With her freshly published memoir named “The Burn Zone,” it would be easy to interpret Renee Linnell at the surface level: author and cult survivor, a woman still burning the bridges connecting her to the seven years she spent being brainwashed by the University of Mysticism, which disguised itself as a fashionable self-empowerment group.
But “resentful” and “angry” are far, far cries from truthful descriptors of who Linnell is. Her memoir, which details her cult experience and explores how a college-educated tango dancer and surfer could have ended up in such a group, is all about healing. Thus, names and identifying characteristics of nearly everyone involved with the University of Mysticism were changed, keeping the focus on Linnell’s journey.
“I was trying to disguise them as much as possible because I really wanted my book to be a story of wholeness and healing and forgiveness,” Linnell said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “Not a story of revenge.”
As if the universe somehow knows Linnell’s true calling, her two published books coincided with both her entrance and her exit from the cult. In 2005, Linnell wrote an introduction to and self-published a collection of her father’s letters from his time fighting in World War II. The next year, she got involved with the University of Mysticism, and it wouldn’t be until the beginning of 2013 that she realized the spiritual self-empowerment group to which she had been so loyal was actually a cult employing brainwashing techniques to keep members faithful — both spiritually and financially.
Two years before officially leaving the cult, Linnell told a friend and former cult member that if things didn’t work out at the University of Mysticism, she would write a book about the time she spent with it. But the idea remained an idea until much later, when she decided to turn her therapeutic journal entries into a cohesive narrative.
“At the end of 2012 when I was still in New York … I realized I wanted to move to Colorado to write; I had a vision that I was becoming a writer,” Linnell said, “Instead, I just fell apart, and so part of my healing was this journaling, just getting it out … and without even realizing it, that was me writing the book.”
Once she began looking for a way to get her story out there, the pieces seemed to fall into place. Ordered by her spiritual teacher to get a master of business administration at a prestigious school, Linnell had completed her professional degree at New York University and had connections to Penguin Random House through a former classmate.
Dealing with the publishing business brought new challenges for Linnell. She was troubled to realize that she had to make herself marketable, which meant sacrificing the way she felt her story had to be told.
“One day (my publicist) called me and I just started crying. … And I said my whole story is about believing in yourself and your differences, and my difference is that I live in a town of 2,000 people,” Linnell said. “I don’t want to turn into who I need to be to be attractive to a traditional publishing house. I feel like I’m betraying myself again.”
Resolving to stay true to herself as much as possible while trying to share her story, Linnell found a hybrid publishing company called She Writes Press, which combines elements of a traditional publishing house with those of a self-publishing platform. Because the author pays for printing, Linnell was able to have much more control over the final product than she may have had otherwise.
Her experiences in the publishing world made her realize how inaccessible it can be without money and connections, which got her thinking about one day starting a foundation to help people tell their stories.
“I don’t know if this is 10 years down the road or what it is, but I do have a vision of helping people spread their stories,” Linnell said.
Having come out of a traumatic experience, it’s evident that Linnell has now committed herself to spreading good energy and helping others. But something people may find surprising is how deeply spiritual Linnell has remained after such a traumatic experience with a group that manipulated spirituality to serve its own needs. Yet Linnell has found solace in remaining spiritual and relearning her own faith, finding time to meditate each morning and remind herself to focus on the positive things in life.
“My faith is the only thing that pulled me through all of this,” Linnell said. “I really believe it all comes down to kindness and love, and no matter what happens to me, I try to see it through a lens of love and kindness, and understand that people who are acting badly are doing so because of fear.”