In August, HBO premiered the first episode of The Vow, a nine-part docu-series detailing life inside NXIVM, a self-help group that has widely been described as a cult. But just after the season finale, which teased a second season to come, another docu-series about the group premiered on Starz, this one titled Seduced.
Amid the recent attention to the mostly-defunct group, their one-time leader, Keith Raniere, was transported from his jail cell to a federal courthouse in Brooklyn to receive sentencing for his crimes. On Tuesday, Judge Nicholas Garaufis condemned Raniere to 120 years in prison, meaning he will spend the duration of his life behind bars.
So how did a man who was once worshipped as the spiritual leader of a philosophical movement end up convicted of crimes ranging from racketeering to sex-trafficking? The story is as bizarre as it is sinister.
They called him Vanguard
NXIVM (pronounced NEX-ee-um) began in the late 1990s under the name Executive Success Programs. In an age where self-help seminars and books were all the rage, Raniere teamed up with psychologist and trained hypnotist Nancy Salzman to start their own programs to help people “unleash their full potential.”
But Raniere had a history involving a pyramid scheme called Consumers Byline, that several state attorneys general ultimately shut down for its manipulative marketing tactics. Still, with NXIVM, Raniere constructed a new multi-level marketing scheme, where participants were required to recruit new members in order to move up the ranks. But instead of selling products, Raniere was selling a manufactured version of philosophy and self-empowerment.
As the philosophical head of the movement, Raniere adapted the title Vanguard, which participants called him both in person and at the end of intensive classes, when they would bow their heads to his image. But while he claimed to have one of the world’s highest IQs, and to be a former piano prodigy and childhood polyglot, documents overturned in his trial revealed that all of this was part of an effort to invent a godlike image. The truth is, at least according to his below-average college transcripts, Raniere was little more than a smooth-talking conman.
NXIVM Cult Following
Those who moved up the ranks within NXIVM were forbidden from questioning Raniere’s teachings, even as they became increasingly disturbing. In special seminars only for long-serving members, Raniere spoke about the differences between men and women, affirming that men were naturally polygamous, while women were naturally monogamous. But many of the teachings used the guise of women’s empowerment, insisting to his doting female followers that he was helping them become stronger, more evolved women.
Among his fan club were several rich and parenthetically famous white women. Sara and Clare Bronfman, sisters and heiresses to the Seagram liquor empire, were among his fiercest defenders, though Clare is now serving six years in prison for bankrolling Raniere’s antics. His followers also included the son of a former Mexican president, and India Oxenberg, daughter of Dynasty star Catherine Oxenberg, who is related to European royalty through her mother.
But Raniere’s most valued disciple was Allison Mack, a beautiful blonde actress who once starred on TV’s Smallville. Mack became enchanted by Raniere and his teachings, ultimately giving up her Hollywood career to live near him in suburban Albany. (All of Raniere’s most devoted followers were encouraged to move to the same subdivision in upstate New York). But even as Mack submitted to her Vanguard’s every word, she would soon find herself spearheading the group’s most sinister secret society.
Mack began recruiting women for what she called the most incredible women’s empowerment group she’d ever seen. She told women in NXIVM that the secret society was invite-only, and exclusively for women, asserting that even Raniere had no part in it. But to gain access, she told recruits, they would have to offer her some form of “collateral,” as proof that they were committed to their own self betterment.
Women who entered offered nude photos, incriminating documents about family members, and even, in at least one case, the deed to their house. After submitting collateral, these women were initiated into a secret sorority called DOS, where the woman who recruited them was to become their “master,” and they her “slave.” But slaves, in turn, were compelled to recruit their own slaves, forming a pyramid scheme of servitude. At the top of the pyramid was Allison Mack, or so it seemed. Federal prosecutors, in their trial against Raniere, claimed that he was the grandmaster, the nefarious force who first recruited Mack into personal slavery.
Once members had submitted their collateral, they were trafficked to Mack’s home under unclear pretenses, and branded with a cauterizing pen. Women involved claim that the branding took about forty minutes, during which time other women in the group held them down by the arms and legs. One former member claimed it was worse pain than childbirth, likening it to surgery without anesthetic. As for the symbol that was being branded to them, members were told it was an ancient sign that represented the elements. But in truth, it was a combination of the initials KR (Keith Raniere) and AM (Allison Mack). The initiation ritual was known within the group as the Vow.
From there, members claim that their masters controlled every aspect of their lives. That included when and how much they eat (they were reportedly put on 500-calorie daily diets). Members were also deprived of sleep, and compelled to perform acts of “penance,” or punishment, when they did not fulfil personal goals. But for some members, it also meant being ordered by their masters to have sex with Vanguard himself.
Catherine Oxenberg and former members of the cult brought the story to the attention of the New York Times. Several investigations resulted from a Times exposé of DOS in 2018. Ultimately, the feds convicted Raniere of multiple crimes, accusing him of being unrepented for the manipulative games he played for over a decade. Several of his high-ranking lieutenants, including Nancy Salzman, her daughter Lauren, Clare Bronfman, and Allison Mack were also charged in court. Only Raniere and Bronfman have yet been convicted.
But on Tuesday, Raniere received his life sentence. At the hearing, several of his former “slaves” read statements about the trauma he inflicted on them, and how he deserves to suffer likewise. But while Raniere expressed sadness for them, he refused to accept culpability. His refusal to apologize, however, was central to prosecutors’ argument that he deserves life in prison. If he ever gains his freedom, they warned, he would go back to manipulating vulnerable people.MORE NEWS…