How is it possible that an intelligent, educated, worldly woman can be brainwashed and inducted into a cult in the 21st century?
Author Renee Linnell, 45, tells her frightening story in “The Burn Zone: A Memoir” (She Writes Press, 2018).
“When we’re young we hide what makes us different, to fit in,” Linnell said during a telephone interview last week. Linnell, who lives in Colorado, is on a book tour that will stop in Chatham next Monday and spoke from Atlanta. “We forget who we are. We’re lucky if life shatters us and we can pick up authentic pieces and put them together.”
Linnell says she wrote this memoir, her first book, to convince others that we all feel shame around our past mistakes. But when we share our stories we find that others are like us, we are not alone.
Linnell interweaves a memoir of her childhood in with her memoir of being snared by the cult. As a small, introverted child, Linnell was needy. Her father died when she and her twin Gary were 15, and they were raised by an erratic, alcoholic mother. As an adult, Linnell craved to be noticed and loved as much as she had when she was a child. She was vulnerable.
In 2006 she went to a meditation seminar in California. While she had been expecting the leader to be dressed in counter-culture garb, the leader, Lakshmi, wore a black business suit and black stiletto heels. The meditation began with loud music. Linnell closed her eyes. “I was home. My search was over.”
First Linnell became a volunteer for Lakshmi, who Linnell learned was an “enlightened being.” By the end of the summer, Linnell applied to become Lakshmi’s student. She was accepted. Everything still seemed on the up and up. In the beginning, a cult will treat you as if you are special. It is like a romance, Linnell says.
A cult is a “group that is easy to walk into and difficult to leave,” Linnell adds. A cult revolves around a charismatic leader and “you need peace and acceptance from that leader.” Another sign of a cult is that it will “manipulate” more and more of your time.
Still, this cult was hard to identify at such. Once Lakshmi had accepted her students, she changed its name from “University of Mysticism” to “Career Development Training.” “This put a corporate spin on the events, making them seem more mainstream and less ‘woo-woo.’” Tuition was $150 that had to be paid in crisp, new bills.
Linnell’s volunteer time increased. She often met with Vishnu, Lakshmi’s original student and now partner, who carried himself as though he were a secret service agent.
Lakshmi soon began directing Linnell’s career. She told Linnell that she wanted her to give up teaching dance and become a computer programmer. Linnell agreed. Yet when the next step came, a group trip to Egypt that would cost $15,000, warning bells rang in Linnell’s brain. Of the $15,000, $5,000 would cover the expense of the trip, and $10,000 would be an “empowerment fee” that went straight to Lakshmi. But Linnell ignored the bells, and was the first to hand over the $15,000 in the form of a cashier’s check. Vishnu told her, “you have some serious power.”
“What I did not realize is that by paying in full, I had singled myself out as wealthy,” Linnell wrote. “Naïve and trusting, I had no idea what I had just done.”
Linnell became Lakshmi’s unpaid event planner. At the same time, Lakshmi said that her students should begin, essentially, to become recluses. Further ensnaring her, Vishnu seduced her into a sexual relationship with him. She became his unhappy “consort.”
So why couldn’t Linnell just leave?
“You lose energy and clarity,” she says. You have been encouraged to break away from your old friends and family. You are alone in your self-doubt.
“We were told we would ruin our karma if we left,” she says. “To me, that is a huge sign of a cult. Suddenly they don’t talk to you—they turn their backs on you.”
As time went on, Linnell endured further misadventures—some of a financially ruinous nature. Eventually she emerged from the group—seven years after her brainwashing began.
“It took years to heal,” she remembers. “I didn’t want to leave the house. I was so broken.” She adds that today she has “really good boundaries. People can’t mess with me anymore.”
Sheila Sheeran, founder of the Shine Center, a boutique meditation and yoga center in Chatham which will be hosting a visit from Linnell, says she thinks the most important lesson of Linnell’s book “is sometimes we need to be broken open in order to grow into a better version of ourselves.”
Linnell will give a talk followed by a book signing on Monday, May 6 at 6:30 p.m. at the Shine Center, 25 Post Office Square. Wine and cheese will be served.