Oct 5, 2018

Why I gave up everything and joined a New Age cult

Larry Getlen
New York Post
October 2, 2018

Renee Linnell stood with a friend on the beach near her Los Angeles home, built a fire, and burned everything she owned. Her brand-new Armani leather jacket, her parents' wedding album, even her bed — everything went into the fire.

She did this because a woman named Lakshmi, whom Linnell paid $500 a month for such guidance, had told her to do so. She did whatever Lakshmi instructed, however it might destroy her life.

"The Burn Zone" (She Writes Press) is Linnell's wrenching tale of falling under the sway of two "gurus" named Lakshmi and Vishnu (referred to in the book by their first names only), taking much of Linnell's money and years of her life in the process.

Linnell was a 33-year-old ballroom and tango dancer when she attended a meditation seminar called University of Mysticism in June 2006.

Describing herself as someone who'd been searching for purpose all her life, Linnell found what she was looking for in Lakshmi, the seminar leader, a "young woman" in "an expensive black business suit" who "oozed confidence" and "radiated power."

As soon as Linnell began to meditate with Lakshmi, her world changed.

"Instantly, I felt energy uncoil at the base of my spine and shoot up through the top of my head," Linnell writes. "Then everything went white and I disappeared; the room disappeared; and I was being held in the hands of God. I was Home. My search was over."

Linnell became a Lakshmi regular. The philosophy was basically the cult version of the prosperity gospel, the idea that meditating and clearing out the things that disturb your life will help clear your mind, paving the way for success and money.

After volunteering to help with an event, Linnell received a phone call from Lakshmi's partner, Vishnu, a muscular man in his 40s who was Lakshmi's head of security.

"He explained that Lakshmi was an Enlightened Being," Linnell writes, "and that she did not need anything from anybody. He said that my volunteering to help her would really be her helping me."

Linnell, who had read about performing service in the quest for enlightenment, "immediately accepted this as Truth."

While students couldn't talk with Lakshmi one-on-one in class, volunteers were allowed to ask one question by letter. Linnell, feeling ready for a professional change, asked for advice.

Lakshmi told her to retire from dancing and become a computer programmer.

"In ancient times, she explained, monks would stare at mandalas, memorizing the intricate patterns in order to sharpen their minds," Linnell writes. "Computer programming, she told me, was the modern-day version of this."

Linnell took a programming course and found it frustrating, but got an A.

Three months into her classes, Lakshmi announced a "Power Trip" to Egypt that would cost $15,000 — $5,000 for the trip and $10,000 for an "empowerment fee" for Lakshmi. "Money is energy," Vishnu said.

They took such trips all over the world, each with their own supposed spiritual significance: The jaunt to Egypt was meant to pass through a spiritual portal that could be reached only through the Great Pyramids.

In time, Lakshmi's instructions for living became stricter. In addition to burning all their things, Lakshmi told her students to delete all photos from their lives and to never be photographed, never reveal their birthdays to anyone and never have visitors in their homes — or, if they do, to rearrange the furniture immediately after so that "visitors could not access our homes in their minds." All of this, Lakshmi said, was because if people were inaccessible, then others could not "pull on us with their minds."

Soon, Lakshmi gave Linnell the honor of helping her plan and run her events — basically, enlisting her to work for free whenever Lakshmi needed anything, to the point where Linnell quit the computer classes Lakshmi had implored her to take so she could always be available.

Linnell loved Lakshmi's classes so much that she introduced three of her longtime friends to them, and all three moved to California to get more involved. But Vishnu told Linnell she needed to remove them from her life.

Vishnu's concerns in this area, though, weren't just for Linnell's sake.

"Now that you are so close to Lakshmi and me," he said, "your energy affects us. You don't want to harm us with old energy, do you?"

Vishnu began calling Linnell more often and sometimes flirted, which made Linnell nervous. Aside from her holding the pair in high esteem, it was assumed among the students that Lakshmi and Vishnu were a couple.

One day at class, Lakshmi pulled Linnell aside and asked that she help run the group. Linnell, honored, accepted, but then Vishnu told her this would mean her time would no longer be her own.

She was to be on call for him 24/7 to do "anything and everything that needs to be done," and she could no longer spend time with other group members.

With Lakshmi and Vishnu's encouragement, 16 months into being their "student," Linnell cut her friends out of her life, wiped herself off the Internet and dedicated her life to working, for free, for Lakshmi and Vishnu.

Her every waking moment was now spent with Vishnu, who soon deepened the relationship when he grabbed her, "opened his mouth wide, and jammed his tongue as far down my throat as it would go."

Linnell assumed this had been approved by Lakshmi.

These horrible make-out sessions went on for months. Linnell was torn, flipping between finding him and his kisses repulsive, and almost falling in love, as the lines between Lakshmi — who she now believed was "an incarnation of God" — Vishnu and Linnell, and between spirituality and love, broke down for her.

Soon after this, Vishnu told her to get blood work done, including a full array of STD tests, and to fax him the results, and also to get on birth control. She did all this and they slept together soon after. While this became a regular thing, she found she couldn't sleep with him without crying.

"I wanted to love him," she writes. "I wanted to be insanely attracted to him, but I simply wasn't."

In the months to come, as their relationship and her virtual enslavement deepened, she cycled constantly between love and disgust.

Lakshmi, who had not known about Vishnu and Linnell after all, found out soon after, and was devastated. But she told Linnell it was her "Divine task" to be Vishnu's consort, and proclaimed the three of them "a family." Lakshmi would cry every day over Vishnu's betrayal, yet encouraged Linnell to continue sleeping with him.

Linnell was now the personal servant for both of them. She cooked and cleaned for them, ran their business and had sex with Vishnu whenever he wanted. And not only wasn't she being paid, but she was still paying them tuition for classes, which was now up to $1,200 per month.

When they invited her over for Thanksgiving, a request she couldn't refuse, she had to do all the shopping and cooking. But when Linnell, already pressed, didn't have time to track down extra items for Lakshmi, the guru went off on her, screaming, "Renee, it's not all about you!"

Linnell began feeling bitter and angry toward Lakshmi, especially after visiting her home, which was packed with things from throughout Lakshmi's life. Linnell had burned everything she owned, destroyed cherished possessions and memories, only to discover that Lakshmi didn't practice what she preached.

Before long, Lakshmi was insulting her in front of the class, calling her out for being too seductive and proclaiming her a witch and a sorceress.

On the rare occasions Linnell stood up for herself, they made her regret it. Once, after telling Vishnu she couldn't sleep with him anymore, he ignored her for days, then ordered her to write out the three-page "Code of the Samurai" 1,080 times, or 3,420 pages.

"It took weeks, writing every day until my hand cramped," she writes, "but I f–king did it."

Linnell made excuses for the abusive behavior, telling herself that her teacher was so pure, she simply couldn't take the pressure of being in the world.

After Lakshmi refused to speak to her for more than a year, she called Linnell out of the blue one day in August 2010 and said she had a new task for her. She ordered her to quit a job she had previously asked her to find, say goodbye for good to everyone in the class, earn an MBA from a prestigious program she was to start by January and then form a company that earned $10 million a year in pretax profit.

Linnell complied as best she could. She abandoned her life within 48 hours, moved east and began visiting schools, landing in New York.

It took her three more years, therapy and a certified letter from the couple asking her not to come to any more of their events before she finally realized she had been in a cult. She has had no encounters or contact with them since receiving their letter, although she has heard rumors the cult disbanded. She has no interest in learning more or ever having any contact with them again.

Linnell subsequently earned an MBA from NYU, and moved to Colorado five years ago. She reconnected with her old friends and has worked to balance her anger at the couple with the positive elements of their teachings.

From the outside, Linnell's predicament seems ludicrous. Why would an otherwise smart person fall for this?

"It happens so slowly. So insidiously," she writes. "At first, it's like winning the lottery. You think you've finally found someone who understands you . . . the you that was meant for greatness."

Being seen like this, writes Linnell, felt like a religious experience. Energized by all the attention, she went on to meet like-minded people, feeling a new sense of belonging. When she tried to tell people "on the outside" about her new life, they would react with judgment and concern — only sharpening her sense of isolation.

Even today, Linnell can't completely reject her cult experience.

"I am still trying to figure out how to undo the lingering paranoia left in my mind by their incessant teachings on the occult," she writes. "But I do know that Lakshmi did push me toward freedom. She did teach me to grow up. She did help me to expand my life in magnificent ways."


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