NXIVM, pronounced nex-e-um, bills itself as a self-help organization with programs throughout North America and a goal “to help transform and, ultimately, be an expression of the noble civilization of humans,” according to their website. Besides the fact that statement is nonsense, the Albany-based NXIVM seems to be a lot more insidious than it comes off to be at first glance. The group has been making tons of headlines since The New York Times released an expose on the alleged sex cult offshoot of NXIVM reportedly called “DOS” — rumored to stand for “dominate over submissive" — in October. Former members like actress Sarah Edmondson have said they suffered abuses such as blackmail, forced branding, and a series of other traumas.
At the center of both NXIVM and the sex cult allegedly hidden within is self-purported genius Keith Raniere. Raniere is a former pyramid-schemer and current “guru” leading NXIVM.
This isn’t the first time Raniere has been in the news. Back in 2003, he was profiled by Forbes in a piece titled “Cult of Personality.” Forbes reported on the myriad of problems already facing the group over a decade ago: Outrageous prices for NXIVM classes, nondisclosure agreements, and vocab to describe critics borrowed from Scientology. Vanity Fair covered the cult in 2010; their article “The Heiresses and the Cult” details Seagram heiresses’ Sara and Clare Bronfman dealings with NXIVM and their father's attempts to get them to leave NXIVM. The Bronfman sisters reportedly gave as much as $150 million to the organization and isolated themselves from family and friends. Along with descriptions of financial abuse and extortion, the Vanity Fair report also includes details of alleged psychological abuse in NXIVM: "people describe nxivm therapy sessions in which they were convinced that they are 'reincarnated Nazis' or 'responsible for 9/11.'” Additionally, the report contains descriptions of a child who was brought into NXIVM as a weeks-old infant, who has been allegedly being raised as Raniere's "heir." Vanity Fair reports that the child "is reportedly fed a raw diet, kept away from other children, and tended to by five nannies who each speak to him in a different language" and adds that former NXIVM members have reached out to child protective services repeatedly "but to no avail."
But Edmondson's experiences unveil exactly how dangerous this group is. Edmondson told the The New York Times that during her time in the group, she was forced to give women in charge, allegedly called “masters," nude photos of herself and other pieces of information to be used as blackmail. Edmondson said she was told she was going to get a small tattoo, but was then held down and forcefully branded.
The New York Times writes, “According to one of them, their 'master,' a top Nxivm official named Lauren Salzman, instructed them to say: ‘Master, please brand me, it would be an honor.’ A female doctor proceeded to use a cauterizing device to sear a two-inch-square symbol below each woman’s hip, a procedure that took 20 to 30 minutes. For hours, muffled screams and the smell of burning tissue filled the room. ‘I wept the whole time,’ Ms. Edmondson recalled. ‘I disassociated out of my body.’”
In a message seen by The New York Times, Raniere allegedly acknowledges the branding, writing, “...Not intended initially as my initials but they rearranged it slightly for tribute (if it were abraham lincolns or bill gates initials no one would care). The primary meaning and design of the brand symbol has nothing to do with my initials...”
The New York Times piece also alleges a near-starvation diet for women members, "to achieve the type of physique [Raniere] found appealing"; says that NXIVM members are expected to have sex with Raniere; and describes how women were shown "graphically violent film clips while a brain-wave machine and video recorded their reactions." The piece describes how members are allegedly organized into groups of one "master" and six "slaves."
In another bizarre turn of events, in early November, The Sun reported Allison Mack, an Emmy-winning actress for her role as Chloe Sullivan on the show Smallville, is allegedly a “master” in DOS. The report states she recruits women for Raniere to have sex with and recruits women to join the cult, and includes more details about the alleged abuses in NXIVM, including saying that "slaves" are beaten with paddes if they don't respond to their "masters" fast enough or if they show distress; that women are kept on diets of 500-800 calories per day; and that members are told that having sex with Raniere will "heal" them. India Oxenburg, daughter of Dynasty star Catherine Oxenberg, is also reportedly a part of NXIVM's DOS cult.
“The worrying part of all this is that there are still women captured in this cult maintaining 500 to 800 calories a day diets, sleep deprived, brainwashed and with the leader of the cult holding blackmail-worthy material in his possession which he has threatened to release if they leave the cult," Frank Parlato, a former NXIVM publicist, told the Sun.
In late November, Rolling Stone published a roundup of prior reporting about NXIVM, including two women saying that Raniere had sexually abused them when they were children (one says the abuse began when she was 12; the other in her teens) and that NXIVM is a "litigation machine" with a record of suing journalists.
NXIVM is based out of upstate New York in Albany, and Albany's The Times Union has been reporting on Raniere and NXIVM for years. These investigations have uncovered more of the rotten core of the organization and its guru. In a 2012 report, The Times Union interviewed a cult tracker named Rick Ross, who told the paper, “In my opinion, Nxivm is one of the most extreme groups I have ever dealt with in the sense of how tightly wound it is around the leader, Keith Raniere.” Another report from The Times Union describes allegations from multiple women who said Raniere had sexual relationships with them while they were underage.
NXIVM and Raniere have denied all allegations and say that NXIVM is not a cult.
Now that more former members are sharing their stories and the details of abuse are becoming public, there is hope for more members of NXIVM and DOS to break free.
update: In March 2018, Raniere was arrested and charged with sex trafficking, writes the Associated Press. The criminal complaint against him said that his victims were required to participate in branding ceremonies in which they were naked and hand a symbol featuring Raniere's initials branded on their "pelvic area"; the complaint says the ceremonies were videotaped. Investigators said Raniere required his victims to document every food they ate and stick to very low-calorie diets; if they didn't follow orders, they were “forced to wear fake cow udders over their breasts while people called them derogatory names" or threatened with being put in cages.
In April 2018, actress Allison Mack was arrested in connection with her involvement in NXIVM. CBS reports that along with Raniere, Mack was indicted on charges of sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy and forced labor conspiracy. U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Richard P. Donoghue said, "As alleged in the indictment, Allison Mack recruited women to join what was purported to be a female mentorship group that was, in fact, created and led by Keith Raniere. The victims were then exploited, both sexually and for their labor, to the defendants' benefit. This Office and our law enforcement partners are committed to prosecuting predators who victimize others through sex trafficking and forced labor."
originally published December 1, 2017; last updated April 23, 2018
top photo via NXIVM.com.
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Kat Kothen-Hill is a BUST intern living in Brooklyn, NY.
Follow her on Twitter:@katkothenhill and on Instagram:kitkatkothenhill.