Was it a cult or wasn’t it? Hoffman wasn’t sure she was ready to take that step, even if it meant losing the story. “People have become so black and white about religion, so binary, and that question of ‘is this a good religion or a bad religion?'” she says. “It doesn’t allow a lot of conversation for what really happens and how incredibly powerful and positive these organizations and movements can be in people’s lives.”
Instead she went to Iowa, took advanced classes and dove back into her life as a yogi, using her skills as a reporter to flesh out her memory. “I did interviews with my mom and my brother and my dad, but also school administrators, friends, people who were around back then,” says Hoffman. “I also spent a huge amount of time in the Maharishi University of Management library, where they have incredible video archives. They’re all very much of the time — people wearing these 1980’s ‘dress for success’ outfits. Watching these really helped me go back in time.” The result is a vivid look at her childhood, the TM movement, and what it means to grow up believing in the unbelievable. “I know it sounds crazy to some folks that we moved to Iowa because we thought that we were going to levitate and create world peace,” she says. “I totally understand that sounds nonsensical. But we were psyched, you know?”
Perhaps the TM movement, now embraced by everyone from David Lynch to Katy Perry, will soon find mainstream acceptance enjoyed by other faiths. “Growing up, you’d see the Baptist Church or something as so normal, but then going back 100 years you’d see how disruptive and cult-y those sects were,” she says, noting that now, the things that had made her community stand out so much — namely vegetarianism, yoga, and meditation — have become something commonplace, especially in her adopted hometown. “These are things that everyone in L.A. does or has dabbled with. In the Eighties and Nineties in rural Iowa, hitting up against this New Age meditation movement was a recipe for something very particular.”