WRITER'S BLOCK: Anyone can fall prey to cults

ABC Newspapers, Minnesota/January 129, 2023

By Paige Kieffer

If you’ve been watching documentaries like HBO’s “The Vow” or STARZ’s “Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult,” both of which are about the multi-level-marketing company and alleged cult NXIVM, or really any documentary about cults, you’ve probably asked yourself - could I fall for a cult?

Many probably quickly dismiss the probability they’d fall susceptible to a cult, but it’s more likely to occur than you might think. In fact, some of the most talented and smartest individuals have fallen prey to cults.

Currently there are an estimated 10,000 cults in the United States alone, according to deprogrammer and cult specialist Rick Alan Ross, who gave the statistic on Dr. Phil. There are even millions more cults worldwide.

Chances are very likely you’ve had, or will have, multiple run ins with cults in your lifetime. It’s even possible you’ve already had or will have one recommended to you by a friend or family member, which is the most common way people are introduced to cults, according to Janja Lalich, a sociologist, writer and cult expert.

Lalich defines a cult as, “a sharply-bounded social group or a diffusely-bounded social movement held together through shared commitment to a charismatic leader.”

According to Lalich, cults can look very different from each other. Cults can be a religious group, fitness class, alternative community, self-help seminar or even a multi-marketing scheme.

I personally fell for NXIVM - an umbrella organization and self-help multi-level marketing company that was previously based in Albany, New York, and had several other centers worldwide. Its “charismatic leader” and founder, Keith Raniere, also known as “Vanguard” by members of the group, was sentenced in 2020 to 120 years in prison for racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, sex trafficking, attempted sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy, forced labor conspiracy and wire fraud conspiracy.

In 2008, I signed up to became a member of an online community aimed to help 12-20 year old girls and young women build their self-esteem and form social connections.

When I joined the group, I was a shy, meek 19-year-old who had just graduated high school and was getting ready to start college. I joined the online community because I was looking for anything that could help me improve my self-esteem and prepare me for college. The community looked like it could help me achieve my goals.

What I didn’t know at the time was that the group was lead by coaches for NXIVM’s Executive Success Programs, NXIVM’s personal and professional development company. The girls group also had several other leaders who were also in ESP and it was also supported by several NXIVM leaders who were in the chat groups.

The girls group released numerous columns that I enjoyed reading and I participated in several forums and discussions.

In 2009, the girls group advertised a retreat they were hosting in California. I wanted to participate, but I was too old and it was only open to teens in Los Angeles. When I expressed by disappointment that I could not attend, an individual associated with the girls recommended I check out NXIVM’s ESP and the company’s new program, Jness, that was a program that helped women with their personal growth. It was suggested by the individual it could help provide me with an environment similar to the girls group.

After I received the recommendation, I went to NXIVM’s website and researched ESP and Jness. I was very interested in joining after reading about the programs and wanted to join. What I didn’t notice though were several negative news articles from multiple media organizations that delved into the dangers of the company.

Next, I gave NXIVM a call because after researching ESP and Jness I was concerned about the high costs of the workshops and classes that cost $7,500 or more. A woman who answered my phone call asked me about my age (19 at the time), education level (freshman in college) and what major I was going into college for (journalism). The woman then told me of what she called a “work-study option,” but I would need to pay upfront for the five-day and 16-day workshops called “intensives” and then I could do the work-study option by moving to Albany.

I unfortunately didn’t see the red flags then, not realizing I was being offered a form of indentured servitude, and I immediately started saving up to take the intensives. Luckily, I found out NXIVM was a cult two years later when I had almost saved enough and was ready to sign up for the intensives.

Not long before I was about to sign-up, I came across an edition of Vanity Fair when I was home on Thanksgiving vacation. I skimmed through the magazine and came across the article called “The Heiresses and the Cult,” which was about Seagram heiresses and sisters Clare and Sara Bronfman’s involvement with NXIVM.

I was shocked what I had read it and immediately contacted the girls group’s email and never received a response. Not long later, the founders released a statement saying that the girls group had no affiliations with NXIVM, even though multiple people from ESP were involved with the group. I later learned this was true, but at the time I was extremely concerned the group was a gateway program to get girls and young women involved in NXIVM. It wasn’t. I did learn though from a NXIVM whistle-blower that allegedly the multi-level-marketing company did try to create a girls group of their own that was similar, but luckily it never came to fruition.

Since I found out NXIVM was a cult, I actively followed the progression of the multi-level-marketing company. I also reported NXIVM several times to the FBI in Albany, but I was never contacted.

Over years I also unknowingly came into contact with a few of NXIVM’s other initiatives and companies. I also participated in the 10c College Project Survey, that was a NXIVM survey for college students that was promoted on The CW. The other was NXIVM news organization, The Knife of Aristotle, later known as The Knife and The Knife Media, that was a website used to detect fake news, when in fact it was actually an attempt to gain media support for NXIVM and enlist new members.

In June 2017, Frank Parlato Jr., publisher of the Frank Report, Artvoice and the Niagara Falls Reporter, and a former NXIVM publicist, published a story about Keith Raniere being the head of the female secret sorority, DOS, where women were required to turn over collateral like false confessions, nude photos, passwords to social media accounts, etc., in order to find out about the group and even more collateral had to be turned over to join the group and after joining. According to court records, collateral was used as blackmail and women were told their collateral would be released if they left the sorority or revealed it’s existence. DOS women were also branded with Raniere’s initials, did starvation diets, drills and were paddled for failures.

In October 2017, actress and NXIVM whistle-blower Sarah Edmondson, who owned the company’s Vancouver location, bravely came forward to show her brand and discuss her involvement in DOS in a New York Times story. Not long after the story was released, the FBI began investigating NXIVM and  the company's leader, Keith Raniere.

In March 2018, Raniere was arrested in a luxury villa in Chacala, Mexico, along with several of his first-line DOS slaves, and was deported by the Mexican Federal Police. Raniere was arrested by the FBI after being handed over at the border and was subsequently charged in federal court. Not long later, the FBI arrested NXIVM’s co-founder and president Nancy Salzman and her daughter Lauren, “Smallville” actress Allison Mack, Seagram’s heiress and NXIVM’s main financial funder Clare Bronfman, and NXIVM bookkeeper Kathy Russell. All co-conspirators ended up pleading guilty.

When Keith Raniere was found guilty of all charges June 19, 2019, I celebrated here in Minneapolis. I’m so proud and thankful to all the brave men and women who came forward to expose NXIVM and the crimes of Keith Raniere and his co-conspirators.

After Raniere’s conviction, I began reaching out to dozens of ex-NXIVM members to ask questions and say thank you for their bravery in stepping forward. As a result, I’ve made incredible connections and friendships with several ex-members who I’m now so proud to now know.

Ultimately the choice to join ESP and Jness was in my hands. The experience taught me to actively research groups, companies, clubs and initiatives before getting involved. It has also taught me to be on alert for red flags that might signal that something could be a cult. For a list of possible red flags, visit Lalich’s website at bit.ly/3BNDFhX. A few of the red flags she lists include:

• The group displays an excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader, and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the truth, as law.

• Questioning, doubt and dissent are discouraged or even punished within a group.

• Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, or debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).

• Leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act and feel.

• The group has a polarized, us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.

This experience with NXIVM has lead me to actively research about cults and the psychological impact they have on people. I hope one day to report, write about and expose dangerous cults and religious abuses that occur on a daily basis worldwide.

Cults are all around us and not all have received the same exposure NXIVM had, which started receiving negative press as far back as 2003. I highly recommend researching and learning about the characteristics of cults; do your research on any group, religion or company before you join; keep an eye out for any red flags and don’t be afraid to leave when you see anything suspicious; report any illegal activity or abuses to the authorities, and try and expose cults so others don’t join.

Stay on the lookout for cults. People are more susceptible than you might think.

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