EXCLUSIVE: How 'boring' NXIVM founder Keith Raniere 'defined reality' for his victims and used the cult to fulfill his sexual desires

Raniere saw NXIVM as a vehicle to fulfill his sexual desires and this abuse is a recurring problem in authoritarian groups when leaders use their power to sexually exploit members.


                            EXCLUSIVE: How 'boring' NXIVM founder Keith Raniere 'defined reality' for his victims and used the cult to fulfill his sexual desires

The sinister tale of NXIVM, a self-help group took over the fancy of the world after its dark, exploitive and cult-like attributes saw the light of day around early 2000. Established in 1998, it was founded by Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman as a personal development company that would not only bring joy in the lives of its members but also aid their self-improvement. Little did anyone know about what was really going on inside. Branding women with his initials, starving them with strict diets and blackmailing them with the information they had given in good faith, Raniere was running a slave-master cult. 

Investigations have shown that Raniere, who was recently convicted of sex trafficking and racketeering and related charges, had women working alongside him. His victims too have been women from all walks of life. So why was NXIVM so attractive to them - even when they were being subjected to such treatment. 

In this courtroom drawing, defendant Keith Raniere, center, sits at the defense table with his attorneys Paul DerOhannesian, left and Marc Agnifilo, as the jury foreperson reads the guilty verdict in his sex trafficking trial in New York, Wednesday, June 19, 2019. The former leader of a cult-like self-help group was convicted Wednesday of manipulating his female followers through shame and humiliation and turning them into what prosecutors call his sex slaves. The man at the rear is a Deputy US Marshal. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

Cult investigator Rick Ross, executive director of the nonprofit organization the Ross Institute, who has worked with NXIVM victims and affected families since 2002 as well as been embroiled in a lawsuit for publishing a critical manifesto of the group calling it "expensive brainwashing" for 14 years, says that it wasn't a greater need for spiritual fulfillment that sucked these women into the cult. It was all just deception in the recruitment process that by the time they knew what was happening, they were in too deep.

Some of the women who were part of the NXIVM cult were businesswoman Sheila Johnson, Ana Cristina Fox, daughter of former Mexican president Vicente Fox along with actresses Linda Evans, Grace Park, Nicki Clyne, Allison Mack, and Kristin Kreuk. Seagram heiresses Clare and Sara Bronfman, the daughters of Edgar Bronfman Sr., were also attached to the organization in its early days.

"The women victimized by Keith Raniere had no idea what his expectations were and where he was leading them. Raniere was deliberately deceptive and very manipulative," Ross told MEA World Wide (MEAWW). NXIVM had all the earmarks of a 'bait and switch con', he said. The victims of such cults are generally lured in by family, friends and trusted ones, who also may not know what they are doing. Often, the victim is someone who is vulnerable. This may be a career setback, divorce, financial problems, health issues or death in the family, something that renders the individual more vulnerable and suggestible, he adds. 

Actress Allison Mack (R) departs the United States Eastern District Court after a bail hearing in relation to the sex trafficking charges filed against her on May 4, 2018 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The actress known for her role on 'Smallville' is charged with sex trafficking. Along with alleged cult leader Keith Raniere, prosecutors say Mack recruited women to an upstate New York mentorship group NXIVM that turned them into sex slaves. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

Raniere lied about his personal history, IQ, accomplishments and created a false image. "He was not the person he claimed to be and quite frankly, was not that charismatic and could be rather boring when compared to other cult leaders," Ross said. Raniere cultivated mythology about himself, posing as Vanguard, some sort of philosopher king, but in reality, he was an average college student who failed at least one class, Ross said. Raniere's multi-level marketing business Consumer Buyline ended in failure. "Rather than demonstrating that he was a genius with IQ above 200, Raniere instead seemed stupid and unable to learn from his mistakes. He was nevertheless a relentless self-promoter who micromanaged his image," he said.

So what was it that made someone like him, so destructive yet so successful for so many years? His ability to "crack open" the weaker bits of his victim and his ultimate authority -  a feature common in all destructive cults. 

 "There are no checks and balances to the leader's power.  Whatever the leader wants becomes the agenda of the cult," Ross said. Raniere saw NXIVM as a vehicle to fulfill his sexual desires and this abuse is a recurring problem in authoritarian groups when leaders use their power to sexually exploit members, he said. It also had to do with Raniere's successful portrayal of who he wanted to look like, however, Ross said that he was rather "boring" in comparison to other cult leaders. 

The DOS of the organization were branded with Keith Raniere's initials (FBI)

To Raniere, it was all about absolute submission, he says, which is why he branded his victims. It is a reflection of a deeply disturbed mind, Ross said. "Raniere was all about power and control. The more power he had the more he wanted and NXIVM's destructiveness escalated over a period of years," he said.

The guru-like leader and his cult wanted participants to give in collaterals that were supposed to keep them on the right track - these included nude photos, very personal information and threats of taking away their assets. The 2018 indictment against the cult's DOS, which was a "secret sisterhood" and the inner circle close to Raniere revealed that members would be forced to sear the initials onto their body. 

"The women were coerced and manipulated to submit through endless training, fear concerning the so-called "collateral " that had been collected about them and this was reinforced by coaching and their relative social isolation within the group," Ross explains. Like most cults, members would be isolated from their loved ones, leading them to find solace in nothing but the cult.

A slow process, it involved gradually increasing social isolation and manipulation, he says. It was done through endless training sessions, required coaching by assigned coaches, confessions through what NXIVM called "exploration of meaning" questioning or EMs. "Eventually the women were cut off from any outside frame of reference or accurate feedback and embedded within a subculture controlled by Keith Raniere. In this sense, Raniere controlled what was right and wrong and he defined reality," he said.  By the time he was done, they were just pawns in his scheme of things. 

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