Keith Raniere may be discovering that there's a downside to following the Scientology model of recruiting celebrities into your cult. For whatever credibility and popularity they may initially bring to your organization, if things go pear-shaped, fame becomes infamy. A few weeks ago, the NXIVM founder was extradited from Mexico on sex trafficking and other charges. There was a flurry of news coverage, as noted here. But when "Smallville" star Allison Mack was arrested on Friday, a media firestorm ensued.
This is not the first time Raniere's cultivation of the rich and famous has backfired. It may be what put him on the road to ruin. India Oxenberg, an aspiring actress from a royal bloodline, must have seemed like a real get, until her much more famous mother Catherine Oxenberg went public. Her plea for her daughter's safety was covered by the New York Times, People, Megyn Kelly TODAY, and 20/20. And suddenly that "branding cult" was water cooler talk.
The unflinching, in-depth coverage in the media also forced New York authorities to begin taking complaints seriously, that they had previously dismissed as "consensual." Roughly six months later, NXIVM's most famous member is facing 15 years to life and so is Keith Raniere.
Previous to this graphic, public outing, Raniere's organization had been chugging along pretty quietly in Albany, making millions, and silencing former members with lawsuits and intimidation tactics, thanks to the very deep pockets of Seagram's heiresses Clare and Sara Bronfman. Although their wealth and social position had also brought him a spate of bad press. But suing your victims into silence and bankruptcy is a less effective tactic when some of them are famous and well-heeled, something Scientology is learning the hard way with its futile attacks on Leah Remini.
Is this self-help organization a cult, asks Rolling Stone. Answer: yes.
NXIVM – which began, in 1998, as a "personal and professional development program" dubbed Executive Success Programs – was founded by computer programmer Keith Raniere and his business partner, ex-nurse Nancy Salzman.The group holds seminars and training programs for people "concerned with developing their skills," and claims to have worked with more than 16,000 people in 30 countries. The organization uses a trademarked method called "Rational Inquiry" to help adherents achieve their goals (for the reported cost of up to $7,500 for an intensive, multi-day workshop). (Rolling Stone reached out to Executive Success Programs and Keith Raniere for comment but did not hear back.)
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Alexandra Stein, who has a PhD in the sociology of cults and wrote a book called Terror, Love and Brainwashing, tells RS that NXIVM does, indeed, qualify as a cult, per her five-point definition: it has a charismatic, authoritarian leader; it's "steeply hierarchical" in format, with possible front groups; it bears a "total, absolute ideology;" it uses coercive persuasion or brainwashing to isolate members from family; and it exploits followers and shows "potential for violence."
"Cults come in all forms," she explains. "Religious, political, self-help, therapy, sports/martial arts, commercial, business. If someone is promising you the world and starting to do [those] other things, beware."
All of those elements are very clearly present, as are other cult markers, not noted in that article. For instance, women are being starved to the point of being dangerously underweight. Raniere likes his women thin. But convincing women to subsist on 500-800 calories a day is a pernicious control tactic.
In one of the most troubling moments in Catherine Oxenberg's People interview she talks about her daughter being so thin that she had stopped menstruating and was already perimenopausal in her early 20s. This can happen with anorexia and Raniere's "slave women" are functionally anorexic.
In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolff shows how our cultural preoccupation with thinness is a way of weakening women psychologically, socio-politically, and physically.
It is also a cult brainwashing tactic, often coupled with another physical stressor, sleep deprivation. Steven Hassan lists both under Behavior Control in his BITE model.
5. Regulate diet - food and drink, hunger and/or fasting
6. Manipulation and deprivation of sleep
Both tactics were apparently used and enforced by Allison Mack in the secret NXIVM sect DOS (Dominus Obsequius Sororum).
The presence of excess fat can disturb transmission of Raniere’s subtle energies to women, he claims. So, he required female students to be slender. He offered instructions on overcoming bodily urges and “emotional viscera” toward food. DOS women were placed on three diets, separated by daily caloric intake: 500[advanced]; 800 [standard]; and 900 [women who had defiance issues].
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In addition to constantly dieting, Raniere’s slaves are instructed to sleep little. Raniere said he dispensed with the need for sleep; slaves are required to ask permission to go to sleep and are awakened at the call of Raniere or Mack – which may come by text. Failure to comply comes with vigorous paddling on bare buttocks.
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Mack said the reason Raniere is unavailable during the day is he is in “deep transcendental communion with cosmic realities.”
Mack told her slaves the reason they are only allowed to sleep three to four hours per night is to teach them to be in “alignment with their inner representations” of Raniere.
Other red flags can be seen in the 20/20 episode and other reporting. Minutes into the broadcast, Elizabeth Vargas gives an overview of some of NXIVM's lingo.
We do know that NXIVM has its own lingo. Students are taught about overcoming "disintegrations" to become more "potent" and less "suppressive" and avoiding people termed "parasites" or "Luciferians."
In Hassan's BITE model, this falls under Thought Control:
3. Use of loaded language and clichés which constrict knowledge, stop critical thoughts and reduce complexities into platitudinous buzz words
"Loading the Language" is also item six in Robert Jay Lifton's thought reform criteria, also known as "thought-terminating clichés."
The language of the totalist environment is characterized by the thought-terminating cliché. The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.
Also notable is the exploitation of Confession, number four on Lifton's list, and number six under Information Control in Hassan's BITE model.
Before joining DOS, women were required to give collateral, such as nude photos or sensitive information on family members, which would later be used to prevent them from telling anyone about the group or leaving it.
The third item under Hassan's Behavior Control is:
3. When, how and with whom the member has sex
That control can play out in a number of ways, like the arranged marriages in Unification (moonies) and FLDS. Sexual exploitation by leaders may not be universal in cults and and other contexts of spiritual abuse, but it is frighteningly common. Many examples have been given in this blog: Warren Jeffs is in prison for sexual abuse of minors. Samuel Mullet of the Bergholz Amish punished men by making them sleep in chicken coops and having sex with their wives. The Catholic Church concealed and enabled sexually abusive priests for decades. Joshu Sasaki molested followers like it was good for their spiritual development. Bikram Choudhury has been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment, assault, and rape. And a number of men say they were sexually abused by "Michel" in the Buddafield cult exposed in Holy Hell.
Sexual exploitation is not a bug, in a group like this. It's a feature. It's not just a privilege assumed by a leader drunk on power, although it is that. It's a means of control. It's one of the most disempowering things you can do to another person. It breaks you down, disintegrates your personal boundaries, and enmeshes you ever more deeply. It consumes you, body and soul.
By all appearances, Keith Raniere has a harem. Female followers were groomed in a women's group called Jness and then inducted into DOS, a secret sect that he denies any part in. It is the unusual women's empowerment group that is created by a male leader, but Raniere is credited with founding Jness.
Keith Raniere’s vision for humanity and human potential led him to found various other companies in the following years. In 2003, he founded NXIVM Corporation, a seminal company for various other endeavors involving the creation of community-building spaces housing athletic, spa, and health and wellness facilities. He is the conceptual founder of Jness®, a company started five years later to promote the furtherance and empowerment of women throughout the world.
The description by Sarah Edmondson on 20/20 sounds anything but empowering.
One of the key principles in Jness was understanding that the main difference between men and women was that men are designed genetically to not be monogamous, spread their seed, and women genetically are designed to be monogamous... And not only that but subservient to men.
Edmondson was inducted into DOS and was branded, along with other women, something she says did not "seem like a choice, at the time."
All the indoctrination. All the years of women are weak. Women have no character. Now is the time to prove I can do it.
She was also being extorted with the "collateral" that had been collected from her. Edmondson goes into more depth on how she was drawn into this extreme experience here. She describes her own cognitive dissonance. As discussed here, Leon Festinger theorized that we all need our thoughts, feelings, and actions to be congruent. When they're not, we are uncomfortable until we reconcile them. So if we take an action, even if it's under some pressure or duress, we're compelled to justify that action to ourselves, as she describes: "When you spend $3,000 on a five-day training, you want to make it good. You want to make it a good choice—yeah, I got something out of it."
Edmondson kept justifying her actions to herself, up to and including the excruciating branding process. This, of course, she would also have to justify to herself with obedience and deeper commitment, in order to resolve the increasing levels of cognitive dissonance.
Inductees into DOS were apparently told that the insignia they were being branded with was Latin — something that was reported by both Edmondson and Oxenberg — but it was actually Keith Raniere's initials. "I lost it, when I figured that out," Edmondson tells Vargas.
But it appears that the brand is actually a combination of both Raniere's and Mack's initials. Vertically it reads KR.
Horizontally it's AM.
The website for Jness offers little more than cryptic explanations of its purpose, sprinkled with the occasional platitude. Nowhere on that site could I find any explanation of what the name Jness even means. But I should definitely use the hashtag #jnessing. That much is clear.
Actress Samia Shoaib described to Page Six Mack's "desperate" attempts to lure her into Jness with vague descriptions of its purpose.
The pair met twice in the month after they met, once at an Amsterdam Avenue restaurant and another time at Shoaib’s Upper West Side apartment.
Each time, Mack appeared more “fragile and gaunt” with dark circles under her eyes, Shoaib said.
“She was definitely physically suffering,” Shoaib said. “There’s no question she was sleep deprived.”
The conversations quickly shifted from feminism to a Nxivm-affilliated woman’s group called JNess, which Mack encouraged Shoaib to join. But her descriptions of the group were always “very vague,” Shoaib said.
Jness appears to have been a front-group for DOS, a way of bringing in women and screening them for DOS. And Shoaib is not the only female celeb Mack tried to recruit. She even targeted Emma Watson, as if Watson ever needed help defining her place in the world as a woman. Unlike Watson, Mack is not a feminist and her ideas about women and women's rights seem a little twisted. This is from her blog post about Jness. I had to dig it out of cache, because her personal site has been suspended.
I have always been attracted to women’s issues and the struggle of women in our world. But for most of my life I have been at a loss in my understanding and experience of what it is to be a woman. That is, until I was introduced to the women’s movement, Jness.
I can't fathom what it means to be "attracted" to struggle, but the more troubling part is that she didn't understand what it meant to be a woman until a man named Keith Raniere sorted it out for her.
And I lived my life conflicted. Feeling a certain type of frustration in being a woman – hating the perception of “young girl” or “beautiful flower” and never, ever feeling satisfied with the way I saw women represented. But then also feeling the conflict of fully diving into the “feminist” movement as I saw it existing. I didn’t want to spend all my time “raging against men” or “fighting to be heard” – something felt unnatural and angry in that approach and I didn’t think that was the answer either.
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And consequently I felt threatened by women. The internal confusion and frustration I felt manifested itself in the way I related withallwomen [sic]. I saw them as I felt inside myself: complicated, quixotic, and unpredictable. I felt I couldn’t trust women. This was a secret I kept – and tried my best to resolve this by joining every women’s campaign I could as an attempt to prove I didn’t feel this way.
So a woman who felt threatened by other women and didn't trust them, who thinks that she and all women are impractical and unrealistic, is on the board of a women's organization, one that apparently fronted for a group that brutally inducted other women and branded them with her initials. Let that sink in.
It's really too bad that they scotched Mack's website, because it is a fascinating study in itself, the weird splotch in the background that looks vaguely like a bloodstain, the way cursoring over the section headings effectively crosses them out. It's soft, pink, feminine, but with an undercurrent of rage and self-abnegation. Or maybe I'm reading too much into it.
There's a rumor that Mack recently married actress Nicki Clyne. The story has been picked up by a number of news outlets, but traces to Artvoice, one of several publications run by Frank Parlato. Parlato was at one time NXIVM's publicist and he has dedicated years and many pixels to taking down the operation he once promoted. He has his own credibility — and legal— issues, so some of his reporting should probably be taken with a few grains of salt. However many of his scoops have proved out.
Parlato — who owns the Niagara Falls Reporter and Buffalo’s alternative weekly, Artvoice — first revealed the group’s branding ritual in June 2017 on FrankReport.com, a blog dedicated to exposing Raniere and his alleged crimes.
In the Artvoice piece, we learn a couple of things: that Mack married Clyne so she could stay in the US, and that both women sidelined their acting careers to devote themselves to Raniere full-time.
Sources inside NXIVM told Artvoice that reputed sex cult leader Allison Mack ‘married’ former actresses/sex slave Nicki Clyne in order to keep Clyne in the USA.
Clyne is a Canadian citizen and was having difficulties fulfilling visa obligations. Sources said India Oxenberg – daughter of Dynasty TV star Catherine Oxenberg – witnessed the nuptials.
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Clyne was encouraged to quit acting by Raniere, according to multiple sources. Although under contract in her recurring role in the series, in 2008, she asked the producers of Battlestar Galatica to let her out of her contract. They agreed and, in an episode, her character was killed off.
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Clyne was not alone in giving up a TV role for Raniere. Mack gave up her role in the TV show Smallville to follow Raniere in 2010.
Both women seem to still be acting, if you look at their IMDB profiles, but they were also both written out of very successful shows, so I'm not sure what the truth is there. If true, that would mean that it was actually Raniere who forced Cally Tyrol out of that airlock.
So who is this Keith Raniere that so many beautiful, talented women have completely wrecked themselves on? Short answer: nobody. As Elizabeth Vargas observes in the 20/20 expose, "He looks like a schlub."
Former follower and ex-girlfriend Toni Natalie explains, "It's one gigantic, hypnotic induction." There could be no other explanation.
Raniere, who likes to be called "Vanguard," is a genius of many accomplishments, according to himself. In an infomercial for his brainchild Consumer's Buyline, Eddie Albert lends his gravitas to a litany of impressive feats. (The complete infomercial can be seen here and here.)
So did he seem like a genius? Toni Natalie had questions even then.
He seemed like a geek. And I sat down and I asked him I said so you have a 240 IQ. Why are you doing this? Why aren't you curing cancer? Why aren't you really making a difference? And he said this is the platform that I'm going to use and I'm gonna change the world.
So he was going to change the world through bulk buying? But Consumer's Buyline was determined by numerous State Attorneys General to be not so much world-changing as it was a pyramid scheme. And that was the end of that grand vision. Now he's been arrested for yet another pyramid scheme, but he's upped his game to include sex trafficking. He does seem to have convinced his cult that this is also a world-changing vision.
But this is what cults always do. They leverage not only your personal hopes and dreams, but your idealistic vision for a better world. It's really that predictable.
Rick Ross tells 20/20 that NXIVM is just a rehash of Scientology, Ayn Rand, and EST. So there's not much new there... except the branding. That's novel.
It's hard to know what exactly they teach, because it's all fiercely guarded with non-disclosure agreements. Ross, however, published some of those materials and a 14 year legal battle ensued. The case was kicked in 2016.
I couldn't help noticing that Raniere's partner in crime Nancy Salzman studied Neuro-lingustic Programming with creators Richard Bandler and John Grinder. Considering that Bandler was a cokehead who nearly went to prison for murder, and that NLP is widely considered to be a mind-control technique employed by con-artists and cult leaders, that might be another clue. Here is James Arthur Ray demonstrating the wonders of NLP.
Red flags, there were plenty, but many smart, successful, idealistic people were drawn in by the unlikeliest of charismatic leaders, some going so far as to permanently modify their bodies.
Allison Mack was released into her parents' custody on 5 million dollars bail. She is reportedly considering a plea.
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