The NXIVM sex cult

Allison Mack and Keith Raniere

In 2018, Keith Raniere and Allison Mack were arrested. It was a step towards answering what was really going on inside NXIVM. What exactly was it— group for professional women, pyramid scheme or sex cult; what were its ties to the cast of Smallville; and how do you pronounce a name that only has one vowel?

NXIVM’s emphasis on self-improvement drew thousands of women in, but its dangers came for its strictest devotees.

Raniere’s trial took place this year, with NXIVM’s co-founder Nancy Salzman, her daughter Lauren, its former bookkeeper Kathy Russel and Clare Bronfman (the heiress to the liquor company Seagram who, alongside her sister Sara, donated millions to the group) charged alongside Raniere and Mack. All of the women pleaded guilty to charges that included racketeering and visa fraud. Raniere was the only member of the group to plead not guilty. The charges against him included human and sex trafficking and possession of child pornography, after he took photos of underage girls he held as his ‘slaves’. In June, he was found guilty on all charges. 

It turned out, a group that purported to be about female empowerment, offering personal and professional development seminars, was actually a cult in which women were coerced into sex, blackmailed and branded. A cult for women in service to a man: Keith Raniere.  

NXIVM’s emphasis on self-improvement drew thousands of women in, but its dangers came for its strictest devotees. For those that went deeper, there was DOS. DOS was billed as a secret ‘sorority’, a sisterhood, a network of powerful women. Powerful women who were reduced to ‘masters’ and ‘slaves’ within a pyramid scheme of slavery, that is. At the top sat Raniere: the ultimate master.

A former member Sarah Edmondson spoke of how she was recruited into DOS to the New York Times. To join, recruits had to hand over incriminating evidence about themselves, like letters they would write detailing indiscretions and naked photos. Then, they were held down and branded with Raniere’s initials.

For all its talk on empowerment, members were told they’d be taught how to overcome their ‘female weaknesses’, including being over-emotional and embracing their own victimhood. They were then given a timetable for recruiting new slaves. Meanwhile, hanging over their heads was the collateral they had handed over to be used against them. 

In reality, DOS was a thinly veiled means of securing women that practised obedience to Raniere. At his trial, one of these women (identified only as ‘Sylvie’) spoke of how she was told by her own ‘master’ to seduce Raniere, starting with sending him explicit photos.  As her master had complete control over her life, able to decide even whether Sylvie and her husband would have children, she complied. The photos graduated to an in-person meeting, where he performed oral sex on her against her will. Meanwhile, she was forced to hand over more—and more damaging—collateral against herself. 

This was common for the women inside NXIVM, who would be told to end relationships, were forced to have abortions, take naked photos regularly and made to starve themselves to get down to Raniere’s idea of the ideal weight.  Mark Vicente, a filmmaker who was involved with NXIVM until 2017, reported in court that women would limit their diets to a few hundred calories a day—Mack included. Vicente said he told Raniere that Mack looked ‘broken’. He replied: ‘I’m trying to break her.’

Actress Catherine Oxenberg’s daughter India experienced the same. During the trial, a witness named Nicole said that Mack put India on a strict 500 calorie a day diet, to get down to 107 pounds. Like the others, Nicole was enticed by the idea of female empowerment, but once inside NXIVM, Mack made her write a letter falsely accusing her father of sexual abuse, to stop having sex with her boyfriend and become celibate for months. 

Mack’s presence in the cult worked in Raniere’s favour: as a famous face, she was a useful recruiter. Though her Smallville co-star Kristen Kreuk has said her involvement within NXIVM was limited to a ‘personal growth course’, Mack is said to have become Raniere’s second in command. Bronfman also recruited women (including Sylvie) into the cult, as did Lauren Salzman, who admitted to keeping a woman enslaved for two years. The woman was kept in a locked room and threatened with deportation if she didn’t comply with Salzman’s orders. 

The women were brainwashed by Rainiere, or to use his self-bestowed title, ‘Vanguard’

Named ‘Daniela’ in court, her family had moved from Mexico when she was 16 after learning about NXIVM. Raniere groomed her for weeks, telling her he would take her virginity when she turned 18. But not before she got down to the correct weight. She was later forced to participate in regular group sex with Raniere and one of her sisters and when she and both of her sisters became pregnant, they were all made to have abortions. When she gained weight and asked to see another man, she was held hostage in solitary confinement, unable to see her family, even though they were in the same house. She eventually fled back to Mexico without her family.  

The women were brainwashed by Rainiere, or to use his self-bestowed title, ‘Vanguard’. He said he had one of the highest IQs in the world, that he had several degrees. Lauren Salzman said they believed he could control the weather, that technology didn’t work around him. Other women were told sex with him would be akin to a ‘spiritual experience’. That it could cure the damage caused by childhood molestation.  He also raped and abused underage girls (aged only 15 or 16). One girl was only 12 when Raniere started abusing her. He was 30. He claimed they had old souls. 

For years, NXIVM’s practises operated effectively in secret. Even for those willing to leave and brave the damaging collateral being sent to their friends and family, there was Bronfman’s money to quash lawsuits and intimidate would-be whistle blowers. 

But Raniere’s arrest and trial has finally brought an end to the abuse. He will be sentenced in September and is facing life.