New vision for mind in eye of the beholder

NVIXM is likened to a cult by some, is praised by others for helping change lives

Times Union/September 28, 2003
By Dennis Yusko

Colonie -- Halfmoon resident Keith Raniere says he conceptualized a practice called "Rational Inquiry" at the age of 12 while reading "The Second Foundation" by Isaac Asimov.

The premise of the science fiction series is that a mathematician forecasts the end of civilization and devises a plan to shorten the period of barbarity before a new civilization is established.

Rational Inquiry, a formula for analyzing and optimizing how the mind handles data, as Raniere describes it, is the basis for NXIVM (pronounced NEX-ee-um), a multimillion-dollar international company based on New Karner Road.

The company wants to build an architecturally futuristic 67,000-square-foot headquarters in Halfmoon. It is now updating plans for the proposed $15 million building to submit to the town. That plan has been opposed by some neighbors who say the building would create traffic problems, and has prompted questions about Raniere and his group.

In court papers filed in August, the self-described entrepreneur and philosopher details how the five-year-old company is finally realizing his lifelong idea of harnessing Rational Inquiry into a successful venture. After years in corporate jobs that left him disappointed and two local business ventures that shut down, Raniere said he finally has found his niche.

"Our company has handled many people with great stature in the world: political families, really high cabinet members, CEOs of major businesses," Raniere, 43, said in a recent interview with the Times Union.

Nancy Salzman, 49, a registered nurse from Clifton Park, founded the "human potential" company after six months of studying Rational Inquiry with Raniere.

On its Web site,, NXIVM calls its Executive Success Program, or ESP, a human improvement formula that "allows you to reexamine and reincorporate perceptions that may be the foundation of self-imposed limitations. Once these limitations are removed, the possibilities for success are limitless. Human performance is readily enhanced in virtually every field of human endeavor."

This is done by posing a series of questions, or inquiries, to students about themselves, their motivations and perceptions. The seminars optimize communication and decision-making, NXIVM officials say.

"The Executive Success training programs are just that: They train business executives how to approach problem-solving more logically and analytically," said Luis Eugenio Todd, the former Mexican minister of higher education, who has taken the courses. "The programs are educational seminars."

But some psychiatrists familiar with ESP contend the "intensives," as they are called, can become too intense for some.

ESP training delves into personal issues that can result in psychological damage for students who are susceptible to stress, said Carlos Rueda, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Our Lady of Mercy Hospital in the Bronx.

Rueda said he treated three former NXIVM students who took ESP courses. NXIVM leaders weren't prepared or certified to deal with the potential psychological problems that can surface during the training, Rueda said.

"I think that the stress and the way the courses are structured may make people who have a tendency to have a psychotic disorder have an acute episode," said Rueda, also the assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College in Valhalla, Westchester County.

One of Rueda's patients, a 28-year-old woman from Mexico City who is now living in Manhattan, said she suffered a psychotic breakdown in January while attending ESP sessions in Colonie. The woman asked that her name not be used in this story due to the stigma associated with a breakdown. She said ESP's level-two intensives, which instruct students to become ESP coaches, had little to do with business models. Instead, the classes concentrated on psychology, philosophy, God, the devil and matters related to faith, she said.

" 'We have to break you to reconstruct you,' they told me," the woman said. "But they rebuild you how they want to rebuild you."

NXIVM student and spokeswoman Kristin Keeffe disputed those assessments.

"Nothing that is presented through ESP would or could have any effect upon anyone's psychological status, and after nearly 4,000 students, no civil action has ever been alleged against ESP in that regard," Keeffe said.

ESP courses are expensive -- $7,500 for 160 hours of instruction, according to a former student -- vary in duration and message and are often taught by NXIVM teachers who are advanced students. Classes are held in the United States and Mexico, said Raniere, a Brooklyn native who graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. They can last at least 10 hours a day for up to 16 consecutive days, and students must sign a confidentiality agreement promising not to share what they learn, according to company officials.

"Espians," as students call themselves, wear different colored scarves to mark their rank and bow to Raniere, called Vanguard, and Salzman, known as Prefect, before and after meetings, Salzman has said. She said she and Vanguard return the bow, and compared the practice to that of martial arts.

Students also have a special handshake and are paid commissions if they bring in recruits, according to former student Stephanie Franco, a social worker and psychology professor at Rutgers University. She stopped attending local ESP courses and, in court papers, accused NXIVM of causing irreparable harm to her family members.

NXIVM earns $4 million annually, according to a Forbes magazine article on the company in its current issue.

The Forbes article, titled "Cult of Personality," identifies as ESP students state Health Commissioner Antonia C. Novello; Sheila Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television; Stephen Cooper, acting chief executive of Enron; Edgar Bronfman Sr. of the Seagram's fortune, plus two of his daughters; and Ana Cristina Fox, daughter of Mexican President Vicente Fox.

The elder Bronfman quit ESP, according to Forbes. "I think it's a cult," he told the magazine.

Novello's office did not return calls for comment on Friday.

Paul Martin, a clinical psychologist, and John Hochman, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles, acquired and read NXIVM's confidential manual. On a Web site that tracks social movements, both criticized ESP as an expensive form of brainwashing operated by controlling figures with clanlike mentalities.

"ESP graduates need to make as much money as possible and control as much money as possible in order to save the world from destruction," says Martin, the director of Wellspring Retreat of Ohio, a counseling facility for victims of cult or religious abuse, on the Web site of social movement commentator Rick Ross.

ESP has local supporters in the mental health community.

"Their coaching program offers a different way of working with people than psychotherapy," licensed psychologist Susan Faulkner of Albany said. She said ESP's corporate training helped her reach personal and professional goals.

"Their coaching program offers a different way of working with people than psychotherapy," said Faulkner, a former addictions counselor who has studied ESP for about a year.

Rational Inquiry is a form of questioning that helps people become aware of inconsistencies "in how we view the world and how the world is," she said.

"I feel like I'm much more clear in my thinking. I feel like I have noticed internal inconsistencies, and I have gotten more clear," Faulkner said.

Raniere's former company, Consumers Buyline, ceased operation in the '90s after signing up at least 250,000 customers nationwide and bringing in more than $33 million in a year. Then-state Attorney General Robert Abrams filed a civil suit against Consumers Buyline in 1993, alleging it was a pyramid scheme. Without admitting wrongdoing, Raniere settled for $40,000, of which he has paid only $9,000, according to Paul Larrabee, spokesman for state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.

With interest, Raniere now owes the state almost $50,000, Larrabee said. "We are pursuing collection on the balance," he said.

Raniere and an associate formed National Health Network, a vitamin distributor, in Clifton Park in 1994. The company folded a few years later.

Raniere then founded ESP with Salzman.

In August, ESP filed two federal lawsuits against its critics -- Martin, Hochman, Franco, Ross and The Cult Education Institute, a nonprofit public research operation that tracks controversial social movements. It claims Franco turned over NXIVM's confidential manual to Ross and he, Hochman and Martin falsely characterized ESP as cultlike on Ross' Web site.

The suit seeks to force Ross to remove any mention of ESP from the site, plus almost $10 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

In one of the suits, Raniere details his life and how he wants to make Rational Inquiry a success, but that negative publicity is threatening his dreams.

"This false story with our copyrighted material released to the public through international media can never be completely reversed. If this is not in the least stopped, it is possible it will destroy us," Raniere says.

Update: Previously NXIVM has operated from its training center at 455 New Karner Road in Colonie.

The Latest: The 5-year-old company wants to build a $15 million facility on Woodin Road in Halfmoon.

What's Next: The Halfmoon Planning Board has to review the proposal, which has drawn some criticism from nearby residents.

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