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What Is NXIVM – The True Story of the Sex Cult That Seduced Hollywood Celebrities in HBO’s The Vow
Update: On September 30, Clare Bronfman was sentenced to six years and nine months in prison. Nine former members of NXIVM testified against her, detailing her role in the organization’s unabated, years-long legal pursuit of them. On October 27, “Vanguard” Keith Raniere was sentenced to 120 years, after many hours of victim statements from fifteen former NXIVM members and victims of his abuse.
In 2017, a New York Times expose inspired a justice department investigation that took down an American multi-level marketing scheme turned ‘sex cult’ known as NXIVM. The organization had been operating for nearly two decades under the guise of offering self-help deprogramming to heiresses, Hollywood actors and powerful CEOs. But, after one survivor came forward to the New York Times, NXIVM had finally been exposed for what it was—a barbaric organization that abused its members emotionally and physically.
This Sunday at 10 p.m., The Vow premieres on HBO. It’s a 9-part true-crime deep dive on the origin and downfall of NXIVM, the cult founded by Keith Raniere, who served as the group’s spiritual guru and leader. Raniere, who was known as “Vanguard” within the organization, founded NXIVM in Albany in 1998 along with Nancy Salzman, known as the organization’s “Prefect.”
HBO’s documentary is guided by interview footage from many once high-ranking, inner-circle members of NXIVM. The first episode treads lightly into the world of the organization, giving an overview of the Executive Success Programs (ESPs) within NXIVM, which people first entered the organization through. The ESPs were marketed as a set of personal and professional development courses which taught strategies for participants to overcome their “limiting beliefs,” fears, and anxieties, and hence realize their full potential in life. If that sounds jargon-fueled and cryptic to you, that’s because it is.
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But rewiring your brain to learn Raniere’s “ethical framework of human experience” came at a steep price. The cost for the first course, a 5-day intensive, was $2700, and from 1998 through to 2018, over 16,000 people completed ESP courses at centers across the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The “scientific” technique taught in the Executive Success Programs, trademarked as “Rational Inquiry” by Raniere, was called a form of expensive mind-control “aimed at breaking down his subjects psychologically” by forensic psychiatrist John Hochman in his 2003 evaluation of the organization.
Raniere was hailed as an elusive, god-like savant within the company. The Vow’s ex-NXIVM interview subjects recount overcoming anxieties, phobias, and even witnessing peers have medical conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and Tourettes cured by Raniere’s method in Episode One. The Dalai Lama even visited Albany to commend Raniere’s ethical work in May of 2009 (after an initial cancelation of the visit due to concerns surrounding the group).
Actress Allison Mack (R) departs the United States Eastern District Court after a bail hearing in relation to the sex trafficking charges filed against her on May 4, 2018 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
The Executive Success Program had a 12-point mission statement that was read aloud before each session began. One such point purports that “There are no ultimate victims; therefore, I will not choose to be a victim.” In light of Raniere’s present day conviction, this deep psychological manipulation of ESP students from Day One of their enrollment feels glaring. But the indoctrination was subtle, too: students signed NDAs on the ESP session material before they began. In classes, they were acclimatized to ritualistic practices like removing their shoes, wearing different colored sashes to denote their ranking in the ESP multi-level universe, and standing when a higher ranking member entered the room. All greetings with “Vanguard” Keith Raniere included a kiss on the mouth. Incredibly draining, 17-hour days alienated participants from the outside world. And ESP was just the entry point into the world of NXIVM. High-ranking members of the organization would live together in commune-like housing, instructing classes and sessions (usually without pay, according to the HBO testimonials of former members) at the organization’s spin-off spider-like web of cash-grabbing enterprises, such as a women’s only program entitled Jness, a men’s only program called Society of Protectors (SOP), and a fitness-focused program called Exo/Eso. Celebrities, CEOs, and affluent figures including Smallville’s Allison Mack and Seagram heiresses Sara and Clare Bronfman are among the notable former members of the cult.
In 2003, Forbes published a harsh profile of the Jesus-like figure that was Raniere, sowing the first seeds of the cult allegations and dark undercurrents coursing through the organization. Per Forbes:
“Detractors say he runs a cult-like program aimed at breaking down his subjects psychologically, separating them from their families and inducting them into a bizarre world of messianic pretensions, idiosyncratic language and ritualistic practices.”
Edgar Bronfman Sr., father of high-ranking NXIVM members Sara and Clare, is quoted in the story, stating simply that he “think[s] it’s a cult.” The piece detailed Raniere’s history of multi-level marketing fraud in the early ‘90s before he founded NXIVM, as well as testimonials from participants who had suffered hallucinations and psychotic episodes following grueling ESP sessions. But the damning profile didn’t stop the organization from continuing to prosper until nearly two decades later.
The NXIVM Executive Success Programs sign outside of the office at 455 New Karner Road on April 26, 2018 in Albany, New York. Keith Raniere, founder of NXIVM, was arrested by the FBI in Mexico in March of 2018.
In 2017, an exclusive, highly secret women’s society within the organization, called Dominus Obsequious Sororium (DOS), which stands for a Latin phrase roughly translated as “lord over the obedient female companions,” is what finally sparked the downfall of NXIVM. Sarah Edmondson, an actress and decades-long devoted NXIVM member, filed a complaint to the N.Y. State Department of Health after her initiation into DOS. Per the New York Times’ account of her experience, the initiation required Sarah to send naked photos of herself as collateral to her “master,” whom she was recruited by to be a “slave,” and was completed with Sarah being blindfolded, held down naked on a massage table, and instructed to say: “Master, please brand me, it would be an honor.” Edmondson was then branded by a cauterizing device with a small symbol featuring Keith Raniere’s initials near her pelvis. The women in DOS were also required to be on call 24 hours a day—they would be punished with starvation if they did not respond to a text from their master within 60 seconds—and several were assigned to have sex with Raniere, as well. The 2017 media buzz surrounding the DOS ritual is what finally woke many members up to the evils at the core of their organization, prompting many departures and denouncements of NXIVM. Raniere fled to Mexico. But in February of 2018, a complaint was issued in federal court requesting an arrest warrant. Mexican authorities arrested Raniere in March and deported him back to New York.
“Vanguard” Keith Raniere was charged with various crimes including sex trafficking and forced labor and pleaded not guilty. Several other notable NXIVM figures including Allison Mack and Clare Bronfman were indicted as well for an array of crimes including “identity theft, extortion, forced labor, sex trafficking, money laundering, wire fraud and obstruction of justice.” But Raniere’s co-defendants—the women who had followed and served him faithfully for the past two decades—all pled guilty to certain lesser charges (Mackto racketeering; Clare Bronfman to visa fraud) in lieu of standing trial, and Raniere stood trial alone. In June of 2019, Raniere was convicted by a Brooklyn jury of racketeering, sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy, and wire fraud conspiracy in less than five hours. Raniere faces a mandatory minimum of 15 years imprisonment and up to life in prison, and his sentencing is set for October 27 of this year.
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In January of 2020, a civil lawsuit was filed against NXIVM leadership by more than 80 plaintiffs who had at one time been members of the organization. Many of the plaintiffs filed under pseudonyms. It alleges that Raniere, Salzman, Clare and Sara Bronfman, and Allison Mack, among others, conspired to systemically abuse, manipulate, and extort members of the organization. The civil lawsuit has been stayed pending “final adjudication” and sentencing in the government’s criminal case against Raniere. No defendant in the civil case has yet filed responses to the allegations in that case.
The first episode of HBO’s The Vow just begins to scratch the surface of the dark underworld of NXIVM. The 9-part series is sure to magnify our Sunday Scaries for the upcoming weeks as it dives deeper into the strange rituals and twisted methodology of the cult-like organization.
Lauren Kranc is an editorial assistant at Esquire, where she covers pop culture and television, with entirely too narrow of an expertise on Netflix dating shows.
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