Canadian connections of Keith Raniere’s NXIVM sex cult ran deep

Toronto Star/April 18, 2021

By Sarah Berman

In this excerpt from “Don’t Call it a Cult: The Shocking Story of Keith Raniere and the Women behind NXIVM,” Sarah Berman looks at the group’s heavy connections in the artistic world, and in Canada.

Actor Chad Krowchuk still remembers the curious way talk of NXIVM buzzed through his social network. He first heard good reviews from (Vancouver-born actor) Sarah Edmondson over dinner one night, and then from his acting friends Kristin Kreuk and Mark Hildreth a few weeks later.

Krowchuk didn’t know what to make of all his friends’ hyperbolic gushing; he assumed there must be a catch. But his longtime girlfriend, “Smallville” actor Allison Mack, would eventually convince him to make the trip from Vancouver to attend a five-day intensive with her in Albany.

Krowchuk is blond, with a worried intensity about him. He’s often cast as the wide-eyed dork who’s underestimated by an alpha male protagonist. Mack, on the other hand, was known for swooning eagerness and golly-gee smiles. Her “sparkle,” both on screen and off, put her miles out of Krowchuk’s league, many thought. That he was from Alberta and she from California only added to his unspoken underdog status.

Both Krowchuk and Mack were former child actors who’d found each other in their early twenties and built a steady live-in relationship around their busy schedules. Krowchuk was working at Starbucks and bussing tables at a local restaurant in between acting gigs. He wanted to find more time to develop his career as a visual artist. Meanwhile, Mack was a household name among a certain demographic of teens, playing Superman’s best friend on CW’s “Smallville,” a teen superhero show watched by millions.

The couple had been living together for about three years when NXIVM “became a thing” in their group of friends, Krowchuk says, thanks in large part to Sarah Edmondson’s hustle.

Edmondson and her filmmaker friend Mark Vicente couldn’t help noticing how middle-aged and “schlubby” the NXIVM vibe had been when they first joined, so they set out to invite young people they’d actually want to hang out with. They made a point of regularly getting together without the usual social crutch of drugs and alcohol.

“We really prided ourselves on that — how we could have fun without being under the influence of anything,” Edmondson says.

Edmondson was celebrated within NXIVM for bringing coveted TV stars into the fold. “It wasn’t so much a pressure to recruit celebrities; it was just kind of a whim within the company. Like, ‘Oh, how great, we’ve got a VIP,’ ” she told me for a VICE story in 2018. “We wouldn’t get bonus points per se, but it was something that was acknowledged as a good thing, because it would grow the mission and grow the company if we had whoever endorsing … They were bragged about very openly.”

Allison Mack attended a weekend retreat in late 2006. The NXIVM inner circle had come to the West Coast for the women-only event, where they rolled out the VIP treatment for her. It was like an intensive, but (leader Keith) Raniere’s new “Jness” curriculum was specifically tailored to women’s experiences, and named to evoke the sound of female essence.

Nancy Salzman facilitated with help from her daughter Lauren, and heiress Sara Bronfman attended.

Jness taught women to examine why they entered relationships, and suggested that dependency and inner deficiency often play a role. “By the end of the weekend, Lauren and Allison were like best friends,” Susan Dones, who ran NXIVM’s Seattle centre, told The Hollywood Reporter in 2018. The next day, Mack accepted an invitation to fly in the Bronfman jet to meet Raniere and the inner circle in Albany, where she stayed for a few weeks. And in April 2007 she attended her first five-day seminar on a yacht docked in Vancouver’s Coal Harbour.

Chad Krowchuk says that at first he resisted Mack’s invitations to join her as a member of NXIVM, which led to a few arguments. He was surprised by how quickly she’d dropped all skepticism.

“That was the part that scared me the most,” he says of Mack’s sudden shift in perspective. “Before, we had conversations about it, and we both thought it seemed kind of weird and creepy. I don’t necessarily know if she thought it was creepy, but we agreed it seemed a little messed up.”

Krowchuk put aside his discomfort and attended a five-day intensive in Albany. “I met some very powerful human beings,” he said of his first impressions of the NXIVM community. “As in, controlling a lot of money, intellect and influence.”

Mack started a personal blog where she recorded all the new questions she was grappling with about meaning and purpose and personal connection. She was 24 years old, coming to terms with her own fame and attempting to foster a deeper sense of self-awareness.

“I allow my insecurities to dictate the things I do in my life,” she wrote in an April 2007 post. “I suppress the things within me that I think are ‘bad’ and then spend my time and energy punishing myself for even having these flaws in the first place. I feel like these habits are incredibly destructive and violent toward my own growth and potential.”

Mack was eternally optimistic, constantly ending correspondence with multiple exclamation points. She loved Miranda July, Harry Potter, John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and inspirational Gandhi quotes, and she wanted to be around people who shared this romantic, starry-eyed worldview.

Both Allison Mack and Sarah Edmondson saw this kind of idealism in the NXIVM coursework — Be your best self and help others do the same! — but Krowchuk was on the fence about it. He thought the hand-clapping and sashes were weird, and the workshops had an intense vibe that reminded him of bad acting classes. But the people he met in Albany were impressive and kind, and they gave a name to things he didn’t yet have a vocabulary for.

The courses taught that everyone was responsible for their own reactions to the outside world. That meant a NXIVM coach could turn around just about any bad situation and blame the student for their flawed interpretation. “If a course like this is in the hands of somebody who means well, it’s harmless,” Krowchuk says. “But I always felt like it would be really sh--y if it was used in a negative way.”

NXIVM shifted Krowchuk and Mack’s social landscape. The classes discouraged students from revealing details of the patent-pending “technology” to anyone who hadn’t paid for it. That meant not being able to share their exciting journey with the uninitiated.

Krowchuk preferred to keep a blend of industry and non-industry friends — those who knew about NXIVM and those who didn’t, or didn’t care for it. Others started to break away from their old lives in favour of surrounding themselves with like-minded people. Edmondson’s Artist’s Way group was split down the middle. Half of the women were on board, and the other half thought it was kind of culty.

Having a dinner party with NXIVM friends meant constantly dissecting your fears and insecurities. If somebody said they didn’t like sharing the food on their plate, for example, other group members would chime in with probing questions in an effort to overcome the block. What would you lose if you stopped the behaviour? Is refusing to share holding you back? Needless to say, it wasn’t a welcome conversational style for everyone.

Krowchuk could see some of his friends overcoming their insecurities, like Allison’s “Smallville” costar Kristin Kreuk, who battled career-stifling shyness. “I felt like I related more to Kristin than anyone there. I could see what the appeal was,” says Krowchuk.

But other acting friends pivoted away from the entertainment industry, like Battlestar Galactica’s’ Nicki Clyne. “Nicki — I know she was the first example of somebody who had a decent acting career, she was doing quite well, and then she took the courses and went, ‘F-- it, I want to do this thing instead,’ ” Krowchuk recalls.

Friends saw a new self-righteous streak in Clyne, who would sometimes point out her peers’ ethical shortcomings. At the time, Krowchuk thought there must have been a greater good he couldn’t see, and reserved judgment.

Mack believed NXIVM was furthering her education, which had been cut short by her acting career.

“I noticed recently that I have a tendency to say I am stupid,” she wrote in a 2007 blog post. “I became very comfortable chalking things up to the fact that I don’t have a ‘proper education.’ ”

To show her progress, Mack shared her goals with her online fans by writing about them in her blog. “I will be directing episode 20 of “Smallville” this year, and I am so intimidated!” she wrote. “Ignoring the voice inside my head that is screaming ‘You have no clue how to do this!’ has definitely been a challenge.”

Allison was invited into NXIVM’s inner circle very quickly, and in the beginning Krowchuk was able to tag along. But he knew he couldn’t go much further with the coursework. “Allison paid for a lot of my courses,” he says. “I would slowly pick away at paying her back, but I couldn’t afford to do it. Most normal people couldn’t afford to do this.”

All told, Krowchuk says he probably spent between $20,000 and $30,000 on NXIVM courses, and by then, he and Allison were already on the verge of breaking up. Their friends could see it coming; one heard Mack speculate that she might be asexual. Mack and Krowchuk had different ideas about where their lives were headed, and around 2009 they ended things for good.

Sarah Edmondson was nearing a similar crossroads in her relationship and career. She was pushing harder than ever to advance in the company, and in July 2009 she was finally rewarded with a licence to open a permanent space in Vancouver with Mark Vicente. Under the guidance of her NXIVM coach, Edmondson split from her boyfriend and fully immersed herself in work.

This was a common story among women in NXIVM’s upper ranks, as boyfriends and husbands were often interpreted to be standing in the way of success. Like Mack, Edmondson was feeling the gravitational pull of Albany and began making trips there several times a year. Clyne and Mack went on to live in Albany full time, but continued inviting their Vancouver networks into the fold.

That meant the stage was set for Vancouver to outpace all the American centres — even Albany — in attracting younger creative types to NXIVM.

 To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here