Are NXIVM Cult Members Victims or Perpetrators?
Keith Raniere, the leader of the NXIVM cult, was sentenced to 120 years in prison this past year for two counts of sex trafficking, racketeering, forced labor conspiracy, attempted sex trafficking, wire fraud conspiracy, and racketeering conspiracy. His organization branded women with his initials. He manipulated many women into having sex with him. However, an uncomfortable fact was that Keith Raniere didn’t do it alone.
Five other people were charged by the Eastern District of New York District Attorney: Clare Bronfman, Allison Mack, Kathy Russell, Nancy Salzman, and Lauren Salzman. These women were said to engage in some of the more horrific acts associated with the cult, including branding women with the initials of Allison Mack and Keith Raniere. Clare Bronfman was known as the legal enforcer of NXIVM, pursuing legal action against anyone who dared criticize Raniere and the group. Mack introduced the branding ritual to NXIVM.
Without all these women, Raniere would not have had his strongest lieutenants and enforcers. While Raniere himself will go down in a more unambiguously bad and insidious light, what about Mack, Bronfman, Russell, and Nancy and Lauren Salzman? Are they victims or perpetrators? Were they brainwashed or acting of their own volition?
Victoria Stuewe at Film Daily confronts the question of whether Allison Mack, essentially second in command at NXIVM, was a master manipulator, or whether she was brainwashed. Mack was the leader of DOS, which was a secret sorority of women inside NXIVM that hazed and branded women. Before NXIVM, she was a star actor on Smallville and a very well-liked and charismatic public figure.
Stuewe notes that Mack tried to improve her acting career through NXIVM. The original purpose of DOS was to recruit more submissive women for the organization, many of whom were coerced and manipulated into having sex with Raniere. Often, cases of branding women would happen at Mack’s home, where they were held down to complete the ritual.
So the question continues — was Mack a culprit or a victim?
We cannot deny her role in the organization. She became a “master” in the organization as well as a recruiter in many NXIVM videos. She was an active accomplice to Raniere, and some women were even whipped and left barefoot in the ice-cold snow.
On a system level, NXIVM required “collateral” from all its members, which was compromising personal information that prevented people from talking to the press or leaving the organization. Mack, according to Stuewe, provided collateral to Raniere, which left her loyal to him, whether she wanted to be or not.
And Mack was by no means a benevolent “master.” India Oxenberg, the daughter of famous actress Catherine Oxenberg, said Mack would punish her if she didn’t respond to a text in time. In one incident, Oxenberg had to record Mack beating another NXIVM member. Often, Oxenberg recalls Mack using her “position of power” to harm many of Oxenberg’s friends.
However, at the end of the day, Oxenberg was sympathetic to Mack. She said Mack was a victim of Raniere, and she “did a lot of cruel things” because of her “fragile psyche.” Oxenberg believed Mack needed extensive therapy.
Today, Allison Mack is under house arrest with her parents in California. She acknowledges she is the one who introduced the branding practice to NXIVM, but defends her ability to empower women through DOS and defends the initial intention of the secret society.
Other NXIVM members traverse this world of moral ambiguity and nuance, where they did terrible things and yet they were victims of Raniere. Another prominent member who perpetuated abuse was Clare Bronfman, the heiress to Seagram’s inheritance. During her sentencing, many women called her a “dangerous megalomaniac” and “predator” for her financial support of NXIVM. Bronfman was sentenced to 81 months in prison after pleading guilty.
“You should understand that there are lives you destroyed…If you would’ve allowed that truth to come to the surface, DOS would not ever have happened. What you call humanity of Nxivm is just lipstick on a pig.”
Others were more sympathetic to Bronfman, calling her a pawn, saying she was used by Raniere to be made to feel special. And it took bringing down Raniere to bring down NXIVM, or else the cycle of abuse would have continued. Without Bronfman and Mack, NXIVM would have continued to abuse and brainwash its members, but how much did the two contribute to the cult’s horrific acts?
At the end of the day, no matter how victimized a lot of these executive members of NXIVM were, they still inflicted significant harm on others. And the question also hinges on how much remorse each member shows — Bronfman and many other members of the cult are still loyal to Raniere.
The answer of whether they were victims or perpetrators is not simple, but it seems like the more powerful they became within NXIVM, the more they destroyed the lives of others and perpetrated abuse. They were still human beings with personal agency, and should still be held to the same level of accountability anyone else would be.