In September I was contacted by She Writes Press asking if I would be interested in reading a memoir about a woman who was in a cult for seven years. The book was The Burn Zone by Renee Linnell. I said yes. After finishing my Halloween reading I knew this would be the first book I’d read as I moved into my non-fiction November.
First, I’ll admit that I watch programs about cults. If there’s another documentary about Jonestown I’m watching and I’ve been watching Leah Remini’s program on Scientology. As I watch these programs I’ve always wondered how an intelligent person will work for free, give up everything they own, and cut out all friends and family simply because someone told them to. Renee Linnell went through each step: joining a mediation group, volunteering, taking on more responsibilities, ridding her life of everything from her past and her friends and family, and getting too close to the leaders. As Linnell explains each step I found that I could easily see how someone could find themselves in the midst of a cult without fully realizing it.
Most cult stories begin with someone looking for spirituality or trying to find a community. The initial steps are always small: for Linnell it was trying to find a spiritual teacher and feeling as though she found that person in Lakshmi during a multi – day meditation session. Then as the person begins to feel good about not just themselves but about the group they move a bit deeper: Linnell began to volunteer at the events that happened in California. And then they begin to rise within the group, Linnell took care setting up the events and moving on to booking and creating the events. The person begins to shed friends and family and begins to give more to the group, usually in the form of money and property. (During this section of the book I put my hand over my mouth as Linnell writes about taking her late mother’s jewelry, including a lot of heirloom pieces and dumping them into the ocean. That broke my heart.)
As Linnell writes about her early days in the University of Mysticism she flashes back to her early family years. It begins to explain why after everything starts to go sour she still tries to hang on to her place within the group, even with verbal abuse by the leader Lakshmi. Lakshmi’s behavior closely mirrors her mother’s behavior. Cold, distant and verbally abusive followed by love, attention and fun.
After Linnell moves from California to New York and away from the cult, at the guidance of Lakshmi, who instructs her to move to the East, get into a good school, earn an MBA and start a company that makes $10 million after taxes, she falls back into the same patterns that drove her into the cult. She meets a karate instructor with whom she has an affair and decides to go into business with him. Even though the instructor tells and shows her repeatedly that she needs to flee, quickly, she stays in the hopes that she can fix him. Only after going into business with him does she find out just how horrible this man is.
The section that resonated with me was the section when she describes her depression. When you’re unable to get out of bed, to eat properly and then you don’t recognize your body. In other works I’ve read about depression, and Alice Hoffman’s Faithful was one of the first that felt true. Linnell describing her depression felt like I was reading parts of my own life in the last few years. If you’ve ever wanted to know what is going on with a loved one while they suffer from depression I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s raw and powerful and it’s true. And the way out of depression is also true. It’s not a quick process and if you want to know more definitely read this book.