The word ‘cult’ often inspires visions of earlier decades; reactionaries, activists, hippies, misguided and disillusioned regular folk, all under the sway of a charismatic sunglasses-wearing free-loving social deviant. As society and culture and technology change the way we think en-masse, the news of cults have faded into the background of obscurity and niche knowledge. So it’s a surprise to see one emerge into the media spotlight in 2018.
It’s always best when looking at cults is to study how they began, and evolved, and peaked, and fell. NXIVM (pronounced Nexium) was founded in 1998 by Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman (future president of the company), presenting as a multi-level marketing business. (Like we needed more of those.) The company offered day-long self-help seminars and tutorials, called ‘Executive Success Programs’ (‘ESP’s), on how to improve your lifestyle and self-worth. A training class on how to feel like a better person? Sign me up. NXIVM became quite successful, with Forbes magazine reporting that approximately 3,700 people had paid for these programs by 2003, including a large list of corporate and Hollywood movers and shakers. Although the prices of NXIVM’s programs are obfuscated, other popular competitors were charging hundreds of thousands of dollars for a day-long session, and even charging extra for weekend-long stays.
However, there were rumblings of something darker occurring behind the scenes. In a Forbes article, Edgar Bronfman, CEO of the Seagram gin company, expressed his concern about his daughters, Clare and Sara, being involved with the self-help scheme. Having taken a NXIVM course before, Edgar knew the psychological challenges and ritualistic practices that the company employed. It often involved a form of ‘persuasion therapy’ that founder Keith Raniere studied and evolved. It aimed to change the way that a person thought about themselves, often by pointing out personal flaws during an intimate first conversation, and then by forcibly changing these flaws by implementing a reward/punishment/penance system. It reads like a rather severe form of personal growth, and is dependent on the person breaking down their own personal thought patterns and replacing them with new NXIVM-branded ideal behaviour. Bronfman went months without speaking to his daughters despite him attempting contact on his end. “I think it’s a cult,” he remarked to Forbes, while his daughters were setting up a near $2 million line of credit to NXIVM for future sessions.
However, a rather long (8,700 words) but startlingly in-depth report by New York Times reporter Vanessa Grigoriadis details a therapy session ran by president Nancy Salzman at her home for a woman (named Jacqueline in the article) with a phobia of flying in aeroplanes. Salzman immediately launches into series of questions about her fear of flights, which swerved into questions about Jacqueline’s parental relationships. Grigoriadis notes that Salzman was trying to link her parent’s fraught relationship to her need to be protected, and linking that to her need of male attention by acting frightened on flights to gain sympathy and affection and protection by nearby men. Jacqueline was very receptive to this line of questioning, and the article writes that “she also agreed to do one thing that terrified her each day for the next 30 days, and on a day when she indulged in a man’s attention, she would do two terrifying things.” The ideal behind doing two uncomfortable experiences instead of one for breaking your ideal aims acts as an example of personal punishment as well as public penance, as it is expected that you return back to NXIVM so you can receive more ‘feel-good’ words by the higher-ups for effectively punishing yourself for them and paying for it too. NXIVM is an awful example of what can happen when you mix the likes of Amway with cult-like psychology that aims to recruit and reap. The article continues; “as Jacqueline prepared to leave, the two women hugged. “I don’t know what happened,” she said. “I feel really good.””
Keith Raniere proved himself to be a perfectly stereotypical modern cult leader; a businessman with a charming smile and a personal philosophy they believe to be the best, the only, way of thinking acceptable to them. Raniere believed that his philosophy (although what this philosophy is is hard to find outright beyond general self-help talk) would change the way the world thinks, comparable to the Scientology community still active today.
Raniere demanded that he and Salzman were called ‘Vanguard’ and ‘Prefect’ respectively during the seminars. The seminars themselves focused on improving personal growth, through fitness, health, career pathways, social standing, and many other aspects of general living. Grigoriadis sums up that “the ultimate Nxivm member was “potent” — not only rich but emotionally disciplined, self-controlled, attractive, physically fit and slender — or, in the word most members themselves preferred, “badass.”” A NXIVM member who completed all the courses and removed themselves of personal triggers became known as a ‘badass’. There was also a sash reward system put into place, much like karate, where completing certain tasks gained a new sash colour level. Completing courses, tasks from higher-ups, and recruiting new members, all went towards gaining the next level. The higher the sash grade and colour, the more words of respect and adoration and attention gained from the lower members. On a surface level, there were concerns about the general workings of the therapy supplied by NXIVM, and worrying indoctrination parallels, but it seemed to be working, growing, and thriving, and people were happy with their investments. When and why did it tumble down? Here’s where it goes from 0 to 100 real fast.
See, Raniere was believed, by the NXIVM members and himself, to be an evolved being, on a higher plane of thought and function than anyone else. His charisma and ability to manipulate people into changing their ingrained ways of thinking led him to be hailed as a miracle figure. As a result, he was extremely popular with the ladies. While the earlier cycle of girlfriends did seem consensual, media sources did report that in the last few years of NXIVM operating; he was using ‘coercive tactics’, and the recruiting efforts of the Bronfman daughters and Smallville actress Allison Mack (I know right?) to persuade women to join his personal poly-amorous harem, the Dominus Obsequious Sororium (broken Latin for “lord over the obedient female companions,”), the DOS.
The DOS was touted as a secret international women-only self-help group, headed by Raniere, who nicknamed it a ‘sorority’. It was free to join, and membership was offered by DOS members to NXIVM members on the sly. To get into DOS, the women had to sacrifice something valuable, which often included nude photographs, taped confessions, or house deeds, as money was something NXIVM already had enough of. Rolling Stone magazine wrote that “Allison Mack turned over paperwork promising that, in the event that she left the group, he would be entitled to her home and any future children she had. She also gave him a letter claiming that she’d abused her nephews, which he could turn over to authorities if she defected.” The DOS ran off blackmail of the affluent women who were convinced they wanted to join the elite group.
The DOS was then split up internally into ‘masters’, the sponsor, and ‘slaves’, the invitee. The masters would restrict the diets of the slaves, as well as forcibly recommending that the slaves take freezing cold showers, wake at 4am, abstain from orgasms to correct negative sexual attitudes, and provide ‘acts of care’ to their master, which usually involved making them a coffee. And then Allison Mack, (Smallville actress, let me repeat that there) brought up the idea of DOS members being physically branded with a red hot iron to signify the importance of their membership, something ‘more meaningful than a drunk tattoo.’ So DOS members began the branding, supposedly being a representation of chakras or elements or Greek let- blah, blah, it’s quite clearly a play with the initials Keith Raniere and Allison Mack, as Mack was Raniere’s personal ‘slave’ within the DOS. Part of her job, as well as recruiting new members, was to groom them in preparation for sexual relations with Raniere. She would take nude photos of the slaves and send them to Raniere, and would hold down the women and tell them to ‘feel the pain’ and ‘think of their master’ while they were being branded.
At this point, ex-members of NXIVM began to come forward with claims of abuse and human branding to the press in 2017, most notable with ex-DOS member actress Sarah Edmondson. The New York Times reported that hundreds of members of NXIVM left the group after Edmondson went public. The upper channels moved quickly, and in March of 2018, Keith Raniere was arrested on charges of sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy, and conspiracy to commit forced labour. He is held without bail in a detention centre in New York. Allison Mack was arrested on similar charges a month later, and was released four days later with a $5 million bond pending and under house arrest at her parent’s home.
Nancy Salzman, her daughter, a bookkeeper, and Clare Bronfman were all also arrested for racketeering conspiracy, and await trial. At the time of writing, Mack and Raniere have not been convicted yet. During their trials, both pleaded ‘not guilty’. If they are convicted of all charges, they could face between a minimum of 15 years, or life in prison.
NXIVM has stopped all communications and classes, and it’s website declares it currently closed for business.
What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? It’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies. – Director.