'Maybe I'm Brainwashed': How the NXIVM Cult Followed Damon Brink to Vermont

Seven Days, Vermont/December 23, 2020

By Paul Heintz

Damon Brink believed he had found a path to spiritual fulfillment, self-awareness and financial success. Days into his initial training with a mysterious group outside of Albany, N.Y., he had become captivated by its teachings.

"I didn't really want to leave," Brink recalled. "At the end of the day, I was exhausted but happy — happy in a way I hadn't been in years or maybe decades."

That happiness would not last. Twelve years later, the Morrisville resident has found himself trapped in the undertow of the group, known as NXIVM (pronounced NEX-ee-um) and widely described as a cult.

Since 2017, when former members went public with lurid allegations of sexual slavery and branding, it has become the subject of tabloid headlines and the HBO documentary series "The Vow." In October, NXIVM's charismatic leader, Keith Raniere — addressed by his followers as "Vanguard" — was sentenced to 120 years in prison for forced labor, sex trafficking and the sexual exploitation of a minor, among other charges. Members of Raniere's inner circle, including Seagram heiress Clare Bronfman and "Smallville" actress Allison Mack, have pleaded guilty to racketeering and related crimes.

Though Brink, 50, maintains he was unaware of NXIVM's darkest secrets, suspicion and scorn have followed him back to Vermont, where he was once known as a standout first baseman for the University of Vermont Catamounts, co-owner of the Burlington nightclub Nectar's and candidate for the state House of Representatives.

According to Brink, he remains estranged from friends and family members he once sought to recruit. He has been denied rental housing due to his association with the group and has received threatening messages from neighbors. One note called him "pathetic" and "a despicable human being." The writer added, "Don't worry. We're already making sure the entire town knows who you are. No one will want you around their children."

Last week, it appears, NXIVM also cost Brink his job.

"I feel vulnerable. I feel scared. I feel sad," he said. "Sometimes I feel angry."

Since leaving the Albany area with his family in 2018, Brink has sought to establish himself as a mentor and coach in north-central Vermont. He serves as president of Stowe Youth Baseball and Lamoille County Little League. He founded an indoor batting cage center called Go Baseball and is a DJ for Top Hat Entertainment. In August 2019, he was hired to run an afterschool program at Everyone Equals Morristown Community Center, or E=MC2. There, he helped secure a contract with the state Department for Children and Families to host supervised visits between noncustodial parents and their children.

Earlier this month, however, a community member brought Brink's past to the department's attention. "We became aware of a connection between Mr. Brink and NXIVM," said DCF general counsel Jennifer Myka.

Last Thursday, the department gave notice that it was exercising its right to cancel the $8,200 contract for no cause. Myka declined to say whether the decision was prompted by the tip.

"We're in the middle of a budget process, and we're doing constant monitoring," said DCF spokesperson Luciana DiRuocco. "When flags come up during the monitoring process, they get responded to."

By Friday, Brink was no longer employed by E=MC2, according to Billi Dunham, president of the nonprofit's board of directors. "The conditions of us separating are considered confidential by both parties," said Dunham, whose partner, Sunny Brink, is Damon's brother.

'Odd couple'

Brink's supporters — and even some of his detractors — say there is no reason to believe he has hurt anybody but himself. He has been charged with no crimes and publicly accused of no wrongdoing.

Frank Parlato, a former NXIVM employee who became one of its chief critics, has mercilessly mocked Brink as a dupe on his blog, the Frank Report, which has for years documented the organization's alleged misdeeds. But even Parlato argues that Brink's association with NXIVM should not cost him his career.

"I do not think Damon Brink is a threat to any children whatsoever. Just the opposite. I think he's probably a good kind of role model for kids," Parlato said in an interview. "He might be brainwashed about Keith. He might be blind to Keith's scenario. But he's no threat to children."

Gerette Buglion, a Vermont-based cult awareness educator, says it's important to draw a distinction between those who have used their power to harm others and those who have merely fallen under the sway of such people. "There's an assumption that if you were part of a cult or a controlling group, there's something wrong with you in one way or another," said Buglion, who spent 18 years in a different cult. "Anyone can be drawn into a group — and anyone can be hoodwinked."

Brink says he understands his neighbors' fear and trepidation, given the way NXIVM has been portrayed in the media. Stories referring to it as a "sex cult" largely focus on a small subgroup called Dominus Obsequious Sororium, or DOS, which Raniere created in 2015 and allegedly used to pressure women into sex — and whose female members were branded with his initials. But the vast majority of those who belonged to NXIVM, also known as Executive Success Programs or ESP, had no idea DOS existed.

"What's happened is that DOS has become the story, and so everybody that's associated with ESP or NXIVM is now associated with what everybody thinks that is, which is this crazy sex cult/branding/awful thing," Brink said. "I didn't know about DOS until after. Nobody did ... But I don't know how the genie goes back into the bottle."

Among Brink's fiercest supporters is his wife, Sally, who also belonged to NXIVM. "People are trying to destroy my husband," she said. "They don't want to know what's right or wrong. People just want to punish and hate."

The Brinks have a complicated marriage. Sally severed ties with NXIVM years before her husband did. And, according to her allies, she played a leading role in bringing down the organization — apparently providing key documentation to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service. "I gave them 30 gigs' worth of information on possible money laundering, possible visa fraud, racketeering," she said.

Damon Brink, meanwhile, remained loyal to Raniere and, until recently, continued to meet weekly with a group of men he knew through the Society of Protectors, another NXIVM subgroup. "I basically told those guys in the last couple weeks that I wasn't going to be doing that anymore," he said last week.

If Brink has fully separated himself from NXIVM, it isn't always apparent. During more than five hours of interviews, he toggled between defending, condemning, embracing and distancing himself from Raniere and the organization he founded. Brink sounded like a man who was still trying to figure it out.

Parlato, who has chronicled Damon Brink's and Sally Brink's respective journeys, finds their marriage confusing and compelling. "You got an odd couple there, right?" he said.

'Man of honor'?

If Brink's goal is to prove to his neighbors that he has moved on from NXIVM, he has done more than anyone to sabotage that attempt. In the days before and after Raniere's October 27 sentencing, Brink implored Seven Days to uncover what he described as an overzealous prosecution.

"I'm taking a great risk to my reputation and even my safety because of the mob like mentality and I'm concerned about this," he wrote in an October 15 email to the newspaper. "But the bottom line is there has been an incredible injustice in [Raniere's] trial. It's not that he's innocent but he's been denied, on many levels, the chance at a fair trial and we have evidence of this, dramatic evidence."

Brink repeated the claims on social media and went so far as to defend Raniere in a sentencing letter to Judge Nicholas Garaufis of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

"I have experienced Keith as a man of honor and principle," Brink wrote. "I experience him as a most compassionate human who cares about people and works tirelessly at something he feels is good and important for the world. I have known him for eight years and I have never witnessed or heard of him raising his voice in anger."

Sally Brink, meanwhile, took the other side in court. Speaking at Bronfman's sentencing in September, she urged the heiress to renounce Raniere. "The damage and the destruction that you caused in my life can only be healed if you can disavow him and see him for what he is," she said, referring to Bronfman's bankrolling of NXIVM.

Damon Brink says he remained in touch with Raniere until mid-October. "He did ask for help," Brink said. "But he didn't ask me to do anything specifically."

The most damning moments of Raniere's prosecution came at his sentencing later that month. A young woman who belonged to NXIVM publicly alleged for the first time that Raniere began grooming her for sex when she was 13 years old and committed statutory rape two years later. "I felt like I would never be free," the young woman said. "There was no way out."

Brink, a family friend of Raniere's alleged victim, says he had no reason to suspect that she was being abused — and that if the allegations were true, they would be indefensible. But he also said it was "hard to reconcile" the woman's story with what he referred to as Raniere's "gentleness."

"I don't know if I'm willing to go and say that I believe without a doubt in my heart that he's a sexual predator," Brink said.

Even now, Brink stands by some of NXIVM's teachings and resists calling the organization a cult.

"Maybe I'm completely deluded," he said. "Maybe I'm brainwashed."

'This kind of aura'

Born in California, Brink moved with his family to Vermont before he turned 1. His father, Arthur "Rusty" Brink, had been a star football player for UVM. His maternal grandfather, Hastings "Hasty" Keith, represented the South Shore of Massachusetts in Congress.

Damon Brink, who grew up in Jericho and Burlington, excelled at baseball — first at Mount Mansfield Union High School and later at UVM. Upon graduating, he became a DJ and founded the company that would become Top Hat. He became a co-owner of Rasputin's Bar in Burlington before decamping for Jamaica, where he and his girlfriend, Sally, ran a couple of Margaritaville restaurants and bars.

The couple, now married, returned to Burlington in 2002 to buy a stake in Nectar's — made famous as Phish's first home base — from founder Nectar Rorris. It was then that a college roommate of Sally's reconnected with her and persuaded her to fly to Los Angeles in July 2004 for a five-day NXIVM course, or "intensive."

"It was amazing," she said. "It helped me so much."

The effect on their marriage was immediate and positive, prompting Brink to travel to NXIVM's headquarters in Colonie, N.Y., for his first intensive. "I walk in, and it was weird," he said. Members wore colored sashes that denoted their rank, had a secret handshake, and regularly saluted Raniere and his No. 2, Nancy Salzman, a former psychiatric nurse whom members addressed as "Prefect."

But by day two, Brink was sold. The group's "exploration of meaning" curriculum helped him reconsider childhood experiences that had impaired his relationship with his father. "I had this very uplifting internal experience and feeling of love for my dad and for myself," he said. "It was very powerful. I cried, and I felt light and different and more joyful about everything."

In 2009, the Brinks sold their stake in Nectar's and, after Sally became pregnant, moved to the Albany area, in part to take advantage of NXIVM's childcare center, known as Rainbow Cultural Garden. The couple immersed themselves in NXIVM's courses, which cost thousands of dollars, and the organization's never-ending projects, subgroups and companies — few of which paid.

"There was always something going on," Brink said. "Your day was spent bouncing from thing to thing — unless you were taking classes, in which case everything stopped."

For several years, the family lived on Bronfman's compound, where Brink served as a caretaker.

He recalls finally meeting Raniere during "Vanguard Week," an annual event during which the reclusive leader would emerge. "There was this kind of aura around him," Brink said. He recalled introducing himself to Raniere and being surprised by how normal he seemed.

Raniere eventually asked Brink and three others to cofound the Society of Protectors, a men's group that would focus on honor, compassion and power. After 30 days of late-night meetings with Raniere, SOP launched in late 2012 with a weekend gathering of more than 100 men. "The idea was that it was to become a movement," Brink recalled.

Like most NXIVM projects, the goal was to recruit more and more paying members, a task that Brink embraced.

"For those of you that don't know, our founder, Keith Raniere, has built more than 1,000 millionaires in his life," Brink said in a promotional video unearthed by Parlato. "He has built multimillion-dollar businesses in a short amount of time and at one point was making more than $100,000 per hour coaching the highest-level business executives in the world."

None of that, it turned out, was true.


Sally Brink has a different recollection of their time in upstate New York. "We moved to Albany, and everything started to fall apart," she said.

According to Sally, the director of Rainbow Cultural Garden pressured the new mother to become more and more engaged with NXIVM through paid courses and unpaid work. She became deeply involved in the organization's finances, having balanced the books at restaurants in Jamaica and Burlington.

"I started seeing things from a business owner perspective that just didn't make sense to me," she said, adding that at one point, she had $80,000 in cash in an office drawer. "And any time I questioned anything, I got, 'Well, Keith is the most ethical person in the entire world.'"

Sally recalls years of gaslighting. "It's really hard to explain the kind of mind-fuck that you go through in these types of organizations, but I was really mind-fucked with." She added, "When I left ESP, I said, 'Oh, my god. I get why battered women stay.'"

Though Sally said she did not learn about DOS until leaving NXIVM, she felt uncomfortable around Raniere from the moment she met him. "When you get a creepy, strange feeling about men, you just stay away," she said. "And I knew at that point I could never be alone with him ever in my life."

Raniere's teachings were often quite dark, Sally said. At one point, the Society of Protectors established a curriculum for women designed to teach them what it's like to be a boy and a man. Sally enrolled.

"I have never been so afraid in my entire life," she said of the hazing ritual she endured. "They were screaming at me. I was frozen in fear ... The punishment was so intense I couldn't even think." At trial, another SOP cofounder, Mark Vicente, described forcing women to hold weights for an extended period of time and wear humiliating costumes, such as jockstraps and fairy wings. Vicente called the program "horribly demeaning."

In 2016, Sally decided to leave and took her husband and their child with her. Within months, she was diagnosed with stage III and then stage IV breast cancer. By then, the family's finances had been depleted. Sally estimates that she had spent close to $200,000 on NXIVM coursework and lost out on hundreds of thousands more in unpaid work. (In January, Sally was one of 80 plaintiffs who sued NXIVM and its leaders, calling the group "both a Ponzi scheme and a coercive community," though she later withdrew from the suit.)

After raising more than $42,000 for her cancer treatment through a GoFundMe campaign, Sally said, a NXIVM member told her, "'The ethical thing to do would be to die instead of taking the GoFundMe money.'"

In June 2017, three days after she was declared cancer-free, Sally walked into the Albany FBI office to share what she knew about NXIVM. "I was still feeling the effects of chemo," she said. "I was sick as a dog, and I was in the FBI."

Kristin Keeffe, who had a child with Raniere before leaving NXIVM in 2014, is considered one of the leading forces in bringing down the organization. She credits Sally as "a key corroborator" who provided the feds with the evidence they needed to file charges.

"We were like lone warriors," Keeffe said. "It was really going against the tide."

'Outside looking in'

Since returning to Vermont, the Brinks have been trying to rebuild their lives and their family — but NXIVM will not leave them be.

"It's been a struggle for me these past three years to be at the other end of this narrative," Damon Brink said. "There's this tremendous reach and power of this narrative of this evil thing that I was a part of and I support ... In a sense, it's not true. In a sense, it is true."

For her part, Sally is terrified that the publicity her husband sought — and the tip DCF received — could cost their family even more than they've already lost, despite the fact that, in her view, she has done everything in her power to bring Raniere and his associates to justice.

"My life for the past four years has been cancer, ESP, and I just want it to be over with," she said through tears. "I'm finally happy for the first time in four years, and now this is happening."

Brink says he realizes it may be difficult for his neighbors to understand what his family has endured. "I think it's reasonable to ask questions and try to figure that out," he said. "I guess what I think part of the story also is, is how we handle things that we don't understand or that we disagree with."

Brink concedes that there were plenty of warning signs he looked right past. Raniere had a checkered past long before founding NXIVM in 1998. New York State called an earlier business he founded, Consumers' Buyline, a pyramid scheme and shut it down in 1993. Forbes featured him in a 2003 cover story that depicted him as a cult leader. And a 2012 series by Albany's Times Union newspaper described him as a manipulative sex addict who had preyed upon underage girls.

But the Brinks and other former NXIVM members say they were taught by Raniere to distrust the news media — and they found that what journalists reported about their group simply did not square with their observations.

"It's hard to understand for people on the outside looking in," said Keeffe, Sally's fellow whistleblower. "It seems like the issues are so black-and-white. How could you not be unilaterally against this guy?"

Even now, she said, many former members are struggling to reconcile their own experiences with what they have recently learned. "It takes a lot of compassion to understand that perspective," Keeffe said. "Many people had a really positive experience with NXIVM and didn't know some of the things that were happening in secret. And I think it's been hard for people in that category to process the evidence that came out in prosecution."

Asked again whether he may have been — and may still be — brainwashed, Brink said, "I mean, yeah. It's possible. I've spent a lot of time thinking about this, and it's a rabbit hole."

But, he suggested, perhaps he's not the only one. "There's an argument to be made that that's what we do to each other," he said. "We brainwash each other and create our own realities. That's what society does, and that's what culture does."

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