Warning: The following contains disturbing descriptions of violence and sexual violence. Reader discretion is advised.
It was the biggest cult prosecution in nearly a decade. In June 2019, Keith Raniere was found guilty on all charges, including sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy, human trafficking and multiple counts of racketeering—including sexual exploitation of a child—at a federal court in Brooklyn. As the leader of Albany, N.Y.-based NXIVM—billed as a self-help organization—he drew an estimated 16,000 paying members to costly self-empowerment courses, raking in untold millions of dollars in the process.
But while members swore by the organization, rumors of its dark underside leaked into the press: master-slave relationships, women coerced into starvation diets and some even branded like cattle. The details were shocking enough to draw the attention of federal prosecutors, who pursued it as the first such case since the conviction of polygamist cult leader Warren Jeffs.
[Watch Beyond the Headlines: Escaping the NXIVM Cult on A&E Crime Central.]
Others in the organization also face prison time, most notably: actress Allison Mack (of “Smallville” fame), who pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and racketeering, and Seagram heiress Clare Bronfman, who pleaded guilty to harboring an undocumented immigrant and enabling credit-card fraud. While a sentencing date for Mack has yet to be set, Bronfman was sentenced to six years and nine months in September 2020.
Chilling details of a mother’s attempt to extract her daughter from NXIVM will be unveiled in LIFETIME’s original movie Escaping the NXIVM Cult: A Mother’s Fight to Save Her Daughter, which premieres September 21 at 8/7c.
Rick Ross, a cult expert and the founder of the Cult Education Institute, an organization that helps deprogram members of authoritarian organizations, is deeply familiar with NXIVM after holding interventions for several of its members—and defending himself against NXIVM lawsuits for 14 years. Ross also received much of NXIVM’s “curriculum” from ex-members, which he published on his website, even though those members had signed a non-disclosure agreement with the NXIVM. The organization sued Ross unsuccessfully for publishing that information. He describes NXIVM as “a composite of scientology, Ayn Rand, a dash of the Socratic method and a good dose of multi-level marketing.”
After the conviction, one of his lawyers, Marc Agnifilo, vowed to appeal. In defense of his client, he said, “Not everything that’s offensive translates to a crime.”
Who Is Keith Raniere, the Founder of NXIVM?
While Ross might call Raniere a psychopathic predator, his acolytes admiringly referred to him as the “Vanguard.” Indeed, Raniere cultivated the myth of his own brilliance. Born in Brooklyn in 1960, Raniere claims he was a child prodigy, saying in interviews that he was speaking in full sentences at age one, and that he taught himself all of high school math in 19 hours.
He attended college near Albany at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he triple-majored in physics, math and biology and graduated in 1982. His first foray into legally questionable leadership was as the founder and head of Consumers’ Buyline, a multi-level marketing program that, in 1993, was accused of being a pyramid scheme in a civil suit filed by the New York State Attorney General, after the company drew ire from members who felt they had been defrauded. The case was settled out of court.
In 1998, Raniere founded Executive Success Programs, a group that would later be renamed NXIVM. This time, he was selling a “self-help” organization. As head of ESP, he drew several powerful figures to his organization, from a chief executive at the former energy and commodities giant Enron to a former U.S. surgeon general to the daughter of a Mexican president.
“He was able to recruit people that were very high status…,” Ross tells A&E Real Crime. “And once you get one or two, they get more.”
Hollywood celebrities would later follow.
What Was Life in NXIVM Like?
In NXIVM, devotion to Raniere was fanatical. One member of the group testified that Raniere had sexual relationships with more than 20 women in the organization. One member—a woman from Mexico—claimed that her family moved to Albany to be in the group, and that Raniere quickly established sexual relationships with her, her older sister and her younger sister (who was underage).
According to the complaint, many of these women said they were coerced into having sex with Raniere, fearing that not doing so would invite retaliation via the release of sensitive “collateral information” they’d given to the organization.
Perhaps most shocking of the allegations, several of the women were stripped naked and branded with Raniere’s initials. He also allegedly ordered women onto starvation diets, and many of his female followers became “wraith thin,” according to one former member’s testimony, to meet his preferences.
What Did the Adherents of NXIVM Believe In?
NXIVM’s core program offered intensive courses in “human potential,” wherein new recruits were sequestered for what Ross calls “Large-Group Awareness Trainings,” or LGATs. These were intensive multi-day group therapy sessions centered on the theory that participants should have emotional breakdowns as a pathway to therapeutic and cathartic breakthroughs.
Ross says these trainings would involve sitting for 10 to 12 hours a day, listening to people speak, then “breaking out into smaller groups with exploration of meaning exercises. You’re crying, admitting everything that’s bad in your life. You’re being pushed to your psychological limits.”
According to Ross, after several days of being broken down with sleep deprivation and repetition exercises, members are told that the solution to their problems can be found in NXIVM.
“You’re drowning, desperate, and then he throws you the life preserver: reeling you in to NXIVM to be one of his clones,” Ross says.