In the early 2000s, Forbes, and other media outlets started covering the group NXIVM, a massive marketing enterprise based in Clifton Park, New York with chapters across the country, Canada and Mexico. Although the company, which had become popular in Hollywood and among business circles, advertised self-help classes, workshops, coaching and mentorship, according to former members, the group—run by Keith Raniere—practiced blackmail, forced labor, literal branding, near-starvation and sex trafficking.
In October 2020 Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison for sex trafficking and other crimes. Top recruiter Allison Mack, an actress best known for her role on the TV series Smallville, is currently awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty in April 2019 to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy charges related to NXIVM.
A&E True Crime spoke with Vancouver-based author and journalist Sarah Berman about her new book, Don’t Call It a Cult: The Shocking Story of Keith Raniere and the Woman of NXIVM, in which she explores NXIVM’s shocking practices.
When did you first become aware of the NXIVM story?
It was prevalent here in Vancouver with a center downtown, so I’d heard about the courses as early as 2012 through acquaintances who had taken the courses. And then there was a friend of a friend who had moved to Albany [NXIVM’s headquarters] at one point and got out after a few years, nothing long term. But that didn’t have any of the context of the later stories about DOS [a “secret sisterhood” within NXIVM], the branding, and the legal case [against it], so I found out about the criminal aspects through the 2017 New York Times article just like everyone else. It took me a day or two to put it all together that these classes my acquaintances were into were [part of NXIVM].
Then I did a bunch of bigger NXIVM news stories, like the Vancouver acting connection [with Vancouver-based actor Sarah Edmondson and others from TV shows like Smallville and Battlestar Galactica] as well as NXIVM health claims about being able to cure conditions like Tourette’s Syndrome through their exploration of … hypnosis therapy, which actually didn’t make it into the book.
[Watch Beyond the Headlines: Escaping the NXIVM Cult on A&E Crime Central.]
What else did you learn about the NXIVM world?
I did a lot of early interviews with people who went through the entry level classes and didn’t see anything particularly insidious but did see a little bit of weird behaviors, like Keith hitting on people. He was very forward in terms of mirroring people—touching and clasping hands and even calling people out if they didn’t respond in kind. But that’s not a red flag of criminal activity. So I went through several former members’ course materials to see what they were sharing in classes and breakout groups and it was all deeply personal…sharing their worst, most closely guarded secrets, the worst thing someone had done to them or what they’d done to another person with the encouragement [from workshop coaches] that if you let it go, it won’t have a hold on you anymore
Edmondson said [coaches] were supposed to record the most intense things people were willing to admit. And sometimes, for people like Daniela [a former NXIVM member who was a victim of sexual abuse and a two-year confinement by members], this would be used to encourage further compliance.
Daniela was in the country undocumented and this came up any time she tried to go against some of the controls being imposed on her. So much of what went on was unknown, was going on behind closed doors. …Secrecy was such a weapon in Raniere’s hand.
Certainly, when people were giving this secretive information, they didn’t have that outcome in mind.
Talk a little about your interviews with Sarah Edmondson, the first woman in Raniere’s inner circle to go public about the darker aspects of NXIVM?
Sarah spent a lot of time helping me paint the picture of being a true believer, walking me through her pitching process, how she would gently coach people and how she really believed this system was the key to success and happiness. She helped paint the picture of the breakout groups that were full of enthusiasm and helping people work through their issues to get to an ‘integration’ [to be in complete control of your emotions and not be swayed by past traumas and misperceptions]. I saw this group through the rose-tinted glasses that new students would’ve had.
She also understands the abuses, too, which is important. She talked about this ‘frog in a pot of water’ that slowly gets hotter and hotter. You need to experience that as a reader…going through all these decades of the same sort of strategies, recruiting and selection structures, conditioning and social pressure.
In the appendix of the book you include a letter you sent to Raniere in jail. Has he ever responded to you in any capacity? What is your impression of him?
No. I did interview his former defense attorney, Marc Agnifilo, but the letter has never been acknowledged then or by his new defense team, either.
During the trial I was surprised at how much smaller Keith is than I expected. At the sentencing he was sort of garbled and contradicted himself a lot, not this genius philosopher. But what got to me the most was the way he spoke to a former NXIVM member named Camila.
Prosecutors introduced months of their WhatsApp messages back and forth … I thought it was so revealing how he spoke to her—someone he had sexually exploited for nine years starting at age 15. He never put her growth or interests first. It was always about him. He was always manipulating, gaslighting and trying to cut down her confidence and ability to say no to anything. It’s hard to describe . . . it added this cruel dimension to everything the public had already heard.
Explain the title of the book Don’t Call It a Cult.
At one point Edmondson was scared to be on record calling it a cult because she thought she could potentially be sued. That’s part of the reason behind the title, but everything in NXIVM was one thing, and described as another. Language was just completely disconnected from what was actually happening in so many cases.
But it’s also important to keep in mind that when you’re talking to someone who’s in a group like this, they are going to shut you down if you’re using that kind of language, if you’re dismissing the group as something like a cult. If you’re trying to reach someone in a group like this, it’s best to come in good faith.