The Self-Help Cult Leader Sentenced to 120 Years in Prison
NXIVM had personal development seminars that claimed to enlighten people and make them happy. People claimed attending the seminars cured them of their smoking habit or fear of public speaking. The organization had Hollywood celebrities, children of heads of states, and business leaders adding to its credibility. Many saw its leader as a god.
However, in early 2018, NXIVM’s house of cards collapsed. Keith Raneire, a self-help guru and the leader of NXIVM, which claimed to be a multi-level marketing (MLM) company, would be arrested for two counts of sex trafficking, racketeering, forced labor conspiracy, attempted sex trafficking, wire fraud conspiracy, and racketeering conspiracy.
Raniere’s organization had a secret society that branded women with his initials. It had a sex cult where he coerced women in his group into having sex with him. According to Nicole Hong and Sean Piccoli at The New York Times, Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison on October 27, 2020, and convicted of every single charge he was accused of. He also had to pay a $1.75 million fine.
“The sentencing capped a remarkable downfall for a man who was once idolized by his followers, but has since been exposed as a fraudster who exploited Nxivm’s adherents for money, sex and power,” Piccoli and Hong wrote.
At his trial, 15 victims gave testimony of how Raniere left them traumatized and brainwashed. Many, who had refused to speak with prosecutors before, spoke up during the trial. One woman, who only identified herself as Camilla, said Raniere started sexually abusing her when she was 15, and he expected her to always be available for sex. He forced her to get an abortion and imposed weight restrictions on her. Raniere also had a sexual relationship with two of Camila’s sisters, and Camila’s father and older sister still supported him.
Now, the case of Raniere is the subject of an HBO documentary series called The Vow. This is the story of Keith Raniere, NXIVM, a secret sorority within the company that branded women, and the sex cult. What is the path forward for the survivors, and how, or if, could all of this have been avoided?
Bow Keith Raniere got into multi-level marketing
Keith Raneire was born in 1960 to a New York City advertising executive and a former ballroom dancer in Brooklyn. His father often traveled and was away from home for a long time. At six, his parents moved from Brooklyn to Suffern, New York, which is in upstate New York. Raniere’s parents, according to Univision, separated when he was eight years old.
His attorneys The Eastern District Court of New York says Raniere remembered his parents arguing a lot — he knew his family was going to fall apart. He wanted to see if there was anything he could to stop the separation, and as an only child, he felt very alone.
“Without brothers, sisters or a close extended family, the notion that his three-member family would cease to exist caused Raniere unrelenting sadness,” the attorneys say.
Raniere saw his father a couple of times a week, but he was raised primarily by his mother. However, she suffered from a serious heart disease, and when he was 13, she had open-heart surgery. And Raniere would try to make sure his mother attended all her medical appointments and took care of herself. But she was not — she drank very heavily and died when he was 18 while he was in college. Raniere privately confessed to some that his mother was an alcoholic.
Starting at a very young age, however, Raniere was deceitful. He was told by his father at a young age he was very gifted and intelligent, and according to his former partner, Barbara Bouchey, “it went right to his head.”
At 13, Raniere’s mother remembered Raniere calling dozens of girls from the house. He constantly told them how much he loved them, how they were all special, and how they were the only ones that mattered in his life.
“And she says, and he’s saying this to different girls. He’s is clearly lying ’cause they’re all not special,” Bouchey said.
At 12, according to James Odato and Jennifer Gish at Times Union, he started attending Rockland Country Day School after exhausting the public school curriculum. He enrolled in Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), studying biology, physics, and math.
Throughout his life, Raniere was known as a charismatic speaker and a good listener.
Will Yakowicz at Forbes reports that Raniere was inspired by Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi novel, Second Foundation, about a scientist who “had reduced all human behavior to elegant mathematical equations.” Raniere himself was inspired to do the same thing later at NXIVM.
While Raniere often bragged about his college education, he graduated with a 2.26, with prosecutors saying he “failed or barely passed many of the upper-level math and science classes he bragged about taking.”
Odato and Gish note that when Raniere was 24, he had a relationship with Gina Melita, a 15-year-old who performed with him in a theater group. They went to the arcade together and played a game called Vanguard in the arcade (which would later be his title in NXIVM), and the two of them would be in a relationship for four months.
While in a relationship, Raniere was very controlling of Melita’s weight and even after they broke up, he wanted to keep having sex with him. She realized he didn’t care about him, and Melita put some distance between herself and Raniere.
However, before Melita put Raniere out of her life, she introduced him to her friend, Gina Hutchinson, who was also 15. The Hutchinson and Raniere, and Heidi Hutchinson, Gina’s sister, intervened in their relationship and confronted Raniere about the relationship after she caught Raniere climbing into Gina’s bedroom.
CBC News says that somehow, Raniere convinced Hutchinson’s mother he was interested in having a serious relationship with her daughter. Raniere also had several girlfriends, and convinced Hutchinson, in the words of CBC News, that “men are hardwired to be polyamorous but women are not.” Gina Hutchinson later broke it off with Raniere.
When she was 33, Hutchinson was found dead under mysterious circumstances. She died by a gunshot wound, and her death was ruled a suicide, but Frank Parlato, a former insider at NXIVM, said Hutchinson was telling many people she had sex with Raniere when she was 14 years old, at a time when Raniere had an image of being celibate.
In 1988, Irene Gardner Keeney at the Times Union reported that Raniere was a member of Mega, a high-IQ society where people had IQs of 176 or higher. They had to correctly answer 45 out of 48 questions in the test, and Raniere qualified as a “genius.” The founder of the Mega society was Ronald K. Hoeflin, and the Mega society was described by the 1989 edition Guinness Book of World Records as having some of the highest IQ people in the world. On the Australian version of the list, Raniere was included.
After graduating college, Raniere worked briefly at Amway, a multi-level marketing company that sold beauty and health products, according to CBC News. But what made Raniere different from others was his charisma. Heidi Hutchinson called him “spellbinding” and noted he was an incredible listener. At the time, he was fascinated by neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), a personal development technique that preached using perceptions to change other people’s behaviors, and Scientology.
Many who associated with Raniere equated him to Einstein, and in 1990, Raniere founded Consumers’ Buyline Inc. (CBI), which was his own multi-level marketing company. Suzanna Andrews at Vanity Fair, the company was a sham, being shut down in 1994 after being investigated by regulators in 20 states. It sued by the New York attorney general as a “pyramid scheme.”
At one pitch for the company, Raniere met a woman named Toni Natalie, who was a business partner of Raniere. Before joining CBI, Natalie’s husband, Rusty, got her to buy into Raniere’s idea and work with Raniere. She’d worked with MLM schemes before and was skeptical. But her husband told her Raniere had a 240 IQ, graduated from RPI with a triple major, and had a litany of other accomplishments.
Natalie eventually drank the kool-aid:
"I said to him, 'God gifted you with all this brilliance, why aren’t you curing cancer? Why aren't you doing something magnificent?'" Natalie asked Raniere, when she first met him.
After CPI collapsed, Raniere established another multi-level marketing company, National Health Network, which was devoted to selling vitamins. There, he met Nancy Salzman, who became a business partner. Raniere and Natalie started dating after her marriage with Rusty fell apart. Salzman loaned Natalie $50,000 and became Natalie’s therapist.
Natalie was around when Raniere set up the Executive Success Program (ESP) in 1998 with Salzman. Since CPI and NHN went down, Raniere was rebranding himself as a self-help guru. ESP would become a part of NXIVM and he recruited followers across North America.
In 1999, Natalie and Raniere broke up. The National Health Network would fall apart.
Raniere would build quite a reputation for himself as an enlightened person who could unleash people’s potential. But it was at that time that Raniere’s future, according to some prosecutors, would take a “sinister turn,” according to CBC News.
NXIVM first started through ESP, a corporate self-help program. According to Lauren Kranc at Esquire, the ESPs were originally marketed as personal development courses that helped people get through their “limiting beliefs.”
Andrews notes it was getting results by 2002 — people started to report incredible results like not smoking anymore and overcoming their fear of public speaking. Natalie herself said she was able to stop smoking using some of Raniere’s techniques. And these weren’t just regular people — they were business leaders, children of government leaders, and celebrities were reporting substantial success.
“Its alumni include Sheila Johnson, a co-founder of Black Entertainment Television; Antonia Novello, the former U.S. surgeon general; Richard Branson; and Emiliano Salinas, a venture capitalist, who is the son of Mexico’s former president Carlos Salinas and still a prominent nxivm member,” Andrews said.
Within NXIVM, Raniere was known as “the Vanguard,” a name he got from the arcade game. In the game, destroying someone’s enemies increased that person’s own powers. Raniere was inspired by Ayn Rand, his favorite author.
As a multi-level marketing company, members were expected to keep recruiting new companies to purchase training materials. Members paid tens of thousands of dollars to take NXIVM courses and could make money from recruiting other members. Raniere’s reputation was what was behind the company’s success, and he often bragged about many childhood successes that were difficult to verify, including speaking full sentences at age one, mastering college-level math before high school, or having a 240 IQ.
Daniel Shaw, a New York psychoanalyst who has treated a variety of cult survivors, says Raniere had traits of a “traumatizing narcissist.” Raniere always had to prove his own superiority since he always had members sing his praises to outsiders. The MLM structure served to benefit “nobody other than Keith.”
Ex-members of NXIVM who spoke with CBC News said one big teaching of NXIVM was that you are responsible for everything that happens in your life. If you had a negative thought or emotion, or an unsuccessful life event, it was your bad “programming” that held you back and made you fearful.
Raniere had a program called “rational inquiry,” which could allegedly fix everyone’s problems once people told their deepest, darkest secrets. Any doubts you had were because of the faulty programming of your own mind, including how much money you had to spend on courses. Actress Sarah Edmondson, a member of NXIVM, was told her own instincts should come secondary to what NXIVM taught her.
The Forbes article
The most high-profile members of NXIVM, according to Barry Meier at the New York Times, included members of the Bronfman family. Edgar M. Bronfman was the former chairman of the Seagram Company, which makes alcoholic beverages. Throughout their lives, Bronfman’s two daughters, Sara and Clare Bronfman donated $65 million of their fathers’ fortune to fund NXIVM. In 2003, Edgar Bronfman called the group a cult.
Initially, Clare Bronfman was skeptical of NXIVM. Her sister, Sara, introduced her to the group, and both were in their early 20s. Meier describes them as opposites in almost every way — Sara was outgoing and likable, while Clare was very introverted and described by others as socially awkward. Clare Bronfman’s passion was horses, and she competed in several international equestrian events and set out to train horses.
However, she became a believer in NXIVM after a couple of meetings, and she started to fall in love with Raniere. From the late 1990s on, about 16,000 people started taking ESP courses through NXIVM and some even gave up their careers for the “Vanguard.” When Forbes likened Raniere to a cult leader in 2003, and Raniere blamed Edgar Bronfman, who grew disillusioned with NXIVM. He punished Clare and Sara Bronfman as a result and used the article against them in the future.
“I think it’s a cult,” Edgar Bronfman said in the Forbes article, saying he hadn’t seen his daughters in months.
Many insiders in the company were furious. According to Suzanna Andrews on Vanity Fair:
“People at NXIVM were stunned. Expecting a positive story, the top ranks had spoken to Forbes, including Raniere, Salzman, and Sara Bronfman. What upset them above all were Edgar Bronfman’s remarks.
That same year, a cult investigator named Rick Alan Ross wrote three critical articles on NXIVM on his blog, and he also posted a psychiatrist’s assessment of NXIVM. On his website, Ross called the NXIVM training “expensive brainwashing.” NXIVM then sued Ross in NXIVM Corp. v. The Ross Institute, which held that Ross’s use of the material for critical commentary was fair use despite bad faith in obtaining the material. Ross obtained the material from an ex-NXIVM member.
But the Bronfmans, especially Clare Bronfman, did not hesitate to fund NXIVM. They arranged and paid for the Dalai Lama to visit NXIVM in Albany, New York. They also used private jets to recruit celebrities, and Clare Bronfman bought an island in Fiji that NXIVM used as a retreat. While Sara Bronfman got married and had children, she naturally distanced herself from the organization.
Clare Bronfman stayed steadfastly loyal to Raniere. She grew in her authority and role in NXIVM, and was ex-members said she was “very cold,” “very degrading,” and “very demanding.” She would help Raniere sue anyone who spoke out against him.
Dominus Obsequious Sororium (DOS)
Another high profile member was Allison Mack, an actress in CW’s Smallville. Mack got into NXIVM through her friend and fellow Smallville actress, Kristin Kreuk. Both both became involved in the organization in 2006.
Soon, within the organization, like for much of Raniere’s life, Raniere developed a culture of polygamy — for him, but not the women. According to Scott Johnson and Rebecca Sun at the Hollywood Reporter, a former NXIVM member, Susan Dones said Raniere always talked about how women have to be monogamous and men need to be polygamous as the natural order of the world, for men to spread their seed. Dones said that by the time she left NXIVM in 2009, Raniere had a harem of over a dozen women. Nancy Salzman tried to sell the idea of Raniere’s multiple partners and the rest of the NXIVM sexual power structure as a radical idea.
Nancy Salzman also got her daughter, Lauren Salzman, to join NXIVM. Salzman, her daughter, and the Bronfmans all played a part in recruiting Alison Mack, laying out the red carpet by flying out on the Bronfmans’ private jet. For most high-profile, rich, and powerful members of NXIVM, the red carpet treatment was typical, but Mack was a particularly desirable target — Sun and Johnson said she was a “fan favorite with vivid green eyes and a bubbly charisma.”
It was Lauren Salzman in particular who would bond well with Mack. Mack accepted an invitation to fly back on the private jet back to Albany, New York, and meet Raniere. She was convinced, prompted by the Bronfmans, that Raniere would accelerate her acting career. Most people would have to complete an expensive, long training before meeting Raniere, but Mack did not — she met him right away.
Mack was an actor her whole life — she was only 23 when she joined NXIVM. As a child actor, she enrolled in the Young Actors Space in Los Angeles, which trained actors like Elijah Wood and Leonardo DiCaprio. When she auditioned and got her part in Smallville, she was 18. She felt insecure about missing college, so wanted other forms of education, as she wrote on her blog. Part of what made Mack susceptible to NXIVM was, according to a fellow child actor who knew Mack, Christine Lakin:
“She was so hungry for something bigger, some kind of sign [that would show] the purpose and meaning of life.”
Mack stayed at the training facility in Albany, and in time, she would become the leader for Dominus Obsequious Sororium (DOS), which in Latin means Master Over Slave Women (or “The Vow’). Mack rose to second in the organization to Raniere, and DOS would become a secret sex cult within the organization.
While women were initiated into DOS, they would be branded. Some would be assigned to have sex with Raniere. There were “masters” who recruited “slaves” from within the organization, and the women would be branded with a cauterizing pen without consent, with the letters K, R, A, and M, which are initials for Keith Raniere and Alison Mack. In time, the slaves would become masters themselves and recruit their own slaves.
Others recruited by NXIVM were in the Vancouver film and TV community. Barbara Bouchey, a businesswoman and senior NXIVM member who dated Raniere, made a push to recruit directors, as well as actresses like Sarah Edmondson.
Edmondson got into NXIVM after being talked into it by her friend, Lauren Salzman. Edmondson would later speak with CBC News about the branding process and her experience in DOS, after leaving NXIVM. Her husband, Anthony Ames, discovered she had been branded, and the couple wanted to leave the organization.
Initially, she was told she would just get a small tattoo. But Edmondson described being blindfolded and held down by Mack and several women. A doctor named Danielle Roberts used a cauterizing pen to sear the initials into the pledges’ pelvis. It took 20 to 30 minutes, and the burn went two inches deep. She would become Lauren Salzman’s “slave,” and Edmondson was forced to provide “collateral” to Salzman, which was secret, personal, and compromising information that could be used against her if she ever left DOS or spoke about it with outsiders.
Edmondson later filed a complaint against Danielle Reports to the New York State Department of Health. The agency decided not to look into Dr. Roberts — she wasn’t acting as Edmondson’s doctor when the branding happened. Another doctor, Dr. Brandon Porter, was also heavily involved in the organization.
“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).”
Actress Catherine Oxenberg said her daughter, India, had been initiated into DOS and had come home emaciated from dieting. She felt like her daughter was in danger, but her daughter defended NXIVM. Catherine Oxenberg eventually produced Escaping the NXIVM Cult: A Mother’s Fight to Save Her Daughter in 2019, a movie about their journey.
According to Meier, another member of NXIVM who would eventually defect was Mark Vicente, a filmmaker, who left after hearing about DOS. Once an executive at NXIVM and a devoted follower of Raniere (describing him as “an activist, scientist, philosopher and, above all, humanitarian”), Vicente realized Raniere constantly lied to him once he questioned him about the secret society. He realized Raniere was using ESP to control him:
“No one goes in looking to have their personality stripped away…You just don’t realize what is happening,” Vicente said.
NXIVM also had a notable presence in Mexico. Edgar Boone, who is considered by Frank Parlato, former NXIVM member, as the “Tony Robbins of Mexico,” and later became the head of NXIVM-Mexico. Emiliano Salinas, who was a venture capitalist and the son of the former Mexican president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, was also tied to NXIVM.
Convictions and accountability
According to Carlo Correa at the New York Times, NXIVM’s house of cards started to fall in 2017, when many former members, including Edmondson, asked New York State authorities to investigate NXIVM. Most of the complaints focused on DOS. The New York Times published an article and report about the branding in late 2017, and then authorities started a criminal investigation. Raniere moved to Mexico, near Puerto Vallarta.
On March 26, 2018, Raniere was charged. He was arrested in Mexico and sent to a hearing in Texas where he was sent to Brooklyn to face charges of forcing women to engage in sex. An F.B.I. agent said in an affidavit that Raniere had a “rotating” group of 15 to 20 women he maintained sexual relations with. Prosecutors said that Raniere “has spent his life profiting from pyramid schemes and has otherwise received financial backing from independently wealthy women.”
On July 24, 2018, the case widened. The Eastern District of New York U.S. Attorney charged Raniere and members of the executive board, Clare Bronfman, Allison Mack, Kathy Russell, Lauren Salzman, and Nancy Salzman of identity theft, extortion, forced labor, sex trafficking, money laundering, wire fraud, and obstruction of justice.
On March 12, 2019, Nancy Salzman pleaded guilty to conspiracy racketeering and admitted she had planned “invasions of privacy” to the Federal District Court in Brooklyn. Her daughter, Lauren Salzman, pleaded guilty later that month to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy.
On April 8, 2019, Allison Mack pleaded guilty as well, to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy charges due to her role in the organization. Charges of sex trafficking, conspiracy to commit sex trafficking, and forced labor were dropped.
Clare Bronfman pleaded guilty on April 19, 2019, of identity theft and immigration fraud. Correa notes she was known as Raniere’s “legal enforcer,” and then Kathy Russell, the bookkeeper of the organization, pleaded guilty to one count of visa fraud.
Mack, Russell, and Nancy Salzman, and Lauren Salzman are still awaiting sentencing.
Raniere himself would have a six-week trial starting in May 2019. He was accused of psychological manipulation and retaliating against his critics with lawsuits, which, in Correa’s words, created “an internal culture with no tolerance for dissent.” Much of the trial focused on DOS, which prosecutors said Raniere created in 2015 to have more submissive women in NXIVM. Lauren Salzman testified that many of the women had severe punishments like being whipped with a leather strap. Dozens of women testified for hours.
Raniere was found guilty of all seven counts he was charged with on June 19, 2019. On September 30, 2020, Clare Bronfman was sentenced to 81 months in prison. Bronfman was still loyal to Raniere, saying “NXIVM and Keith greatly changed my life for the better.”
On October 27, 2020, Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison, essentially life in prison. His lawyers state he is still not sorry for his conduct.
The promise of Raniere to his followers was a man who was almost God, someone who was too good to be true. As it turns out, he was.
Not every self-help guru is a criminal sentenced to 120 years in jail and convicted on two counts of sex trafficking, but the unregulated market of self-help often lends itself to the rise of Raniere and other men like James Arthur Ray, who was responsible for the death of two of his followers. These men manipulated people for far too long with no scrutiny and accountability.
Raniere’s followers tended to be highly educated, accomplished, and many worked careers in big consulting, finance, and law firms.
“I find that the vast majority of people who join these groups are extremely intelligent, open-minded, kind, loving people,” says Jodi Wille, who researches cults and directed The Source Family.
One reason Willie says these people join cults, including that of the Manson family, is because many artists in places like Hollywood are vulnerable artists who are “lost or damaged,” and susceptible to predators like Harvey Weinstein.
“They offer other forms of support that you can’t get from your agent or your manager.”
Raniere and Salzman openly sought out celebrities and high-profile, rich members, to build credibility for the cult. Without Mack’s celebrity, NXIVM would never have gone to such lengths to recruit her. And it’s important to note Raniere himself was not the sole perpetrator of these crimes — the Bronfmans, mack, and Nancy Salzman all played major roles in doing the dirty work for NXIVM.
So how? How didn’t all these intelligent people not see the red flags and warning signs of Raniere’s sex cult? And if they couldn’t see it, it’s scary for me as well, since I don’t know if ordinary people like myself and my family could see the warning signs either. Many people who read the news about NXIVM say “that would never happen to me,” but it’s important to note that extreme forms of punishment, branding, or abuse don’t happen overnight.
A big takeaway, according to Dr. Alexandra Stein at BBC, it’s so hard to stop a cult, and especially leaders, because members say they’re acting under their own free will. Current or former members who want to press charges are often afraid to do so because of possible repercussions within the organization, or the stigma attached to being a cult member.
Stein describes the traits of cults as those run by charismatic or authoritarian leaders who exert extreme control. They often have hierarchal pyramid structures with many layers of secrecy, and a brainwashing process often takes place where people in the group have no space for self-generated relationships, friends outside the cult, or activities. There also tend to be coercive forms of control that threaten retaliation, and the intention is to create followers controlled by leaders without regard for any of their own needs.
Cults bring members in gradually. They start with an offer someone might be interested in. Usually, susceptible victims are targeted and are usually people who have been through a major upheaval in their lives, according to Stein. Then, members are isolated and immersed into the cult, and they have a loss of their own sense of self — and people tend not to realize what’s going on until it’s too late.
What is most frightening is that Raniere continues to have many supporters, some of whom crowded outside the courthouse and danced where Raniere was sentenced. Over 50 people wrote letters to the court praising Raniere as, in the words of Nicole Hong at the New York Times, “a Godlike figure who helped heal their physical injuries, increase their I.Q. scores and raise their salaries.” Eight people released videos in October and say the most extreme parts of the organization, like branding or having sex with Raniere, were consensual.
At the end of the day, Stein says stopping coercive cults like NXIVM involved prevention education in school for people to be aware of what coercive control looks like and how it works.
As for the survivors of NXIVM now, the path of recovery seems difficult and long, no matter how much compensation they receive. Sarah Edmondson puts it best:
“There is no playbook for leaving a cult.”