Sep 23, 2019

The Cult That Sold #Empowerment

NXIVM turned women into slaves, branded members with its leader's initials, and blackmailed victims into submission. It was also…on Instagram? This is what a cult looks like in 2019.

Amanda Ottaway
September 23, 2019

Over two days in May 2019, the story of Sylvie’s extraordinary trauma unfurled like smog from the witness stand and enveloped a packed, chilly courtroom in Brooklyn, as the cult leader she said abused her sat at the defense table flanked by U.S. marshals and a cadre of lawyers.

Sylvie,* now 32, told a federal jury that a few years earlier she had been given an “assignment” that involved Keith Raniere, 59, the highest-ranking member of purported self-help group NXIVM. Sylvie said her friend and slave master Monica Duran gave the instruction.

“She said that I needed to ask him to take my picture, and [said] to go along with whatever else was going to happen in that meeting,” Sylvie said. “But she didn't tell me what.”

So Sylvie walked alone to meet Raniere, who, she told the court, led her to a bed with dirty white sheets and told her to take her clothes off.

“I laid back on the bed and then he, I guess you call it, went down on me,” Sylvie said. “And I just remember it…I felt like it was going…I just remember I felt like it was going on for a really long time…. I think eventually my body…I don’t know, because I don’t think I’ve ever had an orgasm before this, but it felt almost like I had an out-of-body fit where I completely lost control of my body, and then after that it stopped.”

“Did you want to be participating in that?” asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Moira Penza, one of the four prosecutors on Raniere’s case.

“No,” said Sylvie.

“Why did you do it?”

“Because I thought that was what I was tasked to do,” Sylvie said. “I understood that was a command from my master, and that was part of my role as a slave in order to do what I was supposed to without getting into trouble.”

The image of the “cult girl” in the American consciousness seems to have been forged in the hippie culture of the 1960s and ’70s. Notions of drug-addled orgies and long-haired brainwashed lost girls still beguile us—but Raniere’s trial, and the women who testified at it, defied convention. Instead, witnesses like Sylvie presented as bright and driven, raised in a world that urged them to “lean in” and empower themselves.

Over six weeks, as the world eyed Raniere’s bizarre, salacious, and monumental trial, one question shouldered its way above the rest: How did this happen? What sinister psychological forces might induce a woman into sexual exploitation—or to pressure another woman to submit to it? Why would someone agree to turn over damaging information to be used as collateral, consume just 500 calories a day, submit to a branding ceremony in which she was held to a table like a sacrifice, and commit to being someone’s lifelong slave?

Raniere cofounded the so-called self-help group NXIVM (pronounced “nexium”) with Nancy Salzman in the 1990s after he shuttered an earlier venture that had run afoul of attorneys general in several states (the officials alleged it was a pyramid scheme). Within NXIVM, Raniere created “The Vow” or “DOS” in 2015. In Latin, the letters DOS are short for what roughly translates to “Lord/Master of the Obedient Female Companions,” a secretive women’s slave group within NXIVM that essentially operated as his harem. Women were branded with Raniere’s initials and held as slaves with extorted lifetime commitments. Some were coerced into having sex with Raniere.

Raniere, whom members called Vanguard, was the group’s omnipotent, elusive guru-leader, billing himself as one of the smartest people in the world. NXIVM’s Executive Success Programs curriculum promised to help people attain professional success as well as personal growth and fulfillment through his ethical teachings. An estimated 17,000 people—from Seagram liquor heiress Clare Bronfman and her sister, Sara, to Emiliano Salinas, the son of former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari—took NXIVM seminars, which cost several thousand dollars apiece.

According to prosecutors, members could earn “promotions” by taking more courses and recruiting others, multilevel marketing style. Once they reached a certain rank, they were eligible for “business opportunities” under the NXIVM umbrella, some of which could be lucrative in time. People were encouraged to move to the Albany suburbs, often married within the group, and rarely pursued social activities, health care, or other services outside of it.

In truth, NXIVM bore a closer resemblance to a multinational corporation than it did to a hippie end-times compound. At trial, witnesses like former NXIVM executive Mark Vicente described its structure as an umbrella over 60 or so other companies, with names like Society of Protectors for men and Jness (pronounced “jah-ness”) for women, owned by various Raniere associates. While the paperwork was seldom in his name, prosecutors maintain Raniere ran, created the content for, and had ultimate control over all corporate entities.

In March 2018 the jig was up. Raniere was arrested on federal racketeering, sex trafficking, forced labor, and other charges, about five months after former DOS slave Sarah Edmondson spoke to the New York Times about her experience, cauterized flesh and all. A series of indictments by the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of New York, the final brought in March 2019, charged six defendants with crimes that spanned from 2003 to 2018, for most of NXIVM’s existence.

Raniere was convicted at trial and is behind bars. All five codefendants—cofounder Nancy Salzman and her daughter, Lauren; Clare Bronfman; Smallville actress Allison Mack; and NXIVM bookkeeper Kathy Russell—pleaded guilty to various charges (Nancy Salzman: racketeering conspiracy; Lauren Salzman: racketeering, and racketeering conspiracy; Bronfman: conspiracy to conceal and harbor illegal aliens for financial gain, and fraudulent use of identification documents; Mack: racketeering, and racketeering conspiracy; Russell: visa fraud) before trial and are currently out on bail awaiting sentencing.

The Jness website is accented with pinks and purples and rendered in fonts and with graphics that would not look out of place on a bridal shower invitation. The program encourages members to use the hashtags “#WhatMakesAWoman?” and “#jnessing,” tapping into a social media lexicon its followers know well. (In fact, an Instagram account that appears to be associated with the group remains public.)

“Jness is a women’s movement that facilitates an ongoing exploration of what it means to be a woman,” the site claims. “Through open dialogue and development of friendships, Jness engages women from all over the world and allows them to discover the true essence of womanhood.”

Mack, who would later become the most infamous of eight “first-line masters” in the DOS slave group, posted a YouTube video in 2013 in which she gushed about working for Jness, calling it “the most satisfying and purposeful thing I’ve ever done.”

In truth, the Jness curriculum reflected deeply sexist views about women, witnesses testified. Participants were taught that women were irresponsible, if not narcissistic, self-absorbed, and inclined to cast themselves as the victim. A video of a Jness workshop played at trial, for example, showed Raniere codefendant Nancy Salzman lecturing a group of nodding women. “A lot of times the screaming of ‘abuse’ is abuse in itself,” Salzman tells the group. “There is some inconvenient thing happening, and they wish it were different, and they yell, ‘Abuse.’”

As a member of NXIVM, Sylvie was equivocal about Jness. She was still focused on her athletic pursuits and found the curriculum disorganized, even haphazard. But when she told Raniere this, he berated her and said she was coldhearted and that her children wouldn’t love her. Sylvie, chastened, went back for more. Such is a particular gospel of “empowered” feminism: a professional or personal obstacle is just a chance to #grow.

When Sylvie later heard about DOS, she saw it as another occasion to push herself. The group was billed to her as a secretive sorority within NXIVM, and it packaged itself as a women’s empowerment and mentorship group.

“I thought this was maybe, finally, going to be the thing that made me feel good about myself,” Sylvie said in court.

Cocooned in the group’s little world, members like Sylvie were torn down and then built back up in a kind of vacuum-sealed alternate universe, explains Janja Lalich, Ph.D., a California-based cult specialist and sociologist. Much like some elements of the wider wellness and diet industries, notes New York psychoanalyst Daniel Shaw, the group pointed out the women’s perceived flaws and then convinced them that it was worth several thousand dollars for a product—often a new NXIVM course—to fix the problem.

There’s a difference between harmless, if overpriced, serums and NXIVM’s extreme culture, but those distinctions can become hard to see. “We have all kinds of people that we use for sounding boards, and we get reality checks,” Lalich says. “All of a sudden you’re in Albany…and you’ve got all these pressures working on you all the time. And you’ve got nobody [to whom] you can say, ‘Do you think this is weird?’”

Bony and blond, Sylvie wore a baggy gray pantsuit and a pink scarf to court the day she testified about her experience. She was smart and well-spoken, with an accent from her native England, apologizing often to Assistant U.S. Attorney Moira Penza as she answered questions. Though she mostly remained composed, when she described how her father came upon naked photos of her that she’d handed over to NXIVM on a shared iCloud account, Sylvie cried so hard that U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis handed her tissues.

She’d grown up in a supportive environment, she said: “I normally describe it as a bit of an enchanted childhood.” She had a large, close-knit family and was raised outside Bristol, traveling and competing in horse jumping as a kid. A naturally gifted athlete, Sylvie left school at 16 to focus on her sport. After a bad accident on a horse that knocked out a front tooth, however, she lost some confidence. So she accepted a job in America with Clare Bronfman, a fixture in the international riding scene, hoping it would advance her career.

When Bronfman encouraged Sylvie to take NXIVM courses and, as Sylvie recalls, offered to foot the bill, she agreed, wanting to please her new boss.

The notion of cults, Shaw explains, and the stereotype that they are filled with “a bunch of weirdo hippie deadbeats,” has been shaped tremendously by Charles Manson and other coercive groups like his of the 1960s and 1970s. At the instruction of cult leader Manson, several male and female followers committed a string of brutal murders in 1969, feeding a narrative that people in cults were desperate, naive, and drug-addled.

But before Raniere’s trial, Lalich said in an interview she hoped it would show the public what she knows—that in the last few decades, cults have been “mainstreamed.” “Business cults, leadership, new age training—they’re rampant,” she said. After the trial, she reiterated: “Cults have so infiltrated into the business world. And NXIVM fits right into that.”

“People don’t want to think it can happen to them,” Lalich says. “So they want to denigrate the people it happens to—‘these crazy people.’ And in fact, that’s not at all who cults want.”

According to the testimonies of witnesses like Sylvie, DOS enlisted privileged, driven women with big dreams and lofty career goals and promised to help them succeed.

Over the next 13 years, Sylvie took more and more NXIVM classes, especially after Bronfman stopped riding horses. “I didn’t have another life path, honestly,” Sylvie testified. “I didn't have another career planned out; I didn't have anything else that I thought I was going to do with my life or that I had envisioned for myself.”

Over and over in the courses she took, members read aloud a mission statement written by Raniere. Sylvie testified she had repeated it “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times.”

“There are no ultimate victims,” it declares, “therefore, I will not choose to be a victim.”

Part of the allure of NXIVM—and essential to its disguise—was the extent to which it co-opted the language of start-ups and new age companies. It spoke in a tone at once vague and aggressive, using spirited jargon and invoking “hustle” culture while also extolling awareness and self-knowledge.

Shaw acknowledges that some groups do attract outliers or people we’d think of as lost, but “far more pervasive,” he explains, are those that attract “educated, middle-class people.”

Lalich agrees. “The [cult] population today is the career person,” she says. “Cults want productive people. They want A-type personalities, they want people who can perform for them, who can run their businesses, who can bring in their social network, who have money.”

Like most groups, NXIVM had “target populations,” Lalich explains. One was the wealthy and powerful—the Bronfman sisters, Salinas, Mexican media heiress Rosa Laura Junco. Another, likely in large part because Raniere liked diminutive, beautiful women, were those in the entertainment business. That’s how Raniere’s jury came to meet an actress named Nicole.

Now an upbeat 31, Nicole had brown hair and a turned-up nose. She’d grown up in a privileged home in Northern California. She testified that she’d started taking NXIVM courses at the suggestion of an ex-boyfriend, Canadian actor Mark Hildreth. (Hildreth’s representatives did not respond to requests for comment.)

NXIVM called its version of acting classes The Source. The courses were led by Allison Mack, whose decade-long tenure on the hit TV series Smallville exemplified the kind of professional success Nicole wanted. She admired Mack, whom she found passionate and hardworking.

“I didn’t just want to be an actress,” Nicole said in court. “I wanted to be great at it.” She borrowed money from her parents to pay $6,000 for the course, which she took in April 2015.

“I’m still paying them back,” Nicole said of her parents, laughing, and a couple in the courtroom who appeared to be her parents smiled.

Soon after, Nicole moved from Los Angeles to pursue acting in New York City. But she had a rough start. She ended up depressed—waiting tables and eventually teaching her own sparsely attended Source classes between auditions—and confessed to Mack in a February 2016 email that she felt suicidal. Mack quickly came to the city, met Nicole at the Ace Hotel, and pitched DOS as a women’s mentorship group.

It was an example of one of the many ways in which NXIVM borrowed from mainstream corporate feminism, with a particular reliance on the idea of empowerment. In word, DOS jumped on the empowerment bandwagon. In deed, it trampled it—but Nicole didn’t know that yet.

The DOS “women’s movement” purported to be an experience somewhat like big-ticket branded conferences—a handpicked group of badass ladies, united by a common desire to strengthen themselves and one another. If a businesswoman hit a rough patch in her career, she might use a professional connection to attend Fortune’s Most Powerful Women summit. When Nicole hit a rough patch in hers, through her professional connection, Mack, she found DOS.

But as with any initiation, first she had to pay up. Prosecutors explained that once a woman decided to join DOS, she had to turn over material to show she was serious and committed. This “collateral” included nude photos or videos and otherwise damaging, embarrassing information; it also sometimes included personal assets. If she defied her masters, she believed, the collateral would be released (or in the case of assets, seized).

Every week, in an eerie echo of the self-care phenomenon, DOS slaves had to do “acts of care” for their masters, such as buying them flowers or making them a list of artistic things to do in a city they visited. Selling the idea of the group as a sisterhood, one of the first-line masters bought a “sorority house” where DOS slaves were frequently posed together, naked, for what was called a "family photo." These photos were, of course, secretly sent to Raniere.

Prosecutors showed a list of names at trial that indicated DOS collected more than 50 slaves in eight different groups at its peak, one group for each first-line master. Slaves often didn’t know about one another. And at first, recruits were not made aware that Raniere was their ultimate master. Instead, the women were told members would get a “small tattoo” when in fact they’d be branded with a red-hot pen. Two lower-level DOS slaves who took the witness stand said they would not have joined if they knew a man was in fact the “grand master” of them all, and another said DOS was nothing like she expected.

But Nicole testified that Mack’s description of DOS at the Ace Hotel made sense. She was nervous about the lifetime commitment but excited to be Mack’s mentee.

“Compared to where I was at mentally,” she told the jury toward the end of the trial, “it sounded pretty good. I was really looking for something to be hopeful for and something to ground me into rebuilding my career.”

When Nicole started to learn truths about DOS—the branding, the "family photos," the sleeping with Raniere—she didn’t leave at first. The collateral was a factor, but so was the immense emotional and mental pressure from the group.

Los Angeles therapist Rachel Bernstein explains that feeling stuck is common. “I’ve talked to about a thousand former cult members who will say, ‘I feel like because I said yes to the first thing, I didn’t have a right to complain about what happened to me afterward,’” says Bernstein, who counts three former DOS members among her patients. As Nicole put it, “There were so many things that were added on later, once you were sealed into this situation.”

Mack, a codefendant with Raniere, pleaded guilty in April and did not testify at his trial. She and Duran, the woman who, per prosecutors, first inducted Sylvie into DOS, were two of eight first-line masters who served directly beneath Raniere. Two others were fellow codefendant Lauren Salzman and a woman named Camila, who was not charged and was once a child pornography victim of Raniere’s.

“We all have vulnerability points,” says Lalich. “And that’s not a mental illness. That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. But all of us throughout life have experiences or moments where we’re vulnerable. Which means we’re open and we’re a little raw. So if, at that moment, someone comes along and says, ‘Here, let me help you,’ you’re open to that. You’ll take that risk.”

Indeed, once Nicole committed to DOS, her third assignment from Mack was to “reach out to” Raniere, she said.

“How do you get the attention of the smartest man in the world?” Mack wrote to Nicole in a Facebook message on April 16, 2016.

Raniere played coy for a few days but, as Nicole remembered it on the stand, eventually responded to her emails. Then Mack challenged Nicole to tell Raniere she would do anything he asked.

Nicole did meet with Raniere, who blindfolded her and took her to an unknown location. “He told me to get on the table, and then he tied my wrists and my feet to different sides,” Nicole told the jury. She felt “cold…like, super vulnerable and exposed,” she said. She was hoping that was it, but “then somebody started going down on me.” Raniere started to speak, alerting Nicole, still blindfolded, to the fact that there was another person in the room: the person who was performing oral sex on her.

Afterward, Nicole told Raniere’s jury, “Vanguard” assured her she was fine. “He said he wanted me to know that nothing bad had just happened,” she explained. “I was a young woman who was allowed to be sexual.”

According to statements from his legal team, Raniere maintains his innocence, even in the wake of his sweeping conviction last June by a jury that deliberated for fewer than five hours after a six-week trial. His lawyers say they plan to appeal, that even “repulsive” evidence does not prove their client committed the specific crimes with which he was charged.

In her tearful guilty plea, Mack described how she too joined NXIVM at a time when she felt lost and had been looking for community.

“Through it all,” she said, “I believed that Keith Raniere’s intentions were to help people…. I was wrong.”

Her lawyers did not return requests for comment.

Lalich says she hopes Raniere’s trial will help alert people to the danger posed by cults, which capitalize on universal human emotions and experiences.

“We’re social animals,” says Lalich. “We all want to belong to something…. We’re looking for purpose and meaning. We all do that.”

Amanda Ottaway is a journalist in New York City who covered Keith Raniere’s trial for Courthouse News Service. She’s the author of The Rebounders: A Division I Basketball Journey.
*As alleged victims of various intimate crimes, Nicole, Sylvie, and several other witnesses and victims were identified at trial only by their first names or initials.

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