Author Renee Linnell was a surfer and model seeking change in her life when she first encountered the University of Mysticism, a cult that would encourage her to burn all her worldly possessions and cut off her friends and family – ultimately costing her $500,000 (£392,000) plus years of therapy. In this excerpt from her upcoming memoir The Burn Zone (October 2018; She Writes Press), Linnell reflects on why it takes years for someone under a charismatic teacher’s influence to see they’re in a cult. This article originally appeared on VICE Canada
It happens so slowly. So insidiously. At first it is like winning the lottery: You think you’ve finally found someone who understands you, someone who seems like she knows what you’ve been looking for. She sees the true you, the bigger you, the you hidden inside, the you no one else can see, the you that was meant for greatness. You sit in front of this person, and you feel so much Light; you feel God.
She showers you with love and attention, builds you up. Suddenly, you are doing things you never knew you could. You are growing and expanding. You meet like-minded people. You have a purpose, a guide. Finally, for the first time, you belong.
You’re filled with new energy. Life takes on a magical quality. Every day is a new adventure. You want to tell everyone about your new Teacher, about your new friends. Many of them react strangely, not the way you had imagined they would. They react with fear, doubt, and worry.
They just don’t understand, you tell yourself. They’re not wise enough to see, you say inside your mind. They’re asleep, you whisper to yourself.
You continue your love affair with this new group, with this new Teacher. You spend more and more of your time following the teachings, more and more time with the other group members. Your life is changing in fantastic ways and you soon find yourself not wanting to be with the old friends who don’t understand this new you. You feel more comfortable with the other group members. You feel best when you’re with your Teacher, the one person who truly gets you.
Your life slowly becomes filled with these new activities. There may be a long meditation practice to follow each morning, new tasks to do, books to read, movies to watch. You find yourself going on “field trips” with the group, outings with the Teacher. You stop returning calls from your old friends. Your family starts to annoy you; they ask too many questions and seem too skeptical. Your Teacher tells you that your family and your old friends don’t want you to change. They want you to stay small; maybe it’s best if you distance yourself from them so they don’t hold you back. You agree. Your family has always seen you a certain way; they don’t know this new you. Your old friends seem annoyed that you’re different. It’s easier just to avoid them. You change your phone number and your email address, so your old friends can no longer find you. Slowly, but surely, everything that made you you gets dropped from your life. In your excited attempt to grow and try new things, you allow all your old favorite friends and activities to fade away. Before you know it, the group is your whole life. No one outside of it understands.
And then the Teacher starts showing you your ego, the ways you need to change. Slowly but surely, she points out all your flaws.
“Only a true Teacher will be this honest,” the guru says.
The flaws get pointed out one by one. The self-doubt starts to set in. Next comes “the occult” or some sort of dark force, maybe “the devil.” Anytime your intuition tells you to run, to get away from the Teacher, to get away from the group, you’re told it is occult forces trying to knock you off the path, or it’s the devil trying to make you fall. You start to see everyone outside the group as the enemy. Friends and family become the enemy. You believe “they want to knock you off the path,” “they don’t understand,” or “they are trying to steal your energy.”
By this point, your entire foundation is gone, your entire sense of self is gone, your intuition is gone, your life is gone. And you cling desperately to the only thing you now trust: your guru.