On October 17, the New York Times published story by Barry Meier, headlined “Inside a Secretive Group Where Women Are Branded” making allegations about certain practices within a “self-help organization” called Nxivm, founded and led by a man named Keith Raniere. Here’s five things you need to know:
1. Raniere and Nxivm Make Grandiose Claims About Themselves
Nxivm (pronounced “Nex-ee-um,” like a certain over-the-counter heartburn medication, though there is no connection between the two) touts itself on its website as “a new ethical understanding that allows us to build an internal civilization and have it manifest in the external world …. The NXIVM technology is imparted through Executive Success Programs, Inc.”
The “What is Nxivm?” page on the company’s website also suggests the program will usher in the next stage of the evolution of our species:
Human evolution has clearly demonstrated tendencies that vacillate between awe-inspiring rises and cataclysmic falls. As time has passed, our capacity to excel in either extreme has increased, even on the smallest of levels. Each rise, each act of human excellence raises mankind to new heights. Each fall, each act of destruction is a mindless regression. While many have sensed a need to break away from the primitive patterning that keeps us from a path of continuous progression, few have thought it possible.
NXIVM is the turning point – a remarkable development in scientific and psychodynamic understanding, education, and technology that can facilitate this transition so the pattern of humanity’s rises and falls can actually be broken and transformed.
Lest anyone doubt Keith Raniere’s ability to bring about such levels of progress, the biography he provides on his self-titled website is written to assuage such doubts. After introducing himself as a “Scientist, mathematician, philosopher, entrepreneur, educator, inventor and author” who “has devoted his life to studying the human psychodynamic and developing new tools for human empowerment, expression and ethics,” Raniere claims that he was a genius from earliest childhood: speaking in full sentences at age one, reading at two, East Coast Judo Champion by age 11 and a concert-level pianist by 12 (the same year Raniere says he “taught himself high school mathematics in nineteen hours”).
2. Accusations That Nxivm is a “Cult” Have Circulated for Over a Decade
The New York Times’ October exposé includes allegations from several women who say that they were offered the chance to join a “secret sisterhood” which helps to “empower women.” However, the initiation ceremony included being cauterized with a branding iron in the shape of Raniere’s initials, in a process the Times described as follows:
Sarah Edmondson, one of the participants, said she had been told she would get a small tattoo as part of the initiation. But she was not prepared for what came next.
Each woman was told to undress and lie on a massage table, while three others restrained her legs and shoulders. 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.
The Times’ feature ended by quoting Edmondson on how she and other former Raniere followers were trying to recover from their experiences: “There is no playbook for leaving a cult,” Edmondson said.
In February 2012, the Albany Times-Union published an article about the “Secrets of NXIVM,” noting that “Some experts say Keith Raniere, the guru behind an unusual training business, is really a cult leader.”
The Times-Union report said “Raniere has convinced some followers he doesn’t drive because his intellectual energy sets off radar detectors. He says his energy is drained if those around him disappoint or defect, former girlfriends have said. “He’s the Vanguard,” one of his key supporters testified in court, with the insistence and reverence of a child describing Santa Claus. Dozens of followers assemble annually near Lake George for Vanguard Week, a celebration of Raniere’s birthday also considered a corporate retreat.”
Five years later, the New York Times also mentioned the “Vanguard” title Raniere holds among his followers. As early as 2010, when MacLean’s published an account of Nxivm and Raniere’s alleged role in cheating Seagrams heiresses Clare and Sara Bronfman out of $100 million, its list of the saga’s bizarre features included “a guru who directs his followers to call him Vanguard and to document his every move for posterity.”
Macleans also noted that Forbes magazine published “Cult of Personality,” a Nxivm exposé, as early as 2003.
Similarly, in October 2010, the New York Post reported that “‘Cult’ leader Keith Raniere makes killer claim on newly released video.”
3. Raniere has Other Heiresses and Celebrities Among his Followers
Actress Catherine Oxenberg, who starred in the 1980s nighttime soap opera “Dynasty,” told the New York Times that her daughter had been initiated into Nxivm’s “sorority,” and as a result, “Ms. Oxenberg had become increasingly concerned about her 26-year-old daughter, India, who looked emaciated from dieting. She told her mother that she had not had a menstrual period for a year and that her hair was falling out.”
The branding allegations published by the Times in November first appeared online in June, when the anti-Raniere blog “The Frank Report” announced “Human branding part of Raniere-inspired women’s group,” a multi-part series it calls “the first story to appear on the blackmail and branding scheme known as DOS [sic].”
Many, though not all, of the details mention in the Frank Report were mentioned in the New York Times (which also provides some background detail on the blog: the Frank Report is run by Frank R. Parlato, a Buffalo-area businessman whom the Bronfman sisters sued for fraud in 2011. The Justice Department currently has a fraud case pending against Parlato, who denies all such claims.
The Frank Report does not mention Catherine Oxenberg’s daughter, though it does repeatedly claim that former television actress Allison Mack (best known for her role on “Smallville”) leads Raniere’s secret society of branded women. Mack has not publicly commented on Nxivm or Raniere, but she does have a “member” page on the Keith Raniere Conversations website, and “happy propaganda” videos of Raniere and Mack discussing various topics have been taken off the membership-only “Conversations” website and uploaded to YouTube.
Google search results for “Allison Mack” and “Nxivm” also lead to a 2012 post Mack made on her website, titled “What Now?” The summary on the search page says “I have recently taken a few steps back from acting. 2011 was really about concluding a huge chapter of my life, a chapter filled with rainy days….” though clicking on the link itself nets a “page can’t be found” message from Mack’s website. However, in a 2014 post titled “Collecting Heroes,” Allison Mack wrote that “I have started a practice of watching at least 5 minutes of my heroes every morning. It’s a really cool thing. One of my greatest heroes is my teacher and friend Keith Raniere and he once told me to spend time every morning thinking about the way I want to be that day.”
The handful of videos posted on the “Keith Raniere Conversations” YouTube channel all show Raniere and Mack sitting at the same table discussing various topics.
4. Nxivm Allegedly Demands Blackmail Fodder From New Members
The New York Times article about Nxivm’s branding practices mentions that “Many members said they feared that confessions about indiscretions would be used to blackmail them.” Specifically, the Times said, Nxivm official Lauren Salzman (alleged overseer of the branding ceremonies, who would demand brandees request “Master, please brand me, it would be an honor”) told potential members such as Sarah Edmondson that the secret society is “kind of strange and top secret and in order for me to tell you about it you need to give me something as collateral to make sure you don’t speak about it.”
For Edmondson, that collateral was a letter detailing past indiscretions she wouldn’t want people to know about. The Frank Report alleges that “collateral” requirements go even further:
Before a woman is accepted for initiation, a woman must first provide ‘collateral’ in the form of nude photographs, or audio and video records of admissions of activities which she would otherwise wish to remain secret. These records and photographs are held by Mr. Raniere or his agents as collateral.
After initiation, a member is required to make monthly offerings of additional collateral. This collateral is said to provide assurances to Mr. Raniere that those who have pledged their slavery to him and Miss Mack – and in return will receive more fulsome instructions from him – will be less likely to flee as others have done in the past.
But Sarah Edmondson told the Times that the inner circle and its collateral requirements were presented as “sound[ing] like a bad-ass bitch boot camp.”
5. Raniere and Nxivm Have Filed Multiple Lawsuits Against Journalists and Alleged Whistleblowers
In November 2014, Politico noted that Albany Times-Union reporter James Odato — who’d written many of the Times-Union stories about Raniere and Nxivm — took a leave of absence from his job. Politico said the move “appears to be related to a lawsuit involving his in-depth coverage of a secretive personal development organization.”
That “personal development organization,” of course, was Nxivm. Also that November, The Nation ran an article detailing “How a Strange, Secretive, Cult-like Company Is Waging Legal War Against Journalists.” That piece discussed Nxivm’s lawsuit against Odato and Suzanna Andrews, a Vanity Fair contributor who wrote “The Heiresses and the Cult,” which described Seagrams heiresses Sara and Clare Bronfman as “victims of a frightening, secretive “cult” called nxivm, which has swallowed as much as $150 million of their fortune.”
The lawsuit against Odata and Andrews claims that they’d broken computer-fraud laws by using a former Nxivm member’s login information to access and get information from the company’s computer server. (A judge tossed the lawsuit in September 2015, saying Nxivm has missed certain filing deadlines.) To this day, attempts to access links on the “Keith Raniere Conversations” website requires one to first agree to a list of “Terms and Conditions” starting with “KRCONVERSATIONS™ is an online information exchange service for use by ETHICAL PRINCIPLES INC, and the general public. You shall not post, publish, transmit, reproduce, distribute or in any way use or exploit any Information for commercial purposes or otherwise use the Information in a manner that is inconsistent with these rules and regulations.”
The Nation noted in 2014 that the Nxivm lawsuit against the journalists “does not question the accuracy of their reporting.” Cindy Cohn, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that “The plaintiffs here seem to be complaining that someone who they gave credentials to use their website misused those credentials (and may have lent them to others) who gained access to their confidential materials…. The use of the law here to go after journalists who were trying to shine a light on improper or embarrassing behavior seems especially wrong.”
But the attempted lawsuit did succeed, at least temporarily, in silencing journalists who might speak against Nxivm or Raniere; as The Nation reported in 2014, “journalists generally have stopped writing about the strange doings at NXIVM.”