“All my life I had been searching,” opens “The Burn Zone,” “and for what, I did not know.”
In “The Burn Zone,” Renee Linnell tells the story of how she devoted herself to a New Age cult for seven years. Believe it when she says she knows how odd and perplexing this is when considering who she is: a woman who graduated magna cum laude with two degrees, traveled the world on her own before she turned thirty-five, is daughter to a wealthy family and was trained in Argentine tango by some of the most famous dancers in the world.
Thus the book’s central question is immediately apparent: How did someone like her end up in a cult?
From the very beginning, the poignant, witty memoir is self-aware. On the surface the book appears to be slowly answering that very question with every detail Linnell reveals about her turbulent childhood, rough adolescence and wayward-soul adulthood. But the answer is actually quite clear from the beginning. This is a book by a woman who, all her life, simply wanted to belong. And this is a sentiment shared by almost everyone regardless of education level, socioeconomic status or occupation.
It’s also what New Age cults prey on: people who want to belong.
The memoir is structured in a nonlinear format, with Linnell switching between the narrative of her time within the cult — she did, however, see it purely as a spiritual self-empowerment group at the time — and the narrative of her childhood. The book eventually leads the readers full circle back to the very point where it begins: with her finding out about and joining the University of Mysticism, where she was immediately loyal to the two lead Buddhist teachers.
Part of what makes Linnell’s story so gripping is the complete lack of anger in the book. Yes, she recounts the emotional abuse she suffered at the hand of her mother, and yes, she recounts the admittedly difficult to read sexual degradation she suffered at the hand of one of the teachers, Vishnu. Yet she rises above it, and by the end of the book is still adamant about not condemning, but rather forgiving, those who have mistreated her throughout her life.
Of course, it took a bit of time to get there. There is no absence of emotion in the book, although all of the pain and suffering, because it is told in retrospect, is softened by the reminder that present-day Linnell has processed and accepted her trauma.
Although the prose of “The Burn Zone” itself is not exceptionally poetic, the rawness of the honesty presented in these pages is almost lyrical, with Linnell’s spellbinding inner voice shining through at every corner with observations about life that seem to voice what all of us are already thinking, but are too afraid to say for ourselves. Her bravery in the face of having her world fall apart forces readers to put their own troubles into perspective, humbled by her resilience and determination to make the best out of every situation — even those that seem like they will never stop plaguing you.
It’s not the easiest book to read. Even if Linnell has effectively healed by the end of the memoir, it can still be incredibly difficult to get through the parts where she recounts the most brutal things said and done to her by her mother and teachers.
But if readers are willing to do the emotional labor alongside Linnell, sticking with her story and believing in her even when it starts to feel like the only possible ending is a bad one, then the journey is more than worth it.
This is more than just a memoir about a woman’s experience in a cult — it’s a story that everyone can benefit from, both spiritually and mentally. It’s the story of learning to successfully empower yourself again after receiving blow after blow from life. And, at the end of the day, that’s something for which we are all striving. Sure, not all readers will be able to relate to the specifics of what Linnell went through as the member of a cult, such as burning all of her worldly possessions and cutting all ties to her previous life. But that doesn’t matter because the core message of the book is ultimately universal; what Linnell strives to do is craft a genuine, candid narrative about learning to love yourself.
Everyone needs a little bit of that now and then.