|Keith Raniere writes notes on little blue post its during trial Panel of sex slave masters behind him|
Nxivm: How a Sex Cult Leader Seduced
and Programmed His Followers
Former Nxivm members testified they were brainwashed into being branded and assigned to have sex with him.
By Colin Moynihan
June 14, 2019
Courtroom Artwork by Elizabeth Williams
When she first attended classes run by the self-help group Nxivm, Sylvie noticed multiple pictures on display of the group’s leader, Keith Raniere, known as Vanguard.
|Sylvie being shown a large photograph of Kieth Raniere that was displayed at the classes|
People in the classes, held in Albany, appeared to venerate Mr. Raniere, Sylvie testified during his racketeering and sex trafficking trial. She said class participants clapped, bowed, huddled, recited a “mission statement” and then said in unison “Thank you, Vanguard!”
|Sylvie on the stand giving her testimony about being manipulated into becoming a sex slave for Raniere|
The experience left her thinking she would never take another class, Sylvie said. Yet she did, eventually joining a clandestine subgroup within Nxivm in which she was called a “slave” and required to blindly obey a “master.” She even allowed Mr. Raniere to perform oral sex on her, believing she could not refuse.
For six weeks, the question of how Mr. Raniere persuaded so many seemingly perceptive people to let him control their lives has hung over his federal racketeering trial in Brooklyn.
Six former Nxivm members have taken the stand, providing a window into how the group indoctrinated people, undermined their moral beliefs and convinced them to blindly follow Mr. Raniere’s edicts, even when that meant breaking the law or tolerating unwelcome sexual contact.
Over the years, Nxivm’s curriculums provided the philosophical framework for a group in which members were taught to substitute Mr. Raniere’s principles for their own and see deviation from his teachings as heresy. The community was an echo chamber, witnesses said, and dissenters were subject to recrimination.
|The anonymous jury that convicted Raniere of all counts.|
Richard Ross, who runs the Cult Education Institute in Trenton, testified that he was hired by the parents of Nxivm members to extricate them from the group. “It became clear to me that this was a personality-driven group defined by a leader, eerily reminiscent of Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard,” he said.
Besides Sylvie, the jury has heard from three other witnesses: Daniela, “J” and Nicole, whose full names were withheld because they were considered victims.
Two former high-ranking Nxivm leaders, Lauren Salzman and Mark Vicente, also testified. Ms. Salzman, whose mother founded Nxivm with Mr. Raniere, was indicted along with him but pleaded guilty in March.
|Raniere seated with attorneys who was found guilty of conspiracy, racketeering, identity theft,
extortion, forced labor, money laundering, wire fraud and sex trafficking
Lauren Salzman, a former high-ranking member of Nxivm, testified that some programs were “creating a community of people and kind of even an army of people to insulate and protect Keith and his views.”
Dr. Janja Lalich, a sociologist at California State University, Chico, and an author of books on cults, said Nxivm shares characteristics with many of these types of groups.
Cults often display a zealous commitment to a special and unaccountable leader, discourage dissent and control members through shame, guilt and peer pressure, she said.
“The more that they have absorbed and internalized the belief system the harder it is to question it,” she said of cult members. “Your personal sense of self has been replaced by your cult self and when you’ve become enveloped in a sphere of influence all the aberrant behavior becomes normalized.”
Mr. Raniere, 58, co-founded Nxivm (pronounced NEX-ee-um) in the 1990s as a self-help organization based near Albany. Members regarded him as the most ethical man in the world and someone who could help them lead more fulfilling lives.
Prosecutors have said that he exploited his followers, who paid thousands of dollars for courses. Among other things, Mr. Raniere is accused of founding the secret subgroup, called D.O.S., which included women who were branded with his initials and assigned to have sex with him.
He is now facing conspiracy, racketeering, identity theft, extortion, forced labor, money laundering, wire fraud and sex trafficking charges.
His lawyers have said that Mr. Raniere’s teachings benefited untold people and his sexual relationships were consensual. While some may question his methods, they said, Mr. Raniere acted in good faith.
During the trial, several witnesses described Mr. Raniere’s exalted standing among his followers.
“People would talk about how he could affect weather, how he would affect technology,” said Mr. Vicente, a filmmaker from Los Angeles. “By the time you saw him, it was a little bit like you were seeing, you know, some kind of god.”
|AUSA Mark Lesko gives rebuttal /closing statement|
Ms. Salzman, who was among as many as 20 women said to have had a sexual relationship with Mr. Raniere, testified that some Nxivm programs were “creating a community of people and kind of even an army of people to insulate and protect Keith and his views and legitimize and advocate for the lifestyle that he wanted.”
According to the testimony, Nxivm leaders sought to learn what people most wanted or feared, then presented courses as a solution.
Mr. Vicente said that some upper-level courses were aimed at changing students’ “programming,” likening the process to hacking a computer. The courses eroded people’s “instinctual” sense of ethics, he said. “It in essence played with our moral compass,” he said.
|Allison Mack bail hearing|
Some ex-Nxivm members said that they remained in the group despite reservations partly because they did not want to doubt people and programs they had trusted.
An actress from California named Nicole said she joined D.O.S. at the invitation of Allison Mack, known for her role on the television series “Smallville,” whom she looked upon as a mentor. Ms. Mack assuaged any fears she had.
“I was already stuck,” Nicole testified. “I wanted to believe her.”