What Kind of Person Would Join a Sex Cult?

New York Magazine/April 24, 2019

By Katie Heaney

In October 2017, the New York Times published an exposé of a shadowy “self-help” organization called NXIVM (pronounced nex-ee-um), led by a man named Keith Raniere, who was known within the group as “Vanguard.” The group, which was formed in the late 1990s, claimed to provide members with self-fulfillment courses and professional workshops, but former members described an organization rife with psychological, sexual, and physical abuse — including, for some members, being branded with a two-inch symbol incorporating Raniere’s initials.

After the Times story was published, Raniere fled to Mexico, but was arrested and charged with sex trafficking by the FBI in March 2018. (A year later, he would also be charged with producing and possessing child pornography.) Over the next few months, more arrests, including those of known Hollywood actresses like Smallville’s Kristin Kreuk and Allison Mack, followed. In a May Times feature, Mack explained the workings of D.O.S., a secretive group of higher-level women within the organization who operated in master/slave relationships under the auspices of female empowerment. In the same interview, Mack also claimed responsibility for the branding idea.

In early April, Mack pled guilty to one count of racketeering conspiracy and one count of racketeering. She is expected to be sentenced this September. Raniere has maintained his innocence, but preparations for his trial are ongoing.

To learn more about NXIVM’s members, and its recruitment process, the Cut spoke to Janja Lalich, a professor of sociology at California State University in Chico, author of Take Back Your Life: Recovering From Cults and Abusive Relationships, and founder and director of the Cult Research and Information Center.

How does a group like NXIVM initially recruit people?

It’s important to remember how NXIVM represented itself with these courses that were going to improve your career, essentially, so they recruited a lot of people who were in the acting industry, and especially young women, so it became very, very popular. Thousands of people took their courses, which allowed people to think, This must be okay, my friends have done it, this actress is part of it, etc. We’re often motivated by peer pressure, so NXIVM recruiters were very, very good at what they did in luring these unsuspecting people into their courses. Of course some of the people gained some good skills from it, but as with most cult groups, the recruiters would then target certain people to bring further and further into the inner circle. Over time, a lot of these women in particular — though men were also involved — became very dedicated, and started going to upper-level sessions, following all the rules, believing that Raniere was this godlike person, and it kind of went on from there.

If you join because you want career skills, how do they get you to the place where you agree to be branded, like the women in D.O.S. were?The so-called secret sorority, D.O.S. targeted certain individuals to be part of that. They had already set up these slavelike relationships, and again, a lot has to do with peer pressure, and being convinced by someone you trust that this is the way to go. Peer pressure is often underestimated in terms of how much influence it has on people. So if you trusted Allison Mack, or Sarah Edmondson, who was one of the biggest recruiters — and who was one of the first people to blow the whistle, actually — you sort of went along with it, even though you might have had a lot of hesitation and trepidation. You were surrounded by people who were telling you, “This is what’s good for you, I’ve done this, it’s fine, come along.” And then of course eventually people were expected to turn over these items of collateral, which made it harder and harder to say no, because you were afraid they would release this [personal] information.

This reminds me of the Stanford prison experiment, and I think I’m almost more creeped out by those women recruiters than Raniere. Which is probably indicative of some messed-up gendered thinking on my part. 
Yeah, because he’s an absolute monster.

And I know that, but for some reason I feel like the second tier should have known better, while he’s sort of beyond saving? I’m not sure. What puts someone in the position to be that middleman doing the dirty work?

I know it’s hard to imagine, but people came to absolutely idolize Raniere. They truly thought he was a godlike figure. They believed all the ridiculous things he said about himself. So they thought, at the time, they were doing the right thing. I think almost all of them have repented at this point, and saw how they were taken advantage of and used and exploited, and that they then used and exploited the people below them, but it sets up this interlocking dynamic that’s really hard to break free from. And the longer you’re in, and the deeper you’re in, the harder and harder it is. People end up being in what I call a bounded reality. They’re in a different world from you and I. They’re in this very closed world, this other reality where that kind of evil became normalized. So the way that their own self-confidence and sense of morality was broken down over time is what allowed this to take place.

And is part of that the enforced isolation from non-members, like we see with other cults? Absolutely. Your time is so consumed by doing Raniere’s bidding, and you have less and less contact with anyone who’s not part of it. That creates this alternative reality. This is the world you live in, and the thought of giving that up becomes impossible.

With Raniere, and so many other cult leaders, we’re often told that their charm was part of their draw. But so often, in media coverage, these guys come off really creepy and weird. How do you explain that gap?
Well, this is getting into the topic of charisma, which is a very misunderstood concept. People who enter into these charismatic relationships are basically under the sway of the person who they consider to be charismatic. Charisma is a relationship. It’s not really about the so-called charming traits inherent to this being. It’s about how you as a person respond to that being, and not everyone responds in the same way. We can look at him and go, “Oh God, what a pig,” but the people who fell for his talk, who fell for his charms — once you consider someone charismatic, that’s a power relationship, and it’s an imbalance of power. The charismatic one has power over you, so everyone who has fallen under his sway are in a sense victims of his power, and can’t see straight because they’re enthralled. Think of it as you falling madly in love with someone, and everything they do seems super spectacular, until they start beating you. This charismatic relationship is what builds over time and allows the person to do weirder and weirder and perhaps more evil things.

Charisma doesn’t have to be evil. It can also be a good relationship, when we think about decent charismatic individuals, like Obama, or JFK, or whoever. But when it’s in a cult context, people let down their defenses basically, and the more you let down your defenses, and the more you turn yourself over and give up your critical thinking, you become an automaton. You’re just following whatever that person says, and you lose all sense of logic and rational thinking.

Is sexual attraction necessarily part of charisma then, or no?

I would say it’s part of it 99 percent of the time. Cult leaders figure out that controlling someone sexually is one of the most effective ways you can control a person, because it’s that deep part of yourself. Not every cult has sexual abuse or exploitation, but certainly a good percentage of them do.

What has your research taught you about the psychology of a person who joins a cult? Are there any commonalities?

This can happen to anyone. It’s about being at vulnerable moments in your life. Vulnerability isn’t a bad thing — it just means you’re a little off-center, or you’re looking for something, or you’re having a bad day, or your baby is crying too much. I think if there’s any common denominator, it’s idealism. Then that idealism is betrayed. People who get into these groups are looking for something, and in a sense, we’re all looking for something. We’re all trying to make sense of the world, especially as the world has gotten more and more complicated. In the case of NXIVM, people were looking to advance their careers. That’s a normal thing. Certainly the acting industry is itself fraught with low self-esteem, and people bending over backwards to make it. So that feeds into his ability to be able to recruit people.

But I’ve been researching this for 30-some years, and there really is no one personality type. It’s coming across something or someone at a certain moment in your life, taking that step, taking that chance, and boom. The problem is that people don’t listen to their gut. They don’t act like good consumers when it comes to getting involved in these kinds of things. If they were buying a car, they wouldn’t buy the first car that comes along, or listen to the creepiest sales person on the lot. We check the Blue Book, we check consumer reports, we drive the car, we drive several cars, and we do our research. If people did that before they joined some kind of group, they need to check out what the critics are saying and not just listen to whoever’s recruiting them.

To me though it still feels like it’s hard, at least early on, to find criticism of some of these groups before they’re eventually busted. 
That’s true. Often people will have gone to something and thought, That was really weird, but they don’t go and post something online, because they’re embarrassed. They’re like, I don’t want to let people know I did that. That’s going to hurt my reputation. And that’s unfortunate. People kind of crawl back into the woodwork and they don’t reveal what they saw and what they experienced. Part of that is the stigma of cults. People still have this idea that only crazy weird people join cults, but these are just normal, everyday citizens, and we should all be out there protecting each other.

In the case of NXIVM, what would you have taken as early warning signs that a person shouldn’t get involved?

First of all, all the absolute hype about him, as this super-duper godlike figure. If anybody really did their research, they would have found out he didn’t go to those universities. He didn’t have the highest IQ in the world. There’s so much information on the internet these days, which is one of the good things about it. People can find out the other side of the story.

Then there’s the way people got drawn in, and whenever they had hesitations, they were told to just ignore it, and go with whatever, it’ll be alright, because we’ve all done it. Again, that kind of peer pressure, rather than listening to your gut and saying, I don’t know, this seems weird. Wearing these clothes seems weird. Going to his birthday for a week in the middle of nowhere seems weird.

If we’re not able to draw a common psychological profile of a cult member, what about a cult leader? Are they all narcissists, for instance? For sure it’s malignant narcissism. It’s a desire to control. They’re almost always control freaks. They’re almost always troubled individuals who hide their pasts. Many of them have the traits of a psychopath, though it’s hard to ever really determine that because most cult leaders don’t subject themselves to psychological testing, but by their behaviors — having no empathy, wanting to create chaos, exaggerating, lying, boasting, making sure his needs are always met … those are the common characteristics. It’s an ultra authoritarian figure.

And is that just attractive to certain people?

You have to remember that it happens in stages. People didn’t fall for Raniere on day one. They went through various stages, various courses, and everybody had their person who attached to them, and who was guiding them along and saying “Trust me.” It often was someone you could trust — a good friend, or someone you knew from the industry. You didn’t have a reason right away to doubt him. In some cults, people never even meet the cult leader. They never even see the cult leader. It’s really about the structure that that person sets up — having good mid-level management, or people who operate by what we call “charisma by proxy.” They’re endowed with the same special features as the leader, and you know this person is carrying out what the leader wants, so you listen to them.

For the people who joined, do you think part of it was wanting to belong to a community of some kind?

Sure, and we all want that. That’s not a negative trait. We’re social animals. We all want to belong to something or be part of something or have a happy family. That’s the kind of image they then built on, so as you get deeper and deeper, that is your family. That is your social circle. You don’t hang out with anyone who isn’t part of that. That’s constantly reenforcing the belief system.

Are cults something we’ll always have in our culture? 

Yes. There are always going to be people who want to take advantage of other people. All of us in a sense are seekers. That’s not necessarily a negative trait, but we’re always going to be looking for something better — create a better world, create a better life, lose weight, earn more money, whatever it might be. And there are always going to be con artists who want to take advantage of that.

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