By now you have seen her all over every news outlet: 35-year-old Smallville actress Allison Mack who was arrested Friday on charges of sex trafficking and has become the most recognized face in this latest public drama. Mack was a part of NXIVM (pronounced Nexium), a self-improvement company now deemed a cult by some experts. Their website states that their “mission is to raise human awareness, foster an ethical humanitarian civilization, and celebrate what it means to be human.” JNess, their branch that promises women’s empowerment was “designed to promote the furtherance and empowerment of women throughout the world.” However, women who took part in the higher levels of JNess were reportedly branded with a combination of the initials of the founder, 57-year-old Keith Raniere and his second in command, Mack, and were forced through personal blackmail to have sex with him. Mack tasked by Raniere with recruiting potential sexual and labor “slaves” for him, as well as collecting damning personal information that could be used to keep members subservient.
Frank Parlato, former employee and longtime NXIVM whistleblower was the first to report on the existence of the brands in June 2007. It was this first report that likely led to the subsequent interest and arrests.
Legal documents read that Mack, “is charged with using force, fraud, and coercion to recruit and maintain DOS slaves, and instructing those slaves to engage in sexual acts with Raniere, among other assignments. The defendant aggressively recruited DOS slaves and required those slaves to recruit slaves of their own.” DOS is a women-only sect of NXIVM, believed to be short for dominus obsequious sororium: Latin for the "master over the slave women." Reports indicate that Raniere had these coercive sexual relationships with 10-15 women who were only allowed to have sex with him. The course taught that men were to have “multiple sexual partners” while women were to be monogamous.
NXIVM is a training system created by Raniere, who has also been arrested on charges of sex trafficking and forced labor, and administered through his company, Executive Success Programs, Inc, which he founded in 1998 with Nancy Salzman, a woman already steeped in the controversial program of Neuro-linguistic programming, a proven pseudoscience that at its worst smacks of a new age brainwashing tool. Together, they built an empire with other people’s money, including millions that were given to Raniere by the heirs of Seagrams multi-billion-dollar fortune, Clare and Sara Bronfman. The programs tout celebrity membership of Sheila Johnson, cofounder of BET, Antonia C. Novello, a former U.S. surgeon general, Stephen Cooper, acting chief executive of Enron, and Ana Cristina Fox, daughter of the Mexican president. Classes offered by NXIVM charge up to $5,000 a day, and the group members are encouraged to hit various “goal levels,” and their statuses are indicated by colored sashes.
Who is Keith Raniere?
His founder’s biography on the Executive Success Programs website begins:
Keith Raniere holds many titles to his name—scientist, mathematician, philosopher, entrepreneur, educator, inventor and author—but perhaps the most poignant among them is that of humanitarian.
It continues in the classically grandiose style of a clinical narcissist:
From early childhood, he demonstrated astounding gifts nurtured by his parents and subsequent mentors. By the age of one, he could construct full sentences and questions; he was able to read by the age of two. An autodidact, he directed his learning abilities to learning itself, studying its science and art in order to find optimized learning strategies and methodologies. Applying this skill to athletics, Keith Raniere excelled in judo and was an East Coast Judo Champion at age eleven. He also excelled in numerous other sports including volleyball, tennis, table tennis, diving, softball, cycling and skiing. By the age of twelve, he taught himself to play piano at the concert level; his passion and aptitude for music would inspire him to master many other musical instruments. He taught himself high school mathematics in nineteen hours at the age of twelve; only one year later, he was proficient in third-year college mathematics and was a professional computer programmer.
And the most absurd part:
Noted as one of the world’s top three problem solvers, Keith Raniere was honored in 1989 by the Guinness Book of World Records in the category of highest IQ. He has an estimated problem-solving rarity of one in 425,000,000 with respect to the general population.
Of course, he’s a walking hyperbole. The IQ claim comes from a controversial, unsupervised take-home test that he took in the 1980s, and his GPA, a 2.26 from his Brooklyn high school tells a different story—“having failed or barely passed many of the upper-level math and science classes he bragged about taking,” stated Brooklyn US Attorney Richard Donoghue.
For me, the unabashed self-congratulations of that biography ring every alarm bell I have, but for many people, that kind of confidence is incredibly alluring. I get it—in a world where nothing feels certain, the terror of that feeling is very real, and it makes sense that it can be soothed by someone who seems to have all the answers. But that complete trust, that dedication to a single person, can be so easily exploited.
And it appears he has been controlling women and girls for a very long time. In 1984, at age 24, Raniere allegedly manipulated a 15-year-old girl into a four-month sexual relationship as reported by the Albany Times.
Forbes magazine put Raniere on their cover in October of 2003. It contained a scathing article that presented Raniere as nothing short of a modern cult leader. They called attention to his shady dealings with members’ money and the language that included terms like “parasites” and “suppressives” he used to label those who questioned the teachings of NXIVM. They also noted that many of the members had undergone psychotic breakdowns, a symptom of the type of brainwashing that Raniere co-opted when he created his programs.
Raniere had a history of the kind of revenge tactics commonly seen in cult leaders. We see it with David Miscavige’s Scientology as well: the blackmail, the threats, the disproportionate response to any slight, any break in their reality in which a question, an uncertainty, might slip through. Raniere’s girlfriend of eight years recalled to Vanity Fair the ten-year-long personal attacks that occurred after she left the abusive Raniere, which included a home invasion and hired surveillance of her home and business.
One of Raniere’s more transparently cultic demands was that the members referred to him as “Vanguard,” (a position at the forefront of new developments or ideas), and the president of Executive Success Programs, Nancy Salzman as “Prefect.” They were reportedly made to literally bow to Raniere’s presence, and were beaten with paddles if they did not provide enough new slave recruits, or enough blackmail to keep them from leaving the cult.
The Danger of Modern Self Help Cults
When I was growing up, my family got really into a self-actualization program very similar to NXIVM. I won’t name it here because they sometimes pursue lawsuits against those who call it a cult (which is what cults do). I was just 16, and it was the first time the group allowed anyone under 18 into the adult program. It’s absolutely a pyramid scheme: they spend much of the 13-hour-day talking about the future courses needed to complete the expensive program. The whole process costs thousands. I had been in two previous programs that had what I felt at the time, positive results, though I was only 11, and then 14. But when I saw the leader actually screaming at everyone, calling people onto the stage and badgering them to remember childhood traumas, breaking people down publicly until they were weeping in a ball on the floor, I was filled with a profound sense that it was very, very wrong, potentially psychologically devastating. I was only a teenager, but I knew what was going on.
Part of a promise you make at the beginning of this program is that you will do everything in your power to keep people from leaving the group. It was the most important responsibility. I was there with people in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and when I announced that I needed to leave the program, I was met with anger, guilt, and what I felt bordered on emotional abuse. They made me cry, and only one person came to comfort me, looking me in the eyes in a way that said, I know. Get the hell out of here now. The leader and his assistant physically cornered me, condescendingly demanding me to stay and saying that we needed to figure out why I was afraid of a man yelling at me, and needed to do so in front of a hundred other people, on a stage. We needed to dig into my childhood and break me down, so I could rise up stronger. But here’s the thing: I didn’t want to do that right then. Maybe I wanted to do that in the future, when I was an adult, with a trusted therapist, if ever at all. I had to jog away, out of the building while they called after me.
Cults are usually based in foundations that make sense on the surface, that’s why they work. They encourage insights that interested parties previously had not considered, and self-realization feels incredible, it feels magical, because veils are lifted. Veils in how you see the world, how you see yourself and others, stories you have been carrying that hold you back. You start to pay attention to your own life, your emotional self, the ways that we can change. Because it’s all true, with internal work we can become better versions of ourselves. But we don’t need to give away all our money to do that. We don’t need to endure an abusive narcissistic leader’s every whim simply because he or she is the first person that showed us the power of personal change, of transformation. Thousands of people throughout time have offered these same insights, and cult leaders are fond of stealing and repurposing this ancient knowledge, acting as if they are the first and only sage of this divine knowledge. In its current form it seems to have manifested in spiritual-capitalism and corporate success, presented in pyramid schemes. Obviously, some go farther than just scamming people out of their money and destabilizing people psychologically, and we have a perfect example of how far it can go in NXIVM.
There are groups you can join that offer self-actualization without the scam, without the abuse. Look at AA, NA, CoDa, Al-Anon, and other 12 step programs. These groups ask of members a similar process of self evaluation, self-responsibility, and elevated consciousness through difficult self-realization. Of course, 12 step programs have long been called cults, but there is one big difference: the program is free and there is no leader. So, where it may feel like a cult in that members can be almost manically dedicated, they are not being manipulated by a single force, are not brought to financial ruin, and are not coerced into sex. There are a lot of great books out there too.
There is, to me, a devastating irresponsibility inherent to these human potential based cults, even the ones not yet associated with sexual abuse or blackmail. There is power in rearranging a person’s thinking, of delving into childhood traumas or attempting to force people to remember them, in public, while paying thousands of dollars to do so. I can’t imagine an educated therapist recommending this type of psychological work.
Look at 35-year-old environmental consultant Kristin Snyder, who disappeared in 2003 after a NXIVM session in Alaska. In her truck, a note was found that read: “I was brainwashed and my emotional center of the brain was killed/turned off. . . . Please contact my parents . . . if you find me or this note. I am sorry . . . I didn’t know I was already dead.” Her body was never found.
NXIVM has released the following statement on their website:
In response to the allegations against our founder, Keith Raniere, we are currently working with the authorities to demonstrate his innocence and true character. We strongly believe the justice system will prevail in bringing the truth to light. We are saddened by the reports perpetuated by the media and their apparent disregard for “innocent until proven guilty,” yet we will continue to honor the same principles on which our company was founded. It is during the times of greatest adversity that integrity, humanity and compassion are hardest, and needed most.