Keith Raniere, the leader of a strange self-help group known as NXIVM, has been arrested in Mexico on charges of sex trafficking and forced labor, the BBC reports.
US federal prosecutors accuse Raniere of guiding a cult-like organization designed to humiliate and brainwash its members. The self-described genius fled the United States in 2017 after several former followers came to the media with stories of coercion and sexual abuse.
For more information on sex trafficking lawsuits visit our coverage here.
Inside NXIVM: A Sex “Cult” Hidden Outside Albany
The current criminal charges against Raniere revolve around a secret society within NXIVM (pronounced “nexium”) known as Dominus Obsequious Sororium, or Master Over the Slave Women. The “sorority,” abbreviated to DOS, essentially operated as Raniere’s personal harem, federal investigators say, as the man’s followers recruited a “rotating group” of 15 or 20 women to satisfy his sexual proclivities. These women, authorities claim, were referred to as “slaves” and forced to eat low-calorie diets because Raniere prefers his partners thin.
Collateral & Coercion
In order to join DOS, prospective members had to turn over “collateral,” a promise that they would never divulge the society’s secrets in the form of sexually-explicit or otherwise incriminating materials.”Keith Raniere displayed a disgusting abuse of power in his efforts to denigrate and manipulate women he considered his sex slaves,” according to William Sweeney, a senior official at the FBI.
DOS is even weirder than it sounds. One of the most shocking allegations, apart from the fact that Allison Mack, former star of the WB series Smallville, is one of Raniere’s most-dedicated supporters, is that members of the alleged sex club were literally branded using a hot iron.
Secret Society Branded “Slaves,” Prosecutors Say
In a 2017 report, the New York Times described one such initiation ceremony, relying on the statements of Sarah Edmondson, a former NXIVM member who left the group shortly after being recruited for DOS.
Edmondson says she was told that entering DOS would involve getting a small tattoo. Instead, she was asked to “undress and lie on a massage table, while three others restrained her legs and shoulders.” After being instructed to say, “Master, please brand me, it would be an honor,” a doctor “proceeded to use a cauterizing device to sear a two-inch-square symbol below each woman’s hip,” the Times wrote.
The entire procedure took between 20 and 30 minutes. “For hours,” Edmondson told reporters, “muffled screams and the smell of burning tissue filled the room.” The women were branded with a logo that included Raniere’s initials.
Is NXIVM A Cult?
What is NXIVM? It’s never entirely clear. NXIVM is both a business structure and an all-encompassing philosophy of human nature. More important for marketing purposes, NXIVM is the key to unlocking human success and flourishing.
It’s also a cult, according to numerous former members who have stepped forward to speak with the New York Times, Forbes and the Frank Report, a blog run by Frank Parlato, the current owner of the Niagara Reporter and a man who has made it his life mission to uncover the strange world of NXIVM.
You’ll also see NXIVM referred to as a “multi-level marketing” company, which is a nicer way to say pyramid scheme.
Raniere’s first business, Consumers Byline, collapsed in the mid-1990s after being sued by 20 different states, all of whom claimed that Raniere’s brain child was an illegal Ponzi scheme.
NXIVM, critics say, is just an extension of this business model. The only difference is that, instead of selling consumer goods, the company’s affiliates are now peddling courses and seminars in Raniere’s personal philosophy.
A Pyramid Scheme For Sexual Slavery
Dominus Obsequious Sororium, federal prosecutors claim, is also something of a pyramid scheme; it’s just the strangest pyramid scheme you’ve ever heard of.
As FBI Special Agent Michael Lever wrote in a criminal complaint, “DOS operates as a pyramid with levels of ‘slaves’ headed by ‘masters.’ Slaves are expected to recruit slaves of their own (thus becoming masters themselves), who in turn owe services not only to their masters but also to masters above them in the DOS pyramid.” Keith Raniere “alone forms the top of the pyramid as the highest master,” Special Agent Lever says.
The Duties Of A “Slave”
The goal of DOS, prospective slaves were told, was to “eradicate weaknesses in its members.” In reality, it sounds like being a “slave” in DOS just meant being a slave. In one sense, becoming someone’s slave is like being their personal assistant. Slaves were told to make grocery runs for their masters, clean their homes and make them coffee. Slaves were obligated to perform “acts of care” for their masters and could be punished for failing to do so.
At the same time, slaves were required to fulfill assignments for their masters. According to Special Agent Lever, many of these assignments told slaves, “either directly or implicitly,” to have sex with Keith Raniere. “Based on information obtained over the course of the investigation,” Lever writes, “DOS victims who received the assignment to have sex with [Raniere] believed they had to complete the assignment or risk release of their collateral.”
A Culture Of Secrecy
The substance of Raniere’s philosophy is hard to parse. NXIVM puts a high priority on confidentiality; students who take a seminar are required to sign non-disclosure agreements, an arrangement Raniere has followed up on at least once, suing a former member for “divulging information.”
As we’ve seen, the Vanguard’s efforts to control Dominus Obsequious Sororium appear to have gone even further. DOS members were required to submit new incriminating “collateral” on a monthly basis, federal investigators allege.
One woman, as part of her collateral, signed the rights to any of her children born in the future over to Raniere. In court records, this person, referred to as “Co-Conspirator 1,” is described as an “actress”; it’s likely Allison Mack, who developed “The Source,” an acting program based on Raniere’s concepts with the Vanguard.
Today, around 16,000 people have enrolled in NXIVM-related courses, according to the New York Times. But some members have been drawn closer into Raniere’s orbit. As news of the “sorority” and its strange (some would say abusive) rituals have circulated through the NXIVM community, members have begun to leave, sharing their stories with the media.
Keith Raniere: The Mastermind Behind NXIVM
More than anything else, NXIVM has, at its core, delusions of grandeur. The group’s founder, Keith Raniere, is a self-styled genius. He’s one of the smartest people alive, actually, by his own admission.
On one of his website’s, Raniere claims to be among “the world’s top three problem solvers,” with “an estimated problem-solving rarity of one in 425,000,000 with respect to the general population.” What the concept of “problem-solving rarity” means, or how it could be measured in such a way, is, of course, left unexplained.
But somehow, over the last 20 years, Raniere has managed to convince a bevy of supporters – usually rich, powerful women – of his unparalleled intellect and insight.
A Coterie Of Wealthy Followers
Notable NXIVM members include Smallville actresses Kristin Kreuk (who left the organization at some point between 2009 and 2012) and Mack, who rose to become one of NXIVM’s most-prominent leaders and remains an evangelist for the group, appearing in a series of promotional interviews with Raniere on topics including childhood development, gender relationships and the key to becoming an “authentic human.” New allegations suggest that female inductees into the NXIVM “sorority” are branded with the initials of both Keith Raniere and Allison Mack.
Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, has been enrolled in Raniere’s courses, and Emiliano Salinas, son of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the former president of Mexico, serves on NXIVM’s Executive Board.
The Socialites Who Bankroll Raniere’s Ideas
Among Raniere’s acolytes, no two members provide more concrete value than Sara and Clare Bronfman, heirs to the Seagram beverage fortune.
The Bronfman sisters were drawn into Raniere’s circle in their early-20s, after attending a NXIVM seminar in Mexico. Soon, the two women, enabled by their family’s massive wealth, had moved to Albany, New York, where NXIVM is headquartered, to work more closely with the organization.
Over the last 16 years, the Bronfmans have funneled at least $100 million into Raniere’s ideas, including $65 million worth of commodities markets bets that ultimately went bust. Their father, the late billionaire Edgar Bronfman Sr., described NXIVM as a “cult” in a 2003 interview with Forbes.
The NXIVM Family Of Companies
With the Bronfmans’ money at his back, Raniere’s business interests became sprawling. The NXIVM umbrella holds over a dozen separate companies, loosely-connected and oddly focused on Mexico.
Through In Lak’ Ech, Raniere promotes non-political initiatives to stem the tide of gang violence in Mexico. Raniere’s Anima Inc. is a large-scale performance group that has produced opening and closing ceremonies for the Central American and Caribbean Games.
His Ethical Science Foundation is currently under investigation from the New York Attorney General over conducting unregulated brain studies, including one alleged test in which women were exposed to horrific violent films of murder without being warned beforehand.
And in his business Rainbow Cultural Garden, Raniere focuses on educating children, hoping to make kids “empathetic, compassionate [and] self-reliant” citizens of the world through multi-cultural exposure programs. What unites these diverse companies together is Keith Raniere’s “humanitarian” philosophy.
Executive Success Programs
Raniere founded Executive Success Programs, a personal training program “for executives and other individuals concerned with developing their skills and achieving their goals.”
For several thousand dollars, trainees can attend seminars based in Raniere’s self-developed educational philosophy, trademarked as Rational Inquiry, which, in some respects, sounds a lot like the program of Dianetics, created by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. The theory behind Rational Inquiry is explained in some detail on Executive Success Programs’ website:
“A key premise of Rational Inquiry® is the fact human beings aren’t born fully cognitive thinkers. In fact, it’s demonstrated that most people don’t reach full cognitive ability until early adolescence – somewhere between 12 and 16 years of age. As we develop, we form beliefs about ourselves and the world, often innocently making associations that are inconsistent with reality. These unrefined associations and perceptions, which we call ‘disintegrations,’ are invisible to us, yet they become part of the foundation of our belief system and thus our self-imposed limitations.”
Raniere’s NXIVM also resembles Scientology in its darker aspects. Both L. Ron Hubbard and Kieth Raniere, for example, refer to their detractors as “suppressives,” because they see good in the world and want to crush it.
The Dark Side Of Self Help
As Forbes wrote more than 10 years ago, “detractors say [Raniere] runs a cult-like program aimed at breaking down his subjects psychologically, separating them from their families and inducting them into a bizarre world of messianic pretensions, idiosyncratic language and ritualistic practices.”
Raniere asks his supporters to call him “Vanguard.” His business partner, Nancy Salzman, is referred to as “Prefect.” Again, from Forbes:
“students pay up to $10,000 for five days of lectures and intense emotional probing in daily 13-hour cram sessions. They remove their shoes for class, learn obscure handshakes and wear patented colored sashes in dozens of different variations that signify rank in the organization. When a higher-ranking student enters the room they must stand to show respect. They are taught to bow to one another and to “Vanguard.” When he makes a rare appearance, Elvis-like, students rush up to him. Some ex-clients say they have seen him greet each woman with a kiss on the mouth, although Raniere denies this.”
Keith Raniere appeared in court on the charges of sex trafficking on Tuesday, March 27, 2018. He is being held in Fort Worth, Texas, after his arrest at a gated community in Puerto Vallarta. Law enforcement officials say that Raniere was staying with several women at the compound.
“The defendant was uncooperative when immigration authorities arrived,” federal prosecutors say in court documents, “and after he was taken into custody, the women chased the car in which the defendant was being transported in their own car at high speed.”