Nxivm Trial: Cult Leader Forced Women to Starve Themselves to Be ‘Wraith Thin,’ Witness Said

A former senior member of the group testified that the leader, Keith Raniere, wanted to “break” female members like Allison Mack, the actress.

The New York Times/May 13, 2019

By Colin Moynihan

In late 2015, Mark Vicente, then a senior member of the cultlike group Nxivm, became disturbed about the physical deterioration of some women in the organization, including the actress Allison Mack.

“I began to see a lot of the women just become wraith thin,” he said on Monday, while testifying in the racketeering and sex trafficking trial of Nxivm’s leader, Keith Raniere. “It began to look like their skin was translucent.”

Mr. Vicente, who said that he believed that a long standing concern over calories, weight and appearance had led some women in Nxivm to cultivate a “skeletal” appearance, testified that he approached Mr. Raniere to air his fears, saying that Ms. Mack seemed “broken.”

The response Mr. Vicente remembered was striking; Mr. Raniere told him: “Well, I’m trying to break her.”

On the stand on Monday for his second day of testimony, Mr. Vicente, a filmmaker from Los Angeles who spent more than a decade in Nxivm, described a near fixation among members on body image, a toxic view of women that he said was fostered by Mr. Raniere’s teachings and what he termed “erratic” behavior by Ms. Mack, also a senior figure within the group.

He also testified that Mr. Raniere, who was known as Vanguard, had sexual relationships with more than 20 women within Nxivm.

Mr. Raniere, 58, co-founded Nxivm (pronounced Nex-e-um) in the 1990s as a self-help organization. About 16,000 people took Nxivm courses, with some paying tens of thousands of dollars.

He is now on trial in Federal District Court in Brooklyn, facing charges of racketeering conspiracy, identity theft, extortion, forced labor, money laundering, wire fraud and sex trafficking.

Over the last several weeks, five women who were charged as his co-defendants, including Ms. Mack, pleaded guilty. Prosecutors have told jurors in the case that Mr. Raniere claimed to be a guru but was actually a charlatan who used Nxivm as a vehicle to control women.

Former members have said that Mr. Raniere encouraged female followers to nearly starve themselves so that they might achieve the sort of physique he found most appealing.

In court on Monday, Mr. Vicente said that one group within Nxivm, which included men and women and was called Society of Protectors Complete, promoted what he called “formalized misogyny.”

He said that women within that group were given mantras to repeat, were “teased” over their clothing and made to hold weights for long periods. One woman, Clare Bronfman, the Seagram’s liquor heiress, was given a jockstrap, Mr. Vicente said, as a sign that she was too assertive. Mr. Vicente said that the sessions were informed by the belief, encouraged by Mr. Raniere, that men are the “arbitrators of reality” while women are “coddled” and “less than human.”

“They became shells of themselves,” he said of the women in those meetings. “They almost looked like they were beaten into submission.”

Mr. Raniere also sought out romantic and sexual relationships with women in Nxivm, Mr. Vicente said. He said he had witnessed moments of tenderness between Mr. Raniere and female members, including Ms. Mack.

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Mr. Vicente said that Ms. Mack, who had a starring role in the television series “Smallville,” appeared to rise quickly through the Nxivm hierarchy, perhaps because of a close relationship with Mr. Raniere.

She moved from her home in Brooklyn to the town near Albany where Nxivm was based, Mr. Vicente said. There, he said, she became a central member of several subgroups, including a media criticism group known as the Knife of Aristotle, a women’s group called Jness and an acting group called the Source.

What Mr. Vicente described as “a gaggle” of young women, including India Oxenberg, the daughter of the actress Catherine Oxenberg, coalesced around Ms. Mack.

“She became enamored of Allison Mack,” Mr. Vicente said of Ms. Oxenberg.

He testified that he worried about Ms. Mack’s stability and did not think she should be acting as a mentor to younger women. But when he brought those worries to Mr. Raniere, he said he was told by him that it was “not really my concern.”

Mr. Vicente said he sent a letter in 2016 to several senior Nxivm members, including Mr. Raniere, that outlined some of the things about the group that troubled him.

Testifying on Monday, Mr. Vicente said that he had objected that people in Nxivm were being treated in what he called a demeaning fashion and that many members considered Mr. Raniere an “oracle.”

He said he also warned that the group was “like a cloistered religion cut off from the rest of the world.”

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