A woman who was looking for a way to pay off her student debt and support herself financially ended up being indoctrinated into a pyramid scheme for five years.
Brenna Kincaid, from Boston, America, ended up joining a multi-level marketing scheme (MLM) when she was 22 and has now revealed the cult-like tactics they used to manipulate her and keep her entrapped.
She recalls being gaslit, sleep deprived and lied to when she was in the group.
Then when she tried to leave to get her freedom back, the 28-year-old said she was hypnotised to put her "back in line".
“Looking back at some of the things people did that were edified and normalised is absolutely shocking,” Brenna told the Daily Star.
“I had a friend whose boyfriend, now husband, was encouraged to sell his blood to afford to buy more product so that he could meet their quota, which he did. One woman was having contractions at a business function trying to prove her loyalty to the business.”
MLMs are a contentious sales approach in which the company's revenue is produced from a non-salaried workforce selling the company's products, while the participants' earnings are derived from a pyramid-shaped commission scheme.
Most people make little to no money as most of the time it turns out to be an illegal pyramid scheme that steals everything they invest and leaves them deeply in debt.
Cult devotion can creep up on people like a thief in the night, infiltrating every aspect of their lives until their sense of reality is perverted and they begin to put the cult ahead of themselves.
The BITE model that Brenna refers to was first described in Dr. Steven Hassan's book Combating Cult Mind Control.
This method is a way of describing the various mind control techniques used by cults to obtain and maintain influence over people and their thoughts.
The shocking ways people showed their loyalty didn’t end there, as some would defy doctor’s orders when they were supposed to be on bed rest.
“They would go to major functions at a huge stadium where there would be 10,000 people there and you basically wouldn’t sleep for 72 hours which I now realise is part of the BITE model, it’s sleep deprivation and I think that’s one of their major brainwashing tactics,” Brenna explained.
“If you can get someone to the point of exhaustion and they haven’t slept for 72 hours you can say anything and it’ll seep into their subconscious and control you.”
Behaviour control, information control, thought control and emotional control are the four basic strategies they use to establish complete control over a person and effectively strip them of their free will.
“Now looking back I realise how unethical the recruitment strategy is. They said a lot of things that were just completely untrue,” she said.
Brenna was particularly drawn in by the financial promises that higher-ups in the pyramid scheme made her.
She was told that if she worked hard and did everything she was told, at the end of five years she would net $1.2million (£900,534).
“That definitely drew me in and I didn’t come anywhere close to that. I was in the top 0.003% in the industry and I didn’t even come close to hitting that number, I think I netted maybe $50,000 (£37,522) in fivish years,” the 28-year-old explained.
“They also said it was part-time work and that wasn’t the case at all. When I left, I was working anywhere from 40 to 60 hours a week. Obviously, that’s all unpaid, it’s commission-based. You’re really going backwards most of the time because you’re working for free.”
While Brenna says she doesn’t see herself as a victim, she thinks she was the perfect target for them to prey on.
After her dad died when she was 18 she became financially independent. She also had thousands of dollars in student loans after going to a school in Upstate New York.
“I was living in Boston by myself, I didn’t know anyone here and was working a lot at my full-time job and still barely making ends meet,” she explained.
“So when this seemingly really successful mentorship business opportunity presents itself and you’re 22, struggling financially, trying to find your place in the world and looking for guidance, you fall into this perfect trap."
Brenna realised she was in a cult after she watched The Vow, an American true-crime documentary series that focuses on NXIVM and its leader Keith Raniere.
“That was the ‘ah-ha’ moment. I don’t think most people would deny that NXIVM is a cult so when I was watching The Vow … it felt like I was watching my life unfold on this documentary,” she explained.
“I had to watch it in six different parts because it was so overwhelming, it was like exposure therapy.”
Members of the pyramid scheme would even bring up the idea that it was actually a cult.
Brenna added: “They’d say: ‘People think we’re a cult but they just don’t understand that this is what it takes to be successful. People call things a cult when people are hard-working.’ They had an answer for everything.”
The 28-year-old soon started asking questions she wasn’t supposed to and especially started having doubts when the group were being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission.
When the group leaders realised that Brenna’s opinion of the company was changing, they sent her to a hypnotist.
“They say they sent me there for my confidence but I think we all know why they sent me there, [it was] to get me back in line,” she explained.
“But I ended up building a very good relationship with him and he started to chip away at what I thought the group was and opened my mind to other ways to be successful.
“After a while, you start to believe that this group is the only way to achieve financial independence, this is the only way to achieve freedom. I really internalised that and thought that this was the only way.
“He started opening up my mind a little bit more and then I sought out a cult specialist and started seeing her secretly and seeing him secretly as well towards the end because he was definitely not in support of what they were doing.”
Brenna started trying to exit the pyramid scheme in April of this year, which she said was extremely difficult to do.
“They’re so good at convincing you that you’re having a moment, you’re going crazy, you’re letting the outside influence you, you’re letting negativity in,” she said.
“For five years I never Googled anything because they’d tell you not to. So when I did decide to start googling I found all of these things and I was like ‘Oh my gosh this has been on the internet the entire time?’ Information control is also in the BITE model.
“When I left I think the most shocking thing was that they started referring to me as Judas from the Bible and that I had demonic spirits.”
When Brenna was in the throes of the group she would be told that she’s doing God’s work and that God wanted her to build the business.
She and other members were also told that they had to bring in three names and numbers each day to bring into the business.
“When I left people would be accusing me of not being Christian anymore and I was like ‘No I’m leaving this because this is actually hurting people,’" she explained.
Brenna continued: “They sent me a letter from their lawyers about my social media telling me that they would take any means necessary to protect their business, which is how they put it.
“There is no doubt in my mind that they sent people to my Instagram and TikTok to pretend that they’re in it and they want to leave.
“They try to trap me into saying something so that they can get me with a lawsuit which is tiring because you want to be there for people but you realise they’re not a real person.”