Inside NXIVM, The ‘Female Empowerment’ Group That Was Actually A Sex Cult

Published June 12, 2022
Updated July 21, 2022

Part pyramid scheme and part sex-trafficking operation, NXIVM was founded by Keith Raniere in 1998 and soon attracted rich and famous members from across America.

“Do you think the person who is being branded should be completely nude and sort of held to the table like a sort of, almost, like a sacrifice?”

This was just one of many horrific questions that NXIVM sex cult founder Keith Raniere posed to his top lieutenants. Among the upper brass were Seagram heiress Clare Bronfman, Battlestar Galactica star Nicki Clyne, and Smallville actress Allison Mack.

It was Mack with whom Raniere had developed the most trusting relationship of all. Raniere — who was found guilty of sex trafficking, the sexual exploitation of a child, forced labor conspiracy, and multiple counts of racketeering — routinely communicated his disturbing ideas with passivity.

“Legs spread straight, like feet being held to the side of the table, hands probably above the head, being held, almost like tied down,” he explained, in reference to branding new members of the cult.

Keith Raniere

YouTubeRaniere discovered at a young age that knowing somebody’s deepest secrets gave one an advantage.

In the beginning, NXIVM was essentially a pyramid scheme posing as a marketing company. The organization proffered anyone willing to reinvent themselves into successful businessmen and businesswomen a chance of professional development.

It rather quickly devolved into Raniere’s personal flytrap, which he’d lure vulnerable young women into before brainwashing them. On the other hand, perhaps that was the plan all along.

Now, a new HBO documentary series titled The Vow promises to take viewers inside the inner workings of NXIVM. From interviews with former members to an exploration of Raniere’s sinister strategies, the series takes a deep dive into the surprising ease in which NXIVM manipulated its most vulnerable members. But The Vow only tells part of the horrific story.

The Disturbing Crimes Of NXIVM

“She should say, ‘Please brand me. It would be an honor’ — or something like that — ‘an honor I want to wear for the rest of my life.'”

Raniere told Mack — who was not only his disciple but also his lover — that the last part of that mantra was vital. After all, he wouldn’t want to be seen as a coercive figure.

“They should probably say that before they’re held down, so it doesn’t seem like they were being coerced,” he told her.

Allison Mack

YouTubeSmallville star Allison Mack was a celebrity member of NXIVM.

Raniere ran NXIVM with precision, and Mack was well aware of his methods. She’d already been branded herself, and she later claimed that the branding was her idea in the first place.

As Mack candidly explained to the New York Times Magazine, she opted for branding since it was more intense than tattooing — another idea that was apparently floated by Raniere’s associates.

Mack said, “I was like: ‘Y’all, a tattoo? People get drunk and tattooed on their ankle ‘BFF,’ or a tramp stamp. I have two tattoos and they mean nothing.'”

But why did Mack turn to Raniere in the first place? According to her, she was unhappy with her TV acting career. She even asked Raniere to “make her a great actress again.” Instead, he essentially made her one of his slaves.

Allison Mack and Keith Raniere in conversation.

Before long, Mack was at Raniere’s beck and call, obeying his every command. Her master would later instruct her what to tell the new members before they were branded with his initials:

“Pain is how we know how much we love. We know the depth of our love through pain. When they feel the pain, they think of that love.”

Of course, Mack wasn’t the only famous member of NXIVM. Battlestar Galactica star Nicki Clyne was said to be another member in Raniere’s innermost circle. The group also attracted Clare Bronfman, an heiress to the Seagram liquor fortune. According to Forbes, Bronfman helped fund NXIVM with tens of millions of dollars straight from her trust fund.

But while Raniere targeted quite a few wealthy — and seemingly happy — women, Mack was perhaps the one he had the closest relationship with. It was later speculated that he convinced so many women to join by preying on their lack of confidence.

As Raniere’s ex-girlfriend and early NXIVM whistleblower Toni Natalie put it: “What Keith was able to do was immediately ascertain your weak points and insecurities. And then he takes those insecurities and convinces you he’s helping you with them. But it’s just things he uses to hold you hostage.”

He clearly had plenty of time to perfect his sinister skills. Ever since Raniere and Nancy Salzman co-founded NXIVM in 1998, they claimed to offer “Executive Success Programs” or ESP. Raniere easily lured people in with promises of not only more money and success, but also better relationships.

Once members were convinced to join, they were instructed to call Raniere “Vanguard,” while Salzman was to be called “Prefect.” On the surface, the reason was supposedly that Raniere led a philosophical movement and that Salzman was his original student.

Unfortunately, Raniere didn’t practice what he preached.

Who Is Keith Raniere?

Before Keith Raniere reinvented himself as “Vanguard” for his indoctrinated devotees, the NXIVM cult leader was born on Aug. 26, 1960 in Brooklyn, New York. His parents separated when he was very young, and his mother was reportedly an alcoholic.

According to those who knew him back in the day, Raniere apparently displayed disturbing behavior from an early age.

Keith Raniere Initials And NXIVM Brand

Wikimedia CommonsNXIVM initiates were taught that “pain is how we know how much we love” before they were branded.

He was just about 10 years old and enrolled in a Waldorf school when he learned a lesson in power dynamics that he’d later refine and employ at NXIVM. A classmate recalled sharing some “compromising” information about her sister with Raniere — information that he immediately exploited.

“You know, it’s like I have this little bottle of poison I can hold over your head,” he told her. “I just don’t think your parents or your sister would be very happy if I told them.”

She claimed Raniere “would call me sometimes and say, ‘Little bottles, little bottles,'” as a firm reminder that he was the one in control of the situation.

It was later reported that Isaac Asimov’s Second Foundation, which contains a fair amount of mind games, was a huge inspiration for Raniere when it came to NXIVM’s inner workings. Raniere read the book at age 12, after which his manipulative tendencies apparently only grew stronger.

A VICE News segment with former member and whistleblower Frank Parlato.

His former partner Barbara Bouchey later recounted a story that Raniere’s father told her that dates back to when Raniere was just 13 years old:

“Dozens of young girls were calling the house and [Raniere’s mother] was overhearing his conversations with them where he was telling every single woman, every single girl the same thing: ‘I love you. You’re the special one. You’re the important one in my life and I love you.'”

His conflation of love and pain became more apparent long before he founded NXIVM in 1998.

As early as 1984, Keith Raniere manipulated a 15-year-old girl named Gina Melita into a sexual relationship — when he was 24. He often took her to video game arcades, where he seemed to enjoy one Atari shooter called the “Vanguard.” That would later become his nickname in his sex cult.

NXIVM Headquarters

Amy Luke/Getty ImagesOutside NXIVM headquarters in Albany, an “Executive Success Programs” sign welcomed potential victims.

Raniere then began attempting to start multi-level marketing companies. His business Consumer’s Buyline Inc. (CBI) shut down in 1993 after being investigated by 23 states. It was later called an “illegal pyramid scheme.”

But his legal troubles obviously didn’t deter him from his disturbing visions. Just a few years later, he started NXIVM.

The NXIVM Brand: From Beliefs To Practices

Keith Raniere officially founded NXIVM in Albany, New York in 1998. The company claimed that it specialized in personal growth seminars. Members were promised that they could use their new development skills to maximize their own businesses and profit margins.

NXIVM’s “Mission Statement” featured 12 points that members were instructed to recite in order to “purge” themselves “of all parasite and envy-based habits” and “ethically control as much of the money, wealth, and resources of the world as possible.”

Members were often encouraged to attend lengthy classes as well, some of which took as long as 12 hours to complete. One known price for a module was listed at $7,500.

In one class, members were taught how to take advantage of a significant other’s sudden death. Another class allegedly focused on Dracula.

Inside The NXIVM Cult's Office

Amy Luke/Getty ImagesA peek inside the cult’s Albany offices, a few weeks after Raniere and his senior members were arrested and charged.

Meanwhile, the Scientology-esque sit-downs called “Explorations of Meaning” had senior NXIVM members question lower-tier members about their memories. They also uncovered their fears and insecurities and any underlying health issues.

Loyalty was considered paramount for all members, but especially for the women. Whenever women left the group, they were labeled as “suppressives” and “socialists” and “enemies of the company.”

And before long, NXIVM ran on brainwashing and blackmailing new female members more than anything else.

Perhaps most distressing were the related organizations that NXIVM consorted with, most of which Raniere allegedly created. DOS, or “Dominus Obsequious Sororium,” for example, essentially translates to “Master over Slave Women.”

As rumors spread of Raniere’s bizarre group and its macabre activities, he worked hard to course-correct the cult’s image. In 2009, he even met with the Dalai Lama — who traveled to Albany and presented Raniere with a white scarf on stage.

Dalai Lama

Wikimedia CommonsIt was later revealed that one NXIVM member had sex with Tenzin Dhonden — the supposedly celibate gatekeeper of the Dalai Lama.

But unfortunately for Raniere, the schemes, manipulations, and violent crimes would all be exposed after he was arrested in 2018.

A Cult Exposed: NXIVM On Trial

“Keith Raniere claimed to be a leader, but he was a con man,” said Tanya Hajjar, the assistant U.S. Attorney, during the first day of Raniere’s trial in May 2019. “He targeted people looking to improve their lives. He drew them in slowly with promises of success, of money, of better relationships, and once he gained their trust, he exploited it.”

During the eight-week trial, federal prosecutors were able to convince the jury that NXIVM was not only a sham, but a criminal organization that existed primarily to serve Raniere’s appetite for sex and power.

This was proven in court to be exemplified by Raniere’s branding of sex slaves as their initiation ritual. As if that wasn’t disturbing enough, the women also had to give up “collateral” in the form of videos showing themselves masturbating, which would allow Raniere to blackmail them if he thought it was necessary.

An ABC News interview with former NXIVM member Sarah Edmonson.

New members were instructed to send in photos of their unshaven vulvas, while ensuring that their faces were clearly seen in the frame. Extreme low-calorie diets were enforced, and any sexual activity that didn’t involve Raniere was prohibited.

If Raniere hadn’t been arrested, he may have even gone further with his rules. His trial revealed that he was about to construct a “dungeon” at his DOS headquarters that would apparently include cages, paddles, and “puppy plugs… perfect for puppy play or naughty slaves.”

But by far the most disturbing ritual showcased in court was the branding. Former members recalled hearing their flesh sizzle as they screamed and cried for mercy. Some of them weren’t even told that these painful brands would include Raniere’s initials.

Keith Allen Raniere Mugshot

Wikimedia CommonsKeith Raniere is scheduled to receive a mandatory sentence of at least 15 years in 2020.

All along, Mack painted the group as a feminist one, aimed to make women stronger, when clearly the opposite was true. As she recruited women to join, she tried to attract high-profile figures to expand the empire further. While not everyone she reached out to was interested, NXIVM remained intact for nearly two decades.

It all came crashing down after former member and whistleblower Frank Parlato published a series of articles about the cult in 2017. After the New York Times and other publications began investigating the situation, members quickly began dropping out one by one.

Raniere felt authorities closing in, leading to his escape to Mexico.

He was arrested there in March 2018, with Mack, Salzman, Bronfman, and a few other members being arrested soon after. All of the associates pled guilty to charges related to the case in order to avoid standing trial with Raniere — who was convicted of all charges after pleading not guilty.

Allison Mack Leaving Court

Jemal Countess/Getty ImagesAllison Mack leaves the U.S. Eastern District Court after a bail hearing regarding the sexual trafficking charges against her on May 4, 2018, in Brooklyn, New York.

Not long after, Keith Raniere’s attorneys asked for a new trial regarding his racketeering case as two witnesses allegedly lied under oath. The request was later denied.

His sentencing was supposed to take place early in 2020, but it kept getting delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, Raniere is set to be sentenced on October 27, 2020 — when he’ll receive at least 15 years as a mandatory minimum sentence, with a potential life sentence to follow.

U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis said that the court is currently preparing several courtrooms to manage the large number of people expected to attend his sentencing — including members of the media, several victims, and the few remaining NXIVM loyalists.

After learning about the NXIVM cult, read the bizarre true story of Charles Manson’s death. Next, learn about Marcus Wesson and how he turned his family into an incestuous cult.

Marco Margaritoff
A former staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff holds dual Bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a Master's in journalism from New York University. He has published work at People, VICE, Complex, and serves as a staff reporter at HuffPost.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
Cite This Article
Margaritoff, Marco. "Inside NXIVM, The ‘Female Empowerment’ Group That Was Actually A Sex Cult." AllThatsInteresting.com, June 12, 2022, https://allthatsinteresting.com/nxivm. Accessed April 21, 2024.