In October 2017, the New York Times broke the news that NXIVM, an Albany-based company that peddled self-help and professional success courses, contained a secret women’s group that branded its members in a painful ceremony. “For hours muffled screams and the smell of burning tissue filled the room,” the Times reported, as a leader’s initials were carved into the women’s skin. The branding, it turns out, was the tip of the iceberg. Several of NXIVM’s inner circle now face prosecution for an array of garish crimes. As the court cases unfold, interest in the company and its downfall has proliferated, resulting in several front-page investigations, two documentary television shows, a hit podcast series, multiple made-for-TV movies, and several tell-all memoirs. The Vow, an HBO series that first aired last summer, garnered the most attention; it attempted to relate what it was about the group that appealed to so many. Seduced, which broadcast a few months later, focused on one young survivor’s story and provided revelations about abuses that were glaringly absent from The Vow.
Commentators seeking to understand how things got so bad inside NXIVM often gesture toward QAnon and our larger conspiratorial moment. “As dangerous conspiracy theories rise to shocking prominence in American life,” a review in the Times reads, “‘The Vow’ examines why people are so primed to fall for the kind of tempting but perilous psychological traps that skilled manipulators use to lure and catch their idealistic prey.” But there’s less to this parallel than first appears. QAnon projects a shadowy otherworld upon the one we live in, translating decades of moral panic into anti-government rabidity and hoping for an apocalyptic rupture. NXIVM, with its focus on networking and professional success, promised to help its adherents better themselves—and thus the world. Its perilous psychological traps, in other words, are not outliers but, rather, all around us.
In a video advertising NXIVM that appears in The Vow, actor and higher-up Allison Mack waxes rapturous on the revolutionary potential of empathy: “If we actually understood compassion the world would be a much better place. Not even the world. Like .003 percent of the world, if they could just have a little dose of love, everything would change. Everything.” Former NXVIM propaganda master Mark Vicente doubles down on this philosophy later in the series. “The only sustainable way to change a society,” he says, “is if the wealthiest, most powerful people meet with this education and this will trickle down to everything else.” It’s a theory of change similar to what Tressie McMillan Cottom calls “trickle-down feminism,” in which wealthy women, correctly diagnosing that the world is full of injustice, posit that their own success and happiness will benefit all others that are oppressed. They can “make the world a better place”—a phrase that litters NXIVM media—while furthering, rather than threatening, their status.
Mack and Vicente’s theories about empathy would not sound out of place coming from the CEO of any wellness start-up or Silicon Valley consultancy. In that familiarity lies the secret to understanding NXIVM: how its members slipped from the apparently innocent pursuit of professional success to facilitating and enduring horrific wrongs, and how its leader Keith Raniere was, for a time, able to shape a persona of innovative brilliance.
NXIVM was founded in 1998, when Raniere, fresh out of things to do after an earlier pyramid scheme was shut down by the State of New York, met Nancy Salzman, a nurse and self-professed hypnotist. Together they created a self-improvement course called Executive Success Programs (ESP). ESP combined cognitive-behavioral therapy with group therapy and a sprinkling of Steiner seminars, Ayn Rand, pop psychoanalysis, and Scientology. Hardly anything in NXIVM was original, but the course was styled as the expression of Raniere’s unique genius. Committed adherents progressed “up the stripe path,” taking courses to collect colored sashes, like earning belts in a martial art.
Consistent with its trickle-down philosophy, NXIVM targeted celebrities, the rich, and the powerful. Their cash and influence helped Raniere and Salzman open centers all over the world, which grew quickly; members made commissions on new recruits (and the recruits their own recruits brought in). Raniere founded numerous companies under the NXIVM umbrella, all to advance the group’s “ethics.” Two of these offshoots, Jness and the Society of Protectors, focused respectively on “empowering women” and creating a “network of honorable men.” They paved the way for the blackmail-driven, secretive women’s group DOS, whose branding ceremony, when exposed, led to NXVIM’s downfall. Last October, Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison for sex trafficking, racketeering, and possession of child pornography. Now, the centers are shut down; the other top-tier members await sentencing; the websites are gone. Only a few dozen supporters still believe.
Over a decade ago, after the Albany Times Union reported that he had manipulated and had sex with several minors, Raniere stepped back from the spotlight and into the shadows. Unlike in many other cults, recent recruits were drawn in not by Raniere’s charisma, but through the NXVIM seminars held in office parks and hotel ballrooms, where he was dangled as the mysterious “Vanguard,” the creator of the program and one of the smartest people alive. These seminars not only promised greater professional success but also linked personal goals to altruism. NXIVM’s mission statement claimed the company wanted to “raise human awareness, foster an ethical humanitarian civilization, and celebrate what it means to be human.”
That statement, as ludicrously grandiose as it sounds, echoes language used by the startups of our era. In the S-1 filing for the failing co-working company WeWork, founder Adam Neumann wrote, “Our mission is to elevate the world’s consciousness.” Like a good tech businessman, Raniere boasted constantly of various “patent-pending” technologies that could produce human happiness at scale, using logic that is common across Silicon Valley. And his supporters, introduced to him once they had completed at least one course, lapped it up. Vicente fell in love with Raniere’s genius because, he recounts in The Vow, “He made joy a math, a reproducible formula.”
Raniere also cultivated eccentricities to rival those of tech’s most celebrated founders. According to a 2003 Forbes cover story, “The World’s Strangest Executive Coach,” he had no driver’s license and walked for as many as twelve hours a day; both The Vow and Seduced feature stories of Raniere taking his acolytes for late-night strolls through the cul-de-sacs of suburban Albany. NXVIM’s annual corporate retreat at a campground only differed from the mandatory fun common at other companies in its extreme personalization (it was held on Raniere’s birthday and called V-week, short for Vanguard week). In videos of the event, followers bounce around with lanyards around their necks, signing up for events and intensives and mounting the stage to give speeches, perform dances, and sing to Raniere. He looks back up at them, mouth slightly agape, eyes shining—like Charles Manson watching his followers give a TED talk.
Unlike Scientology, which has tax-exempt status as a church, and countless other smaller cults that never bother to report their financial dealings to the state, NXIVM was run as a for-profit company. But it never turned an actual profit. For most of its twenty-year existence, NXIVM was largely sustained by sisters Sara and Clare Bronfman, the heirs to the Seagram liquor fortune. According to a civil suit filed in the Eastern District of New York, they invested as much as $150 million in the cult. They were originally pulled in not by earnings projections but by Raniere’s shtick. He was a concert pianist! He spoke three languages before he could even talk! He was inventing a new kind of mathematics!
If the emphasis on personal appeal over business fundamentals seems naive, it is a naivete common—and in fact encouraged—in the contemporary investment world. When Silicon Valley venture capital group Founders Fund “finds entrepreneurs with ‘audacious vision,’ ‘a near-messianic attitude,’ and ‘wild-eyed passion,’” writes Charles Duhigg in the New Yorker, “it essentially seeks to give them veto-proof authority.” These Silicon Valley parallels not only serve as a damnation of that culture but—and this is crucial—are part and parcel of what gave Raniere and NXIVM the legitimacy they needed to operate. Founder reverence is everywhere. While it usually leads to bad business decisions, in the case of the Bronfmans it twisted them into complicity with much more illegal and sordid schemes. If recruits ever started to feel like the Vanguard worship was a little much, they could always look around and locate such dynamics in the outside world.
What’s more, the company’s recruitment model often trapped new recruits in a cycle of debt peonage. If you couldn’t afford the introductory five-day class at $3,000 a person, you were invited to do it anyway and pay later—either with credit cards or in the form of labor owed to another member. One ex-member interviewed in Seduced says Mack “offered to pay for the intensive ahead of time in exchange for the work that I did for her.” As she kept taking increasingly expensive classes, she quickly ended up $100,000 in debt. The only way to pay this back through NXIVM, besides recruiting, was to teach for the company. But the requirements for earning money frequently shifted. According to the Eastern District of New York civil suit, out of the more than 16,000 people who took courses, fewer than a hundred ever received income from the company. As members tried to pay off their debt, they were forced to perform more free labor, pushing them deeper into the cult—all while being charged for the classes they were mandated to take. Any doubts were stifled by the NXIVM concept of “at-cause”: you alone were responsible for your emotions, especially your feelings of victimhood.
These tactics were designed to distance members from their family and friends outside of NXIVM. When you chose the “coaching path,” as Catherine Oxenberg says of her daughter India in Seduced, “it was your life. Keeping you very busy and very distracted, not having time for other commitments. People were working 24/7. Your commitment had to be absolute.” Much of this commitment was enacted in the form of reproductive labor. India moved into Mack’s Albany-area house, where, in lieu of paying regular rent, she cleaned, cooked, and acted as a personal assistant while she worked to reach the rank where they would pay her for coaching (a goalpost that kept moving). The debt and desire for income also kept people in when the worst abuses started to come to light. In The Vow, Sarah Edmonson, a struggling actor turned top NXIVM recruiter who became a key source for the Times story about the cult, discusses the idea of leaving the group, but she falters: “I’m so dependent, like this is my income, too.”
Edmonson had already been branded with an amalgamation of Mack and Raniere’s initials when she said that; she had already given blackmail materials (“collateral”) to join the secretive ingroup DOS, said her vows to her “master,” and taken on “slaves.” These deeply disturbing requirements were coated in a vaguely feminist veneer. “She made it sound like a bad-ass bitch boot camp,” Edmonson told the Times, recalling how first-tier member Lauren Salzman pitched the group. Edmonson used that logic to justify handing over her collateral—nude pictures, a recording saying her husband was abusive, the deed to her house—at which point she found out about the more overt abuse of the group’s structure, including the branding. Each woman had six “slaves” who, through texts littered with chain-link emojis, would ask their “master” for permission to eat and sleep. They were commanded to clean each other’s houses, run errands, and send Raniere nude photos. Behind it all was Raniere, the secret “grandmaster,” who gave them the “assignment” of “seducing” him. They would also be commanded to recruit their own “slaves” from the NXIVM rank-and-file, expanding the network. Still finding justifications after the fact, Edmonson says in the CBC podcast Uncover that part of the appeal was to “imagine having six people . . . doing work for you . . . how much money you’ll save.”
In its imagery of slavery, NXIVM drew on forms of power and violence that haunt America. The company also made use of contemporary structures that leave people vulnerable to exploitation, leveraging immigration status for financial gain. As the Eastern District of New York civil suit alleges,
Defendants also recruited people from foreign countries, offering false promises of educational or financial gain. Ultimately, they left these recruits in compromised circumstances, without an immigration status, leaving them working for little or nothing, accumulating debt and fearful that if they left the NXIVM community they would be arrested and deported.
In Seduced, we hear from Daniela, who moved from Mexico with her family when she was sixteen to take NXIVM classes. Once, while returning from a visit home, she was stopped by immigration, so Raniere arranged for her to enter the country through Canada. “I was without a doubt a captive from the moment I was an illegal in this country,” she testified in court. “As time progressed it became clear to me that I could not leave.” Just after turning eighteen, she was coerced into sex with Raniere—who also, she says, raped her underage sister. He eventually impregnated Daniela, got her an abortion, and became jealous when she said she had a crush on someone else. With the support of other high-ranking members and her family, he confined her to a single room as punishment—where she was kept for two years. “I feel panic, I feel horror, I can’t even think straight,” she wrote in journal pages splayed across the screen in the show. “I feel dread. I really feel like I’m in a nightmare.” When Daniela finally got out of the room, she was dropped at the Mexican border without any papers.
All the coverage of NXIVM attempts in one way or another to answer a fundamental question, quoted here from Uncover: “How does someone join a self-help group and end up in an alleged sex cult?” But focusing on Raniere’s simpering charisma and manipulative talents—which were, undoubtedly, significant—as all of this media does, doesn’t explain why so many were drawn to the group, especially for the years Raniere only interacted with people who were already hooked. We risk missing the most obvious answer, which the audience’s repulsion and identification and anger circle around: in some respects, it wasn’t a very far leap.
The most extreme aspects of NXIVM, of course, are beyond most of our experiences. But our culture is thick with demands that we sacrifice ourselves for our work. The cult’s language of striving, which seamlessly aligned altruism and personal success, is common. And in a world that isn’t built around human needs, the drive to fulfillment often leaves us scrambling in self-destructive directions.
The uneven economic recovery from the coronavirus will place fulfillment out of reach for more people even while the mountain of hollow humanitarian language grows. (“To all of our Amazon retail heroes,” the narrator intoned in a company ad last year, “we want to thank you.”) As the chasm between our desire to improve our lives and our ability to actually do so grows, more grifters will surface, offering ladders to nowhere.
There’s a thrill—and a warning—in looking at the people who got suckered and abused in NXIVM. We are not them, but there are moments when we hear things that remind us of our meditation apps or our corporate-bonding sessions or the humanitarian promises of our favorite brands. In the NXIVM story, we see these shiny surfaces rupture, and peer at the human misery that keeps them churning.
Lyra Walsh Fuchs is the editorial assistant at Dissent.