In memoir ‘The Burn Zone,’ former cult member tells all
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘The Burn Zone’ talk and book-signing with Renee Linnell
Where: Explore Booksellers
When: Tuesday, Oct. 9, 5:30 p.m.
More info: explorebooksellers.com
‘The Burn Zone: A Memoir’
256 pages, paperback; $16.95
She Writes Press, 2018
Late in her new memoir, “The Burn Zone,” Renee Linnell recounts a night out where she dances on a bar, meets a guy and tells him immediately that she had been in a cult for the past seven years.
He responds, “You are the most interesting person I’ve ever met!”
Readers are likely to have a similar reaction to the Snowmass Villager’s tender, often-terrifying, always-candid life story.
Linnell doesn’t fit the stereotype of the docile or dumb cult member. Rich, worldly and self-possessed, she had been extraordinarily successful as an entrepreneur, traveled the world and worked as both a professional model and tango dancer.
But after attending what she thought was a meditation seminar in 2006 in California, led by a charismatic guru in a business suit, Linnell was slowly brainwashed and sucked into a Tantric Buddhist cult. Seven years later — suffering under the emotional, financial and sexual abuse of the University of Mysticism cult’s two leaders — she’d lost her money, burned everything she owned, cut herself off from her family and friends and found herself in a form of domestic slavery in New York.
As she woke up to the fact that she was a cult member, Linnell broke free and began a long process of healing. That process brought her to Colorado, where she settled in Snowmass Village and began writing what would become “The Burn Zone.”
While the experiences she recounts in the book are extreme, she is hopeful that a general readership will relate to her struggle in the cult and that it will inspire others to tell their own stories.
“I want us all to realize that being human is really messy and this Earth-walk of ours is a wild adventure,” she said in a recent interview. “We’re going to make all kinds of mistakes. We’re all broken. We’re all wounded. But we’re broken and wounded perfectly to open us up to what our true divine purpose is.”
The book will be published Tuesday, when Linnell will discuss her experience and sign books at Explore Booksellers in Aspen. The event launches an 11-stop book tour that will bring her across Colorado, Washington, Oregon and California.
When Linnell moved from New York to Snowmass in 2013, she was still piecing her life together. The peace and quiet of the mountains, she said, fueled her recovery and allowed her to find herself again.
“For me, waking up everyday to this beauty reminded me that, somehow, on a deep level, everything was OK,” she said.
A road-biker and paddle-boarder in the summers, over the past five years she has made a habit of becoming a first-chair snowboarder on Two Creeks — not far from her home — and riding alone for an hour on most winter mornings.
“When nobody is around it feels like riding a big, glassy wave,” she said, adding with a laugh: “As soon as I see other people, I leave.”
Out here, Linnell has recovered her spiritual life, she said, by meditating daily and spending time in nature.
“My spiritual practice now is love and kindness, quiet and stillness,” she said. “After everything I went through I realized that when I felt loving and kind and compassionate, I felt god inside of me.”
The book’s roots were in Linnell’s journals, where she sought catharsis by writing out her story and purging her emotions.
“I felt I had to get it out of me,” she recalled. “There was a lot of shame around the fact that I had let myself get brainwashed and let myself get in such a bad business relationship and lose so much money. And when I was healing, I got fat for the first time in my life. So I was just this fat, broken, lost, confused and broken person who had totally ruined her life.”
But as she started opening up to new friends about what had happened to her, they encouraged her to write a book. She realized then that she’d already begun writing it.
As a culture, we don’t afford people who have been brainwashed and joined cults the same compassion that we offer victims of other forms of abuse. Linnell, too, had such prejudices until it happened to her. She hopes that her book can help de-stigmatize victims and also help readers see warning signs themselves.
“I had this belief that people who join cults are crazy,” she said. “And when you’ve never been in one, you think, ‘The signs are obvious and why would you do that?’ You read these things about people committing mass suicide or whatever. I know from experience that it happens so slowly, so insidiously.”
She compares the brainwashing process in a cult to being in any toxic relationship, where a partner builds another up and makes them feel loved and cherished, then dismantles their support system and introduces increasingly abusive behavior.
Linnell hopes other victims will follow her and open up about their pasts.
“If I have to be the first person, I would love to be the torchbearer that allows other people to tell their stories,” she said.
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The Aspen Winter Words series will host four in-person author talks at Paepcke Auditorium in Aspen and two online-only events.