In April of 2018, news broke that actress Allison Mack, known for her girl-next-door looks and role in the hit show Smallville, had been arrested in connection to a sex trafficking operation. What unfolded after her arrest led to the discovery of a sinister and abusive cult that blackmailed and groomed women into having sex with the founder, Keith Raniere. On June 19th, a six-week trial in Brooklyn was concluded with Raniere being found guilty on all charges.
In 1998, Raniere met Nancy Salzman, a nurse and trained practitioner in hypnotism and neuro-linguistic programming. Together they founded the “Executive Success Programs” (ESP), a personal development company that offered a range of techniques aimed at self-improvement. A few years later, Raniere rebranded the organization as “NXIVM” (pronounced NEX-ee-um) and gave himself the title of “Vanguard,” after a video game he favored as a child. Salzman had members refer to her as “Prefect.”
A year after founding the organization, Raniere faced legal trouble after he was accused of harassing his ex-partner, Toni Natalie. Prior to this, Raniere’s company “Consumer’s Buyline” was shut down after a 20-state-wide investigation concluded with the company being deemed a pyramid scheme.
In November of 2002, a few years after the national seminars began, 35-year-old Alaskan native Kristen Marie Snyder began taking ESP classes with Raniere and Salzman. Four months later, she was presumed dead. Advertised as a way to help improve your career, personal life and outlook on life, Snyder signed up for courses and immediately became enthralled with the organization. However, during her second 16-day intensive course with the organization, Snyder became delusional, stopped sleeping and was threatening suicide, according to her domestic partner, Heidi Clifford. In February of 2003, Snyder left the hotel where the ESP training was being held, wrote a suicide note and is suspected to have paddled into a freezing lake and purposefully capsized her boat.
The contents of her suicide note cast a particular spotlight on NXIVM and Raniere.
“I attended a course called Executive Success Programs (a.k.a. Nexivm) based out of Anchorage, AK, and Albany, NY.” Snyder wrote. “I was brainwashed and my emotional center of the brain was killed/turned off. I still have feeling in my external skin, but my internal organs are rotting. Please contact my parents … if you find me or this note. I am sorry life, I didn’t know I was already dead. May we persist into the future.”
Her death was ruled a suicide without foul play and NXIVM was not seriously investigated beyond a Forbes exposé that first publicly presented the organization as a cult, shocking the members who had spoken to the reporter.
Becoming a Hollywood Endeavor
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of NXIVM is the amount of successful and influential people who became involved. The most well known is actress Allison Mack, who was arrested and pled guilty to sex trafficking and racketeering charges in 2018 and is still awaiting sentencing. Mack became involved in the cult in 2006 after attending one of Raniere and Salzman’s seminars, branded as a “women’s empowerment movement.”
According to former members who attended this particular seminar, the focus was “laying the groundwork” for introducing polygamy as a viable option to attendees. By this time, Raniere was already known by his members to have a “harem” of at least a dozen women.
Mack was brought into the group by her co-star Kristin Kreuk, who was a member of the group until 2013 and maintains that she never knew or saw any illegal activity, and only participated through self-help sessions. Some other stars who had been involved with NXIVM include Linda Evans, known for her roles in The Big Valley and Dynasty, Shirley MacLaine, Sheila Johnson, cofounder of Black Entertainment Television, and Sara and Clare Bronfman, heirs to the multi-billion dollar Seagram Co. fortune. NXIVM also became a home to several children of disgraced, wealthy Mexican politicians and even a former U.S. surgeon general.
Mack quickly became enthralled with the organization and Raniere, and by the time of her arrest she was considered Raniere’s “number two” and was known by the other members as a “master.” Mack was accused of helping Raniere recruit, brand, brainwash and blackmail female members of the cult in order for Raniere to have sex with them. Mack’s initials were even incorporated into the brand forcibly burned onto the “slave” members of the cult.
After federal agencies began seriously investigating the cult, Mack was one of several of Raniere’s trusted followers who fled with him to Mexico, where they were eventually captured and arrested.
The premise of the cult was as devious as it was effective. New recruits were brought in under the guise that they would be attending “self-help seminars,” primarily marketed towards young women. From there, Salzman and other high ranking female members of the cult would begin establishing Raniere’s grandeur, convincing members that he was nearly god-like. They also promoted radical ideas of polygamy, incest, sociopathy, power and the dismantling of age structures that Salzman claimed “the world wasn’t ready for.”
Eventually, members advanced through the cult structure until they formed complete trust and idolization for Raniere. Members were made to turn over nude or incriminating photos to the cult leaders as a sign of trust, but they would later be used to blackmail and manipulate doubting members into staying in the cult and having sex with Raniere. These members were also forcibly branded with a symbol that combined the letters KR (Keith Raniere) and AM (Allison Mack).
Members as young as 15 were coerced into having sex with Raniere, and one woman, known only as Daniela, was even held in a room for over two years as punishment for allegedly gaining weight and expressing the desire to see another man. Daniela was a young Mexican member who entered the U.S. with her parents in 2005 and said Raniere kept her in line through repeated threats of deportation.
The majority of NXIVM members were never exposed to the sexual deviancy of Raniere. The group boasted an extensive, global membership and the vast majority of participants only engaged in the various business and self-help curriculums offered through the ESP courses. This sect of the organization has often been compared to the structure of Scientology, where members advance through stages of knowledge and enlightenment through taking courses and paying fees. Raniere also deployed the use of a theory he invented called “Rational Inquiry,” in which he convinced members that deeply ingrained beliefs and cultural understandings they had held since childhood were often wrong and needed reprograming.
A select portion of the members, particularly young, beautiful women, were manipulated and brainwashed into having sexual relations with Raniere and joining his “harem.” These were the members that were forced to take on Raniere’s brand and were kept in abusive conditions. Raniere maintained abusive romantic relationships throughout this time, including with Lauren Salzman, the daughter of co-founder Nancy Salzman.
A little more than a year after his arrest, Raniere was put on trial in Brooklyn for several charges, including sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy, human trafficking, racketeering, child pornography and the sexual exploitation of a child. Now, at 58, he faces life in prison after being convicted on all charges.
While defense attorneys painted Raniere as a misunderstood savant and self-help guru with radical and unconventional beliefs, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York Richard Donoghue described him as a “massive manipulator, a conman and a crime boss of a cult-like organization involving sex trafficking, child pornography, extortion, compelled abortions, branding, degradation and humiliation.”
The trial not only focused on outlining the individual crimes of Raniere, but also highlighting the fact the NXIVM was a global, criminal enterprise. Several former members of the group testified against Raniere and spoke to the disturbing and horrific conditions of the sex cult, which they all initially believed was a female empowerment group.
Raniere did not testify in the case and his attorney did not call any witnesses, which was considered unusual as Raniere has insisted the sexual aspect of the organization was completely consensual.
Nancy and Lauren Salzman, as well as several other high-ranking members of the organization, have also pled guilty to several charges. Both Raniere and Mack are expected to be sentenced in September, but Raniere’s lawyer says he maintains his innocence and plans to appeal the conviction.
The Dangers of the Cult Structure
The cult structure is specifically designed to work by manipulating and brainwashing normal, albeit vulnerable, people into complete submission. Falling victim to a cult leader is a lot easier, and more common, than one might believe.
The UK-based Cult Information Centre is run by former-cult member and cult expert Ian Haworth. The centre offers resources and assistance to those who are actively seeking to leave a cult or feel they are in danger of falling victim to one. The centre also generally aims to educate the public about cults and common misconceptions about how they operate.
A common misbelief that Haworth believes could potentially be dangerous, is the idea that only weak or unstable people can be drawn into cults. Nobody wants to consider themselves vulnerable, but Haworth argues that everyone has something a cult leader can manipulate, and everyone is vulnerable to these tactics. In fact, Haworth believes “the safest people are the mentally ill,” because they are more difficult to manipulate and recruit. People with money, religious foundations and those with alert, but receptive, minds are also at higher risk of falling victim to cult recruitment.
Haworth describes his journey into a cult and the story begins with a situation we could all easily find ourselves in: filling out a survey at the mall. After completing the survey, Haworth was told by a woman that he may be interested in a community group she represented. Immediately focusing in on his habit of smoking during the meeting, Haworth was drawn in by one of the high-ranking members, and soon found himself a full-fledged participant in a cult.
While the majority of cults rely on psychological and manipulation tactics, Haworth warns that he knows of people who have died as a result of cult violence.
If you or somebody you know is a victim, or is in danger of falling victim, to what you believe is a cult, please seek assistance. The American Cult Education Institute and the British Cult Information Centre both offer resources and reading materials to help members become aware of their involvement, and plan escapes from, active cults. There are also several national hotlines that victims can call to gain support and advice for these circumstances, including:
The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-4673);
The National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-7888);
and the Department of Defense Safe Helpline for Sexual Assault (1-877-995–5247).
For a more extensive list of specific hotlines, click here.