NXIVM: What you need to know

The Media Project/June 2018

By Kara Bettis

The bizarre, cultish group that made headlines for recruiting women to be “slaves” and “masters” has closed after its leader, Keith Raniere, was denied bail after appealing in court.

Raniere’s cult, NXIVM (pronounced “Nexium”), caught the public’s attention last fall when the New York Times published a detailed exposé that included graphic details about branding of female followers, coerced sexual acts and blackmail. To join the group, women provided compromising materials in order to prove their dedication, the Times reported.

Most notably, ‘Smallville’ actress Allison Mack, 35, made headlines for her arrest and facing charges of human trafficking due to involvement and leadership in the organization.

NXIVM is a 20-year-old group, Albany-based group with affiliates in Canada and Mexico.  Marketed as a self-help organization, NXIVM has reached thousands of people. Their website describes their goal as “a community guided by humanitarian principles that seek to empower people and answer important questions about what it means to be human.” Within NXIVM, Raniere created a society called “DOS”—an acronym based on a Latin phrase that loosely translates to “Lord/Master of obedient female companions”––according to prosecutors.

“It is with deep sadness that we inform you we are suspending all NXIVM/ESP enrollment, curriculum and events until further notice,” a note on the website’s homepage reads.

The society had been controversial for years, featured in a 2003 Forbes piece and a series published by the Albany Times Union in 2012. A published statement on NXIVM’s website defends 57-year-old Raniere from the latest accusations, citing cooperation “with the authorities to demonstrate his innocence and true character.”

Federal prosecutors felt otherwise. “As alleged in the indictment, Allison Mack recruited women to join what was purported to be a female mentorship group that was, in fact, created and led by Keith Raniere,” said United States Attorney Richard Donoghue, according to CBS New York. “The victims were then exploited, both sexually and for their labor, to the defendants’ benefit.”

The F.B.I cited that Mack was Raniere’s personal slave, with collateral including a contract claiming her future children would be legally his, according to insights by another in-depth profile by New York Times Magazine published in late May.

Manipulation and brainwashing are common factors in both cults and human trafficking. Human trafficking comes in many forms, said anti-trafficking activist Raleigh Sadler, founder and executive director of the New York-based nonprofit Let My People Go.

“This case is a stark reminder that both victims and victimizers are hidden in plain sight,” he said. “Like most traffickers, Raniere and his compatriots offered security and belonging to those in need of it, yet it came with a cost.”

Raniere and other “masters” in the cult used emotional and physical manipulation like branding as “a reminder that each member had devolved from a person to a possession of the sex cult,” Sadler said. “Rather than delivering on the promises of empowerment, NXIVM disempowered those who fell in line.”

Cult Education Institute director Rick Ross has researched NXIVM for 15 years, including interventions to help people leave NXIVM. While he says that NXIVM is not a religion, but rather a for-profit, privately owned company, he believes that it still qualifies as a “destructive cult” that shows signs of cult-like behavior.

“Keith Raniere is an object of worship and exercises dictatorial control over NXIVM members,” he said. “In my opinion, Raniere uses coercive persuasion and influence techniques such as NLP, hypnosis, sleep deprivation, dietary control and other elements associated with thought reform, to gain undue influence over NXIVM members.”

Destructive cults are not defined by belief, but behavior and structures of authority, he said. It can be based upon spiritual beliefs, religion, therapy, training seminars, multi-level marketing, martial arts, or even exercise.

Mack had admitted to Phil Morris on his “Living the Dream” podcast in 2015 that before meeting Raniere, she was facing a quarter-life crisis at the age of 25 after scoring a successful gig with Smallville but not finding meaning in that achievement. “Nothing in the material world was going to give me any sort of satisfaction that I possessed or was looking for,” she told Morris. “That’s when I really started to go and try and figure out, maybe there’s a meaning or a purpose in life that doesn't have anything to do with achievement or success or external gratification.”

She enthusiastically discussed the discovery of her “real life’s work” and her introduction to Raniere, saying she was drawn to the enlightenment he promised.After hearing about him from a friend,“I was like, ‘That sounds pretty cool,’” she said. “I trusted my friend, I took one of his workshops and I really was moved by the perspective that I gained... I started to see what I was missing––that I thought I would get from success––was a joyful inner world.”

Sarah Edmonson, another survivor who has gone public, told VICE that she had a lot of red flags during her admission into NXIVM, most of which she dismissed or explained away.

“The best metaphor I can use to explain it is the frog and the pot of water,” she said. “It happened in very incremental stages, with more and more commitment and more on the line, and more coercion and blackmail. A lot of people say you could just run out, you could leave. I didn't feel like that was an option at the time.”

Both Mack and Raniere are due for trial October 1. They face sex trafficking and forced labor conspiracy charges and could each receive a minimum of 15 years behind bars.

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