If you’re anything like me, you find the psychology of cults very interesting. I cannot tell you the amount of hours I have devoted to reading about Heaven’s Gate, Scientology, Children of God, and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Growing up, I had friends who were in a cult and I think that probably sparked the fascination I have with them today.
One thing I’ve never really considered, though, is how somebody gets lured into a cult. I mean, I’ve never really thought about it. And I’ve never really thought about the types of people who find themselves in cults.
I had to stop and evaluate these things before I read The Burn Zone: a Memoir by Renee Linnell. I had to figure out my own preconceptions about cult life before I read this memoir. I felt it would help me focus my reading. What I realized is if you were to ask me what kind of person falls into a cult, I’d tell you somebody who was weak, stupid, or both.
But ten seconds with Linnell’s memoir taught me otherwise.
After seven years of faithfully following her spiritual teacher, Renee Linnell finally realized she was in a cult and had been severely brainwashed. But how did that happen to someone like her? She had graduated magna cum laude with a double degree. She had traveled to nearly fifty countries alone before she turned thirty-five. She was a surf model and a professional Argentine tango dancer. She had started five different companies and had an MBA from NYU. How could someone like her end up brainwashed and in a cult?
The Burn Zone is an exploration of how we give up our power―how what started out as a need to heal from the loss of her parents and to understand the big questions in life could leave a young woman fighting for her sanity and her sense of self. In the years following her departure from the cult, Linnell struggled to reclaim herself, to stand in her truth, and to rebuild her life. And eventually, after battling depression and isolation, she found a way to come out the other side stronger than ever. Part inspirational story, part cautionary tale, this is a memoir for spiritual seekers and those who feel lost in a world that makes them feel less than perfect.
When I was contacted about reading and reviewing this book, I jumped at the opportunity. This rang all of my bells. I was so ready for this book. I waited in anticipation for its arrival to my mailbox.
When I opened it and began reading, I realized I was not ready at all. I was not ready for how real and raw Linnell was going to be. I was not ready for the amount of heartache that was going to be in this book. I was not prepared for Linnell’s skill as a writer, either. What I’m telling you is there was no way to prepare me for what was in this book.
Dr. Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
If Dr. Angelou is any judge (and she is) then I cannot imagine Linnell’s agony as she wrote this story. Recently the hosts of my favorite podcast announced they were writing a memoir. They mentioned how painful it was to dig up old wounds and to explore them again. My main takeaway from this book and Linnell as a writer is how incredibly strong and brilliant she is.
In most book reviews, I tell you about the plot of the book. I tell you about characters and plot devices. But The Burn Zone is a memoir, and therefore not my story to tell. Instead, I will talk about the journey this book took me on. And what a journey it was.
The Burn Zone spoke directly to my heart. Linnell is open about the pain and struggles of her past that are so familiar to me, they could very well have been my own problems. From the preface through the entire book, Linnell comments on the human condition and our overwhelming need to be accepted and to have a purpose.
She opens with a Chinese folktale that was so beautiful, I stopped reading to share it with my friends. I had never heard this tale before and I had to share it immediately. It was all about finding acceptance. This little tale set the tone for the entire book. Her preface ends with a call to action, just to make sure she drives her point home.
Embrace your skeletons in the closet. Pull them out and paint them pink. Celebrate them. Your skeletons are probably the most interesting part about you. Your difference is your destiny.
As a narrative, The Burn Zone is presented in a very interesting way. The story is woven in a broken timeline. It alternates between telling the story of how Linnell was lured into the cult, and stories from the time before. I love this style of narrative in fiction and nonfiction. I’m attracted to a non-linear timeline. Every time one of the vignettes ended, I wanted to know more about what I’d just read, but I was also intrigued by the new story that came next. It kept me turning page after page to read everything she had written.
The writing of this book is fantastic. It’s so visual and descriptive; I really felt as if I were there, experiencing everything through my own eyes. From descriptions of beautiful, blue, dolphin-filled waters to pink-purple deserts, I was transported across the world with Linnell. I found myself–on more than one occasion–envious of Linnell’s life. I was never able to travel like she had. I was never afforded the same amazing opportunities of surfing and dancing and life. If she were to write a travel memoir of just the places she’d visited, I’d swallow it whole.
Reading her experiences in the cult, however, was a much different experience. I felt my heart ache. I more than once told her to stop what she was doing. I wrote in the margins notes about the ways that brain washers function. It was all too real. It was a slow fade and, as a third-party observer easy to track. But I spent my time in this book, trying to put myself in her shoes. I tried to understand how this could happen to somebody so brilliant and strong. Not because I thought I was different, but because I know I’m exactly the same.
All anybody wants in this life is to belong. All anybody wants is to be accepted and valued. And in times when I hurt the most, and I can think of a few, it would have been just as easy for my to slip away and lose myself to somebody else’s identity, just to feel accepted and welcome. I wonder if my narrative would have been much different if I were in her shoes.
I began to realize my story had worth.
This truly is–as the jacket copy states–a story of empowerment and a cautionary tale. This is an important story. This is a strong story. This is a story of how easy it is to lose yourself entirely in an attempt to find yourself. But more importantly, this is Renee Linnell’s story. This is the story of one woman who lived through hell and came out on the other side, broken down and rebuilt by flames.
The Burn Zone: a Memoir is an incredible, heavy, wonderful book. It is as much commentary on the human condition as it is a personal, heartbreaking story. I highly recommend it to anybody interested in psychology, survivor stories, and stories of strong, empowered women. It goes on sale everywhere October 9. Pre-order your copy now!
The Plucky Reader
About the Author:
Renee Linnell is a serial entrepreneur who has founded and cofounded five companies and has an Executive Masters in Business Administration from New York University. Currently she is working on starting a publishing company to give people from diverse walks of life an opportunity to tell their stories. She divides her time between Colorado and Southern California.