There was a method to the branding. It was supposed to be precisely seven strokes — one line across, and two diagonal lines down to form the sideways K; then four smaller lines to form the sideways R beneath, the little spoon to the big spoon of the K. The women were supposed to be naked. They were supposed to be videotaped. They were supposed to be held down on a table, arms above the head, legs spread, ankles and wrists bound; helpless, vulnerable, exposed. And they were supposed to say the following: “Please brand me. It would be an honor. An honor I want to wear for the rest of my life.”
This last part was the most important. “They should probably say that before they’re held down, so it doesn’t seem like they were being coerced,” Keith Raniere told actress Allison Mack, his lover, disciple, and slave.
“OK,” Mack responded in a soft voice. She already knew most of this, because she had already been branded.
Later, Raniere instructs Mack what to tell the women unwittingly being branded with his initials: “Pain is how we know how much we love. We know the depth of our love through pain. When they feel the pain, they think of that love.”
A recording of this January 9, 2016 conversation was presented as evidence in the criminal trial against Raniere, the 59-year-old head of NXIVM, a company offering self-improvement seminars and workshops that was based in Clifton Park, an Albany, New York, suburb dappled with shopping centers and two-story colonials. NXIVM was founded by Raniere and Nancy Salzman, a former registered nurse with schoolmarm glasses and a sensible haircut; he was called “Vanguard,” while she was known as “Prefect.” Recruits paid more than $7,500 for grueling, 12-hour “intensives” featuring NXIVM’s patented Executive Success Program (ESP) technology, a patchwork of various self-help programs, religious ideologies, and hypnosis techniques. They could also take classes through the smaller companies under the NXIVM umbrella: the Source, a workshop for actors led by Mack; Delegates, a Task Rabbit-esque startup primarily staffed by younger, female members; and JNESS, a female empowerment group whose Facebook wall features Martin Luther King Jr. quotes juxtaposed against a pastel-pink template.
At the head of all of these companies was Raniere, 59, a self-proclaimed former-child-prodigy-turned-guru, who stood trial last summer on sex trafficking, racketeering, and racketeering conspiracy charges. Raniere was accused, among other things, of using NXIVM as a recruitment network for DOS, which prosecutors referred to as a secret “sex cult” within NXIVM. Mack and other female NXIVM members were the “masters,” while Raniere was the “grandmaster” at the head of the group, instructing women in DOS to recruit “slaves” for the purpose of his sexual pleasure. The branding Raniere described in the January 2016 conversation with Mack was part of the slaves’ initiation ritual.
The women recruited as DOS slaves, as they recounted on the stand, were told to give up “collateral” as the price of entry, such as videos of themselves masturbating or postmarked “confessions” that relatives or loved ones had sexually abused them. They were told to text their “masters” up-close photos of their unshaven vulvas, always keeping their faces in the shot so they were fully identifiable. They were told to stick to low-calorie diets, to wake up in the middle of the night to respond to “readiness drills” or texts from their “masters” or risk being paddled, and to abstain from sexual activity with anyone but Raniere. They talked about how they were instructed to buy BDSM sex toys as part of a “dungeon” to be built in the basement of DOS headquarters that would include cages, vibrating rubber paddles, and “puppy plugs … perfect for puppy play or naughty slaves.” (Plans for the dungeon were scrapped when the F started closing in.) Many, though not all of them, were branded, and they talked about how excruciatingly painful it was: how you could hear the cauterizing pen sizzle against raw skin, how one woman squealed and screamed so loud and so long that the women gave her a cloth to bite on.
DOS slaves weren’t told that they were being branded with Raniere’s initials, nor were they told that Raniere was the mastermind behind the group. Instead, they were told by Mack and other top-line “masters” that DOS was a badass, if slightly unorthodox, feminist group meant to help women build discipline and overcome their intimacy issues. As assistant U.S. attorney Tanya Hajaar put it during opening remarks, “The defendant maintained a charade: Even though he controlled the victims’ lives, it was about female empowerment.” Through it all, Raniere sat quietly, occasionally scribbling notes on Post-Its to his attorney. On most days, he wore a jewel-toned crewneck and khakis, looking less like the head of a BDSM sex cult than a Latin instructor at a New England prep school.
By far the most popular topic of discussion, however, was how these women could have possibly convinced themselves they were signing up for a female-oriented wellness and empowerment group in the first place. No one went so far as to blame the women or accuse them of perpetuating their trauma — as journalists covering sensitive subjects like abuse and consent, we ostensibly knew better than that. Yet on days when the testimony was particularly brutal, the tenor of the discussions would come uncomfortably close. The branding, the photos, the seduction tasks, the sexually explicit collateral: Why would they agree to do these things? How could they have not suspected that the man they were being tasked to seduce, ostensibly as a sort of Abrahamic test of faith, was the one pulling the strings all along? How could this endless parade of smart, attractive, accomplished women so easily have given up their freedom and their bodies to this hairy, middle-aged guy who looked like an extra on the set of Rushmore? How could they not have known?
Executive Success Program (ESP), the patented “technology” that served as the basis of its curriculum, was little more than a mélange of psychotherapeutic and self-help teachings, with a dash of early wellness industry-speak thrown in. It has been referred to as a combination of the 1970s self-help program EST and Objectivism, the ideological system founded by neoliberal icon Ayn Rand.
NXIVM “was an old bag of tricks, repackaged,” regurgitating “universal truths about how to improve yourself and how to look closer at the things that are getting in your way of success and your fears,” says Diane Benscoter, a cult expert who has closely worked with former members. Indeed, Teah Banks, a former NXIVM member in its early years, says that after she left the group, she recognized many ESP techniques in the book Stress Management for Dummies.
Raniere’s taste for kink — the conflation of love with pain as heard on his call with Mack about DOS — was arguably derivative, too. According to Toni Natalie, Raniere’s ex-girlfriend and an early NXIVM whistleblower, Raniere had little interest in BDSM while they were dating in the 1990s, crediting the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey with inspiring Raniere’s taste for sadomasochism — or, at the very least, co-opting the language of the consensual-kink community to further his own desires to exploit and control women. “Like I’ve always said, the man is not capable of having an original thought,” Natalie says dryly.
A dark-haired woman in her early sixties with wide eyes and a predilection for understated silver, tribal jewelry, Natalie has spent the past two decades of her life vacillating between trying to fight her ex-boyfriend in court and trying to get people to understand him. Her new book The Program: Inside the Mind of Keith Raniere and the Rise and Fall of NXIVM, co-written with journalist Chet Hardin, documents both efforts, detailing her relationship with Raniere and her lengthy legal battles with NXIVM.
Natalie met Raniere in the early 1990s while he was running Consumers’ Buyline, a multilevel marketing scheme. At the time, Raniere was being branded by the company as the “smartest man in the world,” a label that stemmed from the results of a take-home IQ test he took in the 1980s that led to him being included in The Guinness Book of World Records (albeit just one Australian edition).
At the time she met Raniere, Natalie was 29 and in what she describes as a sexless marriage to her third husband, a tanning-salon owner. Raniere, she says, made her feel special — but perhaps more importantly, he made her feel smart. She’d left high school to get married for the first time at 17, and she was deeply self-conscious about her lack of formal education. “What Keith was able to do was immediately ascertain your weak points and insecurities,” Natalie says. “And then he takes those insecurities and convinces you he’s helping you with them. But it’s just things he uses to hold you hostage.”
For eight years, Raniere and Natalie lived together, with him serving as a father figure of sorts to her young son. All the while, Raniere was surrounded by a cohort of women who worked for his company, including Pam Cafritz, Karen Unterreiner, and Kristin Keeffe. These women, whom Raniere referred to as “the girls,” came from a wide range of backgrounds: Cafritz was the daughter of D.C. Republican socialites, while Keeffe was a former waitress who had met Raniere while waiting tables in Albany. All, however, were united in their fierce devotion to him.
Following the failure of Consumers’ Buyline, Raniere and Natalie opened a health-food store and cafe in upstate New York. It was through this business that Natalie met Salzman, who visited the store to find relief for her chronic constipation (“she was, quite literally, full of shit,” as Natalie puts it). Salzman touted herself as an expert in NLP (neurolinguistic programming), a form of therapy that uses tactics such as body language mirroring and hypnotherapy to help followers overcome personal obstacles. (It has largely been dismissed as pseudoscience.) She offered to give Raniere and Natalie private NLP sessions to help them with their relationship issues, which led to Raniere taking private meetings with Salzman in the back of the health-food store.
The result of their collaboration, Natalie writes, was “like putting two volatile chemicals together in a mad scientist’s lab: The resulting compound was both explosive and dangerous.” Disillusioned by what Natalie viewed as the exploitative NLP method and Raniere’s increasingly arrogant behavior, the two broke up in 1999. Almost immediately, “the girls” jumped into offense mode, urging Natalie to take him back; when that failed, she says, they stole her mail, hacked into her hard drives, and filed multiple lawsuits accusing her of stealing money from Raniere, strategies they would use against Natalie and any other perceived Raniere enemies for almost two decades.
In 2000, Raniere filed a patent for the “rational inquiry method,” which would serve as the basis for ESP. Raniere’s reputation as the “smartest man alive,” combined with Salzman’s credentials as a nurse and NLP expert, allowed the group to rack up many high-profile supporters fairly early on, most notably Clare and Sara Bronfman, the heiresses to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, who would later go on to spend nearly $140 million bankrolling the group’s lawsuits against Natalie and other detractors. The patented ESP “technology” allowed Raniere to “couch” the group’s methods by basing them in “rational thought,” says Josh Bloch, an investigative journalist and host of the CBC podcast Escaping NXIVM: “I could see how that would sound very attractive to someone who might be turned off by flaky or nonscientific messaging.”
Underneath that thin patina of pseudoscience, however, the leader of NXIVM had some pretty strange ideas. Chief among them were his theories about gender, which emerged into sharper relief as the group gained influence. “One thing that was [taught] was that men biologically, by their nature are primitive. They want to propagate. They want to create more children to create a tribe,” says Barbara Bouchey, a former Raniere girlfriend and high-ranking NXIVM member who left the group in 2009. “So men and their biological chemistry were prone to want to have multiple partners, whereas women based on their biological nature were at home in the cave caring for people.”
During the trial, it was often argued by the prosecution that such teachings served as a way to justify Raniere’s polyamorous lifestyle. But this is not exactly true. Only the highest-ranking NXIVM members were aware that Raniere was sleeping with most of the female board members, with most of the group’s lower-ranking members believing him to be something akin to a renunciate. The group “operated in silos,” says Bloch. “[The leadership] did a very good job with the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing.” Indeed, both Bouchey and Natalie deny having had any knowledge of Raniere’s extracurricular sexual activities while they were involved with him; when Natalie discovered graphic photos of “the girls” after their breakup, she said she felt devastated by the betrayal, particularly by Cafritz, whom she had considered “like a sister.”
But as NXIVM grew and Raniere expanded his reach, his views on the biological differences between men and women became more difficult to ignore. JNESS, the women’s group co-founded by Cafritz in 2007, taught that men inherently had more character and fortitude than women, who were more prone to flightiness and “game-playing,” a Raniere term for deceit and manipulation. The male equivalent to JNESS, the Society of Protectors (SOP), took these theories to the next level: according to one former member who testified at the trial, a coed SOP module gave female members tiaras or princess wands for being too “princess-y,” while one woman wearing a low-cut top to a meeting was given a blue ribbon for showing off her “udders.”
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what attracted women to this type of messaging. Part of its success was attributable to the fact that Raniere was well-versed enough in the language of corporate female empowerment for his misogyny to escape notice. Indeed, a large part of what attracted women to NXIVM was Raniere openly advocating for women in leadership roles. “His thing was always that the company would be better if there were women in power, because women are stronger, women are this, women are that,” Natalie says. Of course, Raniere did not install women in high-ranking positions within NXIVM because he thought they were smarter or stronger or better qualified; he did it says Natalie, because he believed “women were easier to control.” But it’s easy to see how a female recruit could see the largely female executive board and assume that the company promoted the interests of women.
Yet the misogyny inherent in Raniere’s teachings also appealed to some women on a much deeper level. Some of the women in NXIVM had come of age in an era of body-positive Dove ads and girl-power messaging, and had largely felt failed by its promises. Having sampled all of the wellness industry’s offerings on their path to enlightenment — the teas, the classes, the pastel-hued self-help paperbacks , the meditation apps, the rose-quartz vagina-tightening sticks — many felt disillusioned and more spiritually depleted than before. For many of these women, the goal wasn’t so much toward enlightenment or even fulfillment so much as it was feeling some semblance of OK. But the journey toward self-love proved so exhausting that the prospect of simply accepting their biological fate and ceding all of their power to men proved not just alluring, but irresistible.
This seemed to have been especially true for women like Mack, whom a friend described to the New York Times as someone “constantly searching for something that was missing in her life.” (Mack did not return Rolling Stone’s requests for comment.) Mack started taking NXIVM classes in 2006 when she was 23, in the hopes that she could learn to become a better actress; after Smallville ended in 2011, she struggled to find work and began to immerse herself even deeper into NXIVM, withdrawing from her friends and family members. One of the witnesses at trial, former board member Mark Vicente, testified that he viewed Mack as “unbalanced,” and became concerned about her mental health during this time.
But Mack felt otherwise. In an email to Raniere read at trial, she explained how grateful she was to be deep in his thrall, how disappointing her own strides toward self-empowerment had been, how nothing made her feel so powerful as to be made by him to feel powerless. “I spent so much time throughout my life listening to music about being ‘beautiful without doing anything,’ being ‘an independent woman,’ being every woman,” Mack lamented. “The ‘fierce’ and phenomenal woman’ lie is so encouraged and pervasive. It is the root of such pride, such violence, such prejudice.”” She then thanked Raniere for the threesome they had with another NXIVM member the night before.
Prior to NXIVM, Raniere’s weapon of choice was his small group of “girls” — namely, Unterreiner, Keeffe, and most importantly, Cafritz. But as NXIVM grew, so too did what prosecutors referred to during the trial as Raniere’s “inner circle.” There was Mack, Bouchey, Cafritz, Unterreiner, Keeffe, and Bronfman, but also Lauren Salzman, the daughter of “Prefect” Nancy, a wan, frail woman with dark circles under her eyes; Nicki Clyne, the saucer-eyed blond Canadian Battlestar Galactica actress; and Rosa Laura Junco, the improbably pretty daughter of a powerful Mexican publisher, who was so devoted to Raniere that she offered him her teenage daughter Lauris as his DOS slave and virgin successor.
The women all looked somewhat similar: in their early thirties to mid-forties, dark-eyed, tastefully dressed. Above all else, they were slender, almost painfully so: Raniere was obsessed with controlling women’s weight, to the degree that some of their fingers became stained with the color of the carrots and squash they exclusively ate at dinner. He was unabashed about weaponizing their insecurities about weight, telling one partner that the extra 10 pounds she’d gained “hurts my heart physically” and refusing to sleep with her till she shed them.
Within the “inner circle,” sex with Raniere was positioned as a crucial step toward achieving enlightenment, a spiritual reward in and of itself, and women who were having sex with Raniere were said to be “working with” him. Unsurprisingly, this idea was primarily propagated by Raniere himself, who claimed that women who swallowed his semen sometimes saw an ethereal “blue light,” and that those who refused to participate in a group oral sex session weren’t “committed to [their] personal growth.”
The NXIVM inner circle was not just a source of sexual gratification for Raniere. It was also his ultimate weapon. If one girlfriend was unhappy with Raniere, or had committed what was perceived as an ethical “breach” (NXIVM jargon for an act that ran counter to the group’s values), other members of the inner circle, primarily Cafritz, were tasked to bring them back into the fold.
They were tasked with going after NXIVM “enemies,” an ever-growing cast of journalists, defectors, and Raniere ex-girlfriends perceived as threats to the organization. “Alone, he would’ve just been a man,” U.S. attorney Marc Lesko said during closing. “Within his inner circle, he was the ruler of the universe in Clifton Park.”
Bronfman led the charge on this front, funneling $150 million into the group’s legal efforts. A former champion equestrian, Bronfman rose in the ranks to become Raniere’s capo, patron, and arguably most cutthroat defender. “Keith took her and put her on a pedestal. He made her important in the community and gave her a leadership role. She’d never had that before,” Bouchey tells me. The Bronfman-funded lawsuits were intended to, and ultimately did, completely decimate NXIVM critics like Natalie, whose own mother was forced to file for bankruptcy when she could no longer afford to help her daughter fight the suits. “Financially, how do you go up against the Bronfmans? They wiped us out,” Natalie says. “There’s no equalizer there.”
As the inner circle expanded, Raniere exerted ultimate control over his followers. He dictated everything from what they ate to who they slept with (no one but him and other women in the inner circle), and how they groomed their pubic hair. He was particularly skilled at capitalizing on the insecurities shared by many women of mid-to-late childbearing age: whether they were thin enough, whether they were sexual enough, whether they would be able to balance career with family. This was especially true for Salzman, who testified that she desperately wanted to have a child with Raniere, and spent 15 years with him dangling this over her head, only to have it abruptly yanked away after a perceived “ethical breach.” “I committed to stay with nothing. No relationship, no baby. Nothing,” she testified through choked sobs.
Bouchey, who left the group in 2009 and has also been embroiled for years in legal battles with Raniere and NXIVM, believes that the women who were willing to sacrifice so much for Raniere, only to get so little in return, had one trait in common. “They were what I would call weak-willed women,” she says. “They were smart, they were sensitive, they were caring. But were they confident? No.” Raniere, she says, went out of his way to surround himself with women who were successful by societal standards — privileged, attractive, well-educated — but who did not have the financial independence nor street smarts to assert themselves and their own autonomy.
Natalie has a similar theory. While the women in Raniere’s inner circle were all extremely bright, they tended to lack substantive family ties, and all were “insecure and damaged in some fundamental way,” making them easier to control. “He convinces you that your successes are not your own. Your successes are only because he exists,” she says.
Both of these theories, however, actually contradict much of the available research on cults. Aside from a few general demographic traits, such as being white, middle-to-upper-middle-class, and having an above-average IQ, there is no one set of characteristics that differentiates people who join cults from people who don’t, says Dr. Steve Eichel, one of the world’s foremost cult-studies experts. Cult leaders don’t look for people who are any more “broken” than most of the population. What they look for, he says, is people who are in transition, who have just lost a job or ended a marriage or had a child. “You look for people who are vulnerable. And the problem is we are all vulnerable to cultic influence at various times in our lives,” he says. “[The] primary cause of cult membership is bad luck.”
It’s fair to be skeptical about this explanation. After all, in the grand scheme of things, very few people join a cult; even fewer people (about 16,000) actually took NXIVM classes, and fewer still joined DOS. It seems like a bit of a stretch to say that anyone is vulnerable to joining a cult when so few people actually do. But when you consider all of the women who spend thousands on spin classes or serums or pastel-branded all-female co-working startups, who whittle themselves down to nothing to run a race that has no finish line in sight, who are told to surrender all of their power in order to ostensibly build up their own, then, of course, it makes sense that women would feel empowered by Keith Raniere. When you’re taught for years that pain is love and love is pain and one is the only way to measure the depths of the other, it doesn’t make a difference if the person telling you that is your boyfriend or your spin instructor or an Instagram ad for laxative tea or a fleshy-cheeked, nebbishy, middle-aged guy with a seemingly endless supply of crewneck sweaters. It’s the same message from a different messenger. It’s an old bag of tricks, repackaged.
In November 2016, Cafritz died after a lengthy battle with cancer. Her death was devastating for NXIVM members, some of whom shared a meme on Facebook memorializing her work with JNESS, with the quote: “If we want to have more women’s empowerment, we need to have a core essence of what it means to be female and how to uphold the female principle within ourselves.”
But it was arguably more devastating to Raniere, who had been involved with Cafritz for nearly 30 years and who relied on her as a fixer of sorts. She was the one Raniere dispatched to calm down angry girlfriends, and she became such a frequent presence at the local Planned Parenthood, where Raniere would send his partners to get abortions, that the staff recognized her. Natalie, who knew her former best friend had been sick and had been waiting for her to call toward the end of her life, believes Cafritz was both one of Raniere’s last ties to humanity, and one of his most tragic victims. “I wonder what he did to Pam. I wonder why she did the things that she did,” Natalie tells me. “It still haunts me.”
During the trial, both the defense and the prosecution framed Cafritz’s death as formative in Raniere’s decision to create DOS, albeit in totally different ways. Raniere’s lead attorney, Marc Agnifilo, said Cafritz’s death prompted Raniere to consider his “legacy” and what he hoped to leave behind, eventually settling on DOS, which he created with “the best of intentions” as a support system for women. Assistant U.S. district attorney Moira Penza argued that DOS was created to fulfill the role that Cafritz had always played: a pimp for Raniere. She cited 2016 texts between Raniere and a DOS slave named Camilla, in which he tells her it would be good for her “to own a fuck toy slave for me that you could groom as a tool.” The texts were sent in 2015, a year before Cafritz died of cancer.
On paper, the goal of DOS was the same as set forth by Cafritz in JNESS: female empowerment. “It was pitched as women getting together, women supporting women, that kind of thing,” says a a 43-year-old writer whom Mack attempted to recruit to DOS in 2016. (She asked that Rolling Stone keep her anonymous, citing a concern over any potential ties to NXIVM threatening her job security.) “It was not specific at all in terms of the mission,” she says. Raniere wanted to create a worldwide network of female “slaves” and “masters,” using NXIVM’s marketing tools and high-profile members like Mack to cultivate women of influence, such as Emma Watson, Beverley Mitchell, and Jill Filipovic, to join the group. (None ever did.) His vision was dizzyingly ambitious: in one recorded call played during the trial, Raniere envisioned the organization becoming so powerful it would sway the U.S. 2020 general election.
Raniere had a few requirements for admission. You had to be attractive, young, and thin (or at least, willing to become thin in a short period of time). And with a few exceptions, you had to be single, with the logic being it’s easier to persuade women to send you photos of their vulvas if their spouses aren’t around to get in the way. But this criterion also helped winnow down the applicant pool to a specific kind of woman, the type of woman who had felt failed by the “fierce and phenomenal woman” stereotype Mack had maligned in her email, the type of woman who had not yet ticked off the requisite wife and mother and career boxes society demands women to check off one by one, and whose perceived failure to do so likely made her insecure, and therefore more pliable.
Nicole, an aspiring actress with glossy brown hair and the craniofacial structure of a baby sparrow, was one of these women. Unlike Mack, she still believed in the concept of the fierce and phenomenal woman. In fact, as she testified, she dreamed of playing a role like Wonder Woman. “That was the kind of woman I wanted to become,” she said. A Los Angeles transplant in her late twenties who’d moved to New York to kick-start her acting career, Nicole had taken a few classes with the Source, NXIVM’s company for actors. Nicole was in transition: She’d just broken up with her boyfriend, her career was in a downslide, and she was regretting her move to New York to the point that she was borderline suicidal, as she confided in Mack, whom she considered a mentor. A concerned Mack invited her to coffee, where she pitched her on an “an intense, growing empowerment group where women pushed each other to be stronger physically [and] mentally.”
Nicole was intrigued. Her curiosity was further piqued when Mack promised Nicole this secret group would help her live the kind of life she wanted and build the kind of career she wanted; it could, she told her, help her become Wonder Woman. A few days later, Nicole supplied Mack with her collateral: a video of herself masturbating, as well as a letter falsely claiming her father had sexually abused her. A few months later, she would be instructed by Mack to seduce Raniere; a few months after that, she would be branded.
DOS was predicated on the illusion that Raniere had absolutely nothing to do with the organization. “I thought I was getting into a women’s empowerment group,” Nicole testified on the stand through sobs. “[Somehow], I’d become a man’s sex slave.” But even though Raniere’s involvement in DOS was a secret known only to top-line slaves like Mack, so great was his ego that he simply couldn’t help but drop the occasional hint that he was behind it all. Once, while they were in his library together, Raniere told Nicole about how, in the army, recruits would be tasked with scrubbing a tank with a toothbrush, then told they needed to do it all over again when they were done.
A man was behind the creation of NXIVM’s secret female empowerment organization. But it took multiple women to help bring it down: Sarah Edmondson, a Vancouver-based actress who had been recruited to DOS by Salzman, then left the group when she was told Raniere was behind it all; and Catherine Oxenberg, the Dynasty star and concerned mother of India Oxenberg, who worked for the NXIVM company Delegates and had also been recruited to DOS by Mack.
In the fall of 2017, former NXIVM employee and whistleblower Frank Parlato published a series of articles about DOS on his website, followed by The New York Times publishing a bombshell investigation into the group, featuring photos of Edmondson showing her brand. Oxenberg, too, went to the press, telling Megyn Kelly in November 2017 that India had been branded and instructed to go on a near-starvation diet.
The revelation that the women of NXIVM were running a secret sex cult came as a shock to most within the organization, who had little knowledge of such unsavory activities in the upper ranks. Raniere had, in fact, been so skilled at keeping church and state separate that not even NXIVM co-founder Nancy Salzman knew about DOS, and she was furious that her daughter and other women “went out and got Keith’s initials branded next to their vaginas,” Lauren testified.
Ever the student of 21st-century feminist discourse, Raniere drafted a statement in his defense to the Times, accusing it of waging a “primitive, covertly misogynistic” campaign to shame his female acolytes for their “alternative lifestyles.” At one point, he compared DOS slaves to the authors of the Declaration of Independence. But the damage had already been done. Disgusted by the report, longtime members started slowly peeling off one by one.
True to form, the “inner circle” stayed strong, even after FBI investigators closed in and Raniere fled to Mexico in late 2017, staying in a lavish home in a gated community outside Puerto Vallarta. Somehow, DOS was still active during this time, with Raniere asking a number of the first-line slaves to join him in Mexico for a “recommitment ceremony” — essentially, a group blow job.
The recommitment ceremony never happened. In March 2018, Mexican federales arrested Raniere at the plush mansion where he was staying; as Salzman testified, when they arrived, he tried to hide in a closet. Video footage of the arrest shows the women trailing behind the police as they push Raniere into a car; Mack, looking ever the gringa tourist in a black tank and floral drawstring pants, leads the pack, in a daze. Mack, Salzman, her mother Nancy, bookkeeper Kathy Russell, and Bronfman would be arrested later that spring. All of them would enter guilty pleas rather than stand trial with Raniere.
Every once in a while, during the trial, NXIVM members would show up at the courthouse. Though they rarely sat in the defense’s section, it was easy to pick them out in the crowd: They were clean-cut, tanned, and almost eerily handsome. One of them, Mark Elliott, an inspirational speaker who credits Raniere with curing his Tourette’s syndrome, posted an ad on Instagram for a lecture, “Who’s Next? [TM]. The Rise of Character Assassination and Loss of Human Decency,” which promised to tell the true story behind the media’s attacks on NXIVM. After the media caught wind of it, it was quietly deleted. (Elliott, and all others believed to be current NXIVM members that RS reached out to, declined to be interviewed.)
In light of the evidence presented at trial, the fact that Raniere still had his supporters baffled everyone in the press corps. Vicente, the former board member, a rakishly handsome man in his fifties with thick gray hair and a fondness for profanity, says the NXIVM true believers think that despite the paddlings and the brandings and the calorie-counting and the abuse, the good that Raniere did outweighed the bad. He summarized their line of thinking: “Let’s not focus on what happened in the ovens. Let’s focus on what happened on the train on the way there.”
But it’s not just current members who swear that they got something out of NXIVM. Banks told me that ESP taught her to forgive her parents, who had ignored her as a child when she said she was molested. Bouchey spoke highly of Salzman’s skills as a therapist, and told me a story about a woman in NXIVM with stage fright whom Raniere encouraged to participate in NXIVM’s a cappella group. “In order for him to have gotten away with the bad things he did, there had to be a lot of good people doing a lot of good things,” Bouchey told me.
A few days before Raniere was convicted on all charges, the author Jessica Knoll wrote an op-ed on the wellness industry for The New York Times that quickly went viral. The wellness industry, Knoll argued, is a “function of the patriarchal beauty standard under which women either punish themselves to become smaller or are punished for failing to comply.” “When you have to deprive, punish, and isolate yourself to look ‘good,’ it is impossible to feel good,” she notes. Wellness, she wrote, isn’t about being freer or stronger. It isn’t about loosening the shackles of oppression and throwing them to the wind. It’s about slipping them onto our wrists and letting someone else tighten the screws. It’s about powerlessness. It’s about surrender. It’s about love, and pain, and letting people tell us we don’t know the difference. What Knoll’s piece exposed wasn’t so much the stark truth of the wellness industry, but the brutal truth about the condition of womanhood in general, which is that so many of us hate ourselves so intensely and so often that there is no limit to the amount of pain we are willing to endure to change that.
Keith Raniere was wrong about a lot of things. He was right about one: Women are raised to believe that their ability to solve all of their problems is directly correlated with their proximity to a man. And when you are raised to believe that men carry with them the solutions to all of your problems, it isn’t so much of a stretch to conclude that this could mean any man: that one with the ring, or that one with the job offer, or that one with the soft patient voice and the floppy hair and seemingly endless supply of crewneck sweaters, who looks at you like you are his breakfast and tells you, in a soft, patient voice, that breaking you down is the only way for you to become stronger.