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March 3, 2022

Episode 11: NXIVM Cult

Episode 11: NXIVM Cult

In 2017, a New York Times report inspired a justice department investigation that took down an American multi-level marketing scheme turned 'sex cult' known as NXIVM. The organization had been operating for nearly two decades under the guise of offering self-help deprogramming to heiresses, Hollywood actors and powerful CEOs. Founder, Keith Raniere, was hailed as an elusive, god-like savant within the company. ex-NXIVM members recount overcoming anxieties, phobias, and even witnessing peers have medical conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and Tourette's cured by NXIVM’s method. The Dalai Lama even visited Albany to commend Raniere’s ethical work in May of 2009.  But, after one survivor came forward to the New York Times, NXIVM had finally been exposed for what it was—a barbaric organization that abused its members emotionally and physically.

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(Episode Teaser) 

Coming up in today’s episode:

In 2017, a New York Times report inspired a justice department investigation that took down an American multi-level marketing scheme turned 'sex cult' known as NXIVM. The organization had been operating for nearly two decades under the guise of offering self-help deprogramming to heiresses, Hollywood actors and powerful CEOs. Founder, Keith Raniere, was hailed as an elusive, god-like savant within the company. ex-NXIVM members recount overcoming anxieties, phobias, and even witnessing peers have medical conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and Tourettes cured by NXIVM’s method. The Dalai Lama even visited Albany to commend Raniere’s ethical work in May of 2009.  But, after one survivor came forward to the New York Times, NXIVM had finally been exposed for what it was—a barbaric organization that abused its members emotionally and physically.

Born in Brooklyn in 1960, Raniere was the only child of an advertising executive and a former ballroom-dance teacher. When he was eight, according to his father, James, his parents divorced and he was raised by his mother, Vera, in the suburbs. Educated in private schools, Raniere would claim that in 1989 he was in the Guinness Book of World Records for “Highest IQ.” He also claimed to have taught himself high-school math in 19 hours when he was 12 and to have completed three years of college math and computer-language classes by the age of 13. He graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, New York, in 1982, having majored in physics, math, and biology, and later worked as a computer programmer and consultant. 

In 1990, he founded Consumers’ Buyline, a multi-level marketing company, and then co-founded Executive Success Programs in 1998 with Nancy Salzman.

What most people saw in ESP, later rebranded to NXIVM, was a successful corporate self-help program. Many of its “graduates” reported amazing results: some had stopped smoking; others had overcome their fear of public speaking. They even claimed to have cured Tourette's syndrome.

 Its alumni include Sheila Johnson, a co-founder of Black Entertainment Television; Antonia Novello, the former U.S. surgeon general; Richard Branson; and Emiliano Salinas, a venture capitalist, who is the son of Mexico’s former president Carlos Salinas and still a prominent nxivm member. 

One member was Sarah Edmonson. Sarah is a Canadian actress based out of Vancouver.

During NXIVM seminars, students would call Keith and Nancy "Vanguard" and "Prefect", respectively. Keith adopted the title from the 1981 video game Vanguard, "in which the destruction of one's enemies increased one's own power". Within the organization, the reasoning for the titles was that Raniere was the leader of a philosophical movement and Salzman was his first student.[21]

NXIVM was an umbrella for a bunch of different groups. There were groups for education, men’s support, and even childcare. They all had one thing in common: promoting the main principles & techniques of NXIVM’s ESP, which centered around making members more mindful and “bringing joy” into their lives. Those that took many classes and recruited more students progressed through a series of ranks that were distinguished by brightly colored sashes.

What makes NXIVM different from other cults is their approach. Rather than using religious teachings like Jim Jones, claiming to have visions like Charles Manson, or creating biblical UFO doomsday prophecies like Marshall Applewhite, NXIVM was secular. They used therapeutic techniques used in psychology as the basis for their teachings. 

The ESP techniques in NXIVM were developed by Nancy Salzman to, on the surface, empower its members to lead more fulfilling lives. Nancy Salzman was a trained nurse who doubled as a trained practitioner in hypnosis and neuro-linguistic programming.

Sarah Edmonson expresses the idea of being “at cause,” a technique taught by NXIVM where members learned that their emotions determined their reality. By controlling their emotions, they could determine the entire world. 

The concept sounds a lot like the New Age/psychological idea of “radical responsibility,” where an individual takes charge of everything in their life, even if they aren’t at fault. While it seems like radical responsibility is a great tool to make NXIVM members more responsible, it could be abused to make them comply with sex abuse.  The courses were designed to brainwash the students, teaching them neither question their instructions nor trust their own instincts. 

Raniere’s concept of “limiting beliefs” was used to suppress people’s gut instincts. 

If someone felt anxious, afraid, or uncomfortable, NXIVM taught it was because of that someone’s “limiting beliefs”. Thus, if someone felt uncomfortable joining DOS, NXIVM leadership could blame their understandable discomfort on a perceived fault in themselves, not in NXIVM. 

If everything’s your responsibility, it opens the floodgates for being gaslit. In The Vow, a phone conversation between Sarah Edmonson and her “master” Lauren Salzman reveals how easy it was for masters to build on NXIVM’s teachings to gaslight their members. Salzman says since Edmonson joined DOS, she “chose” to be branded, even though Edmonson wasn’t told about the branding until hours before it happened and feared the consequences of resisting orders.

Those who joined the organization referred to Raniere as “Vanguard”, and took classes heavily influenced by Ayn Rand’s teachings. 


NXIVM taught that some people, called "Suppressives", try to impede progress within NXIVM. People who irrevocably turned against Raniere were said to have undergone "The Fall" and were labeled, in the words of a former member, as "Luciferians, lost people for whom bad feels good, and good feels bad."


The higher-ranked members were expected to move closer to the cult’s HQ in Albany, NY. Once the members arrived closer to Raniere himself, it became much more difficult to find a way out of the cult.

Raniere helped the organization grow further by recruiting two of the Seagram’s heiresses, Sara and Claire Bronfman.

TheBronfman Heiresses gave Nxivm as much as $150 million was supposedly taken out of the Bronfmans’ trusts and bank accounts, including $66 million allegedly used to cover Raniere’s failed bets in the commodities market, $30 million to buy real estate in Los Angeles and around Albany, $11 million for a 22-seat, two-engine Canadair CL-600 jet, and millions more to support a barrage of lawsuits across the country against nxivm’s enemies.

Keith’s right hand woman was Allison Mack. Allison Mack appeared in several television movies in the 90s but was most known for her role in Smallville, a show based on a Superman comic. During her time on the show, Mack turned to NXIVM for self-improvement and personal development assistance. She attended a two-day women’s movement workshop when she was twenty-three years old. 

According to the Guardian, “Former Nxivm members have said that Raniere instructed members to roll out the red carpet and love-bomb Mack. After several days, and after being told Raniere could help her in her career, the actress accepted an invitation to visit the group’s headquarters in Albany, New York.”

Allison Mack was dissatisfied with her acting career at the time and wanted to become “a great actress again.” Enticed by all the promises & allure, Mack flew to meet Raniere in person and joined the “company.” Soon she began devoting much of her time to the cult and eventually maintained NXIVM’s second-highest rank. The only person possessing a higher rank was Keith Raniere– making Mack one of the most powerful people in NXIVM.

Those who were pretty enough and devoted enough to NXIVM were invited to join a private group called DOS– this was the cult. Dominus Obsequious Sororium, or Master Over Slave Women. (Other reports have called it “The Vow.”)

DOS was sold as a group of women seeking to empower themselves. However, members were quickly immersed into a “high control group” that simulated master-slave relationships to facilitate discipline. DOS was known as a “secret sisterhood” in which the female members acted as slaves and were required to submit to the wills of their “masters”. 

While several high-ranking women in the organization were masters, no one was higher in the pyramid than Raniere. Many of the sexual claims with the organization relate back to Raniere. From forcing slaves to starve themselves to stay attractive to Raniere, to posing for nude photos, to even being branded with Raniere’s initials

When Edmonson was recruited into DOS, she had to check in with her “master” Lauren Salzman three to four times a day. She had to ask when she could go to sleep and ask if her “master” needed anything. While other “slaves” did housework & errands for Salzman, Edmonson was pushed to recruit more women. 

When first hearing about DOS, you’d expect only one piece of collateral was required of “slaves” before they were branded. This was far from the case. Sarah Edmonson recalls having to give new “collateral” every month, then every week in The Vow. 

First, Sarah Edmonson had to record herself lying about her husband. She alleged he abused her & her son when it wasn’t the case. Then, her “master,” Lauren Salzman asked for more collateral as she worked her way up. 

Sarah Edmonson described the night she was branded in The Vow. She was taken to a hotel room with the rest of Laura Salzman’s “slaves.” Edmonson was blindfolded and told to strip naked. When she was told to take her blindfold off, she found herself in a room with other naked women from NXIVM, some that Edmonson knew for a while. 

Then, the women were driven to a secret location. When they arrived, Edmonson deduced it was Allison Mack’s house. Then, one by one, the women were branded with a branding pen. Edmonson looked on with her fellow DOS members as each member was branded. When it was her turn, she considered calling her husband to come get her. 

Edmonson & other DOS members were told that their brand represented the four elements, with the sky on top, a mountain, and a river. Upon closer inspection, Sarah Edmonson was horrified to discover that they looked like Allison Mack’s initials. When they were turned to the side, they also looked like Keith Raniere’s. 

The women were taken to the houses of cult members such as Salzman and Mack and there Raniere would have sex with them. Raniere believed that he had “super-sperm” that could connect and control all the women he had sex with. 

According to several sources, he demanded that the women in DOS be thin to the point of near-starvation. He required that they restrict themselves to diets of 900 calories or less a day and insisted that they report their weight status daily. A former harem member says that if Raniere had difficulty getting an erection, which was often, he blamed it on her weight. Keith didn’t seem to adhere to the same dietary restrictions he imposed on others. Keith actually had an incredibly average body. Bold choice for someone wanting women to shed weight.

Women that displeased Keith or the other “masters” were ostracized from the cult until they redeemed themselves. Punishments were o  ften cruel for anyone who broke the rules. Women were imprisoned for months, forced to hold painful poses, made to take cold showers or stand barefoot in the snow, and whipped on their bare behinds. 

In 2010 a member of the cult named Dani had the misfortune of falling in love with a man who wasn’t Raniere. Raniere flew into a jealous rage and decided to teach Dani a lesson. To retaliate he forced her to be confined into a single room in her parents’ home. If she disobeyed he would have her sent back to Mexico.

Lauren Salzman was the one in charge of checking in on Dani. She was the only human contact the woman had while she was locked up. Lauren said the imprisonment was only supposed to last a few days, and that Raniere wanted for Dani to have a “breakthrough” while she was in the sparse and nearly empty bedroom.

The confinement ended up lasting somewhere between eighteen and twenty-four months.

Another witness who took to the stand was chief tech officer of a sex toy manuf acturer named Sean Welch. His testimony included receipts for a known member of the cult buying nine hundred dollars worth of BDSM toys. This included a hanging cage, shock collar, paddles, and shackles.

This, alongside the testimony of cult members, began to disturb listeners. Members of the cult said they had been struck by paddles if they had done something wrong, and threats of being put into cages weren’t unusual either.

Welch also had proof of another, even more expensive order, had been put in for a metal cage (as opposed to the flexible hanging one), but the order had been cancelled.

Some members said this was a consensual agreement, but many who listened weren’t entirely convinced.

Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg, went public with her fight to save her daughter, India Oxenberg. At this time, India had been in NXIVM for 7 years. In interviews in the New York Times and PEOPLE, Catherine Oxenberg sounded the alarm about Keith and DOS.

Sarah Edmondson is also to thank for  blowing the whistle on the cult, as she did several tell-all interviews after breaking free of NXIVM and DOS. She showed off the brand given to her with a cauterizing pen, and told horrid stories, like being forced to participate in drills where they had to respond to a text no matter what hour.

After Edmondson and other DOS victims went public with their stories, it was like a mass exodus of NXIVM at that point. A large portion of NXIVM members left, horrified that the money they were pouring into the organization was helping fund this sex cult. Not long after, an official investigation was launched.

But Raniere didn’t plan to stick around. He headed to Mexico with a group of his most devoted female followers, including Mack, Clyne and Lauren Salzman, daughter of NXIVM co-founder Nancy Salzman.

“Once he’s in Mexico, there’s a concern that he really will go off the grid,” Penza said.

Authorities tracked the the group to a $10,000-a-week villa in Puerto Vallarta.

On the day Raniere was arrested, he had been planning to have a recommitment ceremony with the women, which was later described in court as more of a planned orgy. However, he’d never get the chance.

As Mexican authorities stormed into the resort, Raniere cowered in a closet leaving Lauren Salzman in the room alone to face the armed agent s.

All the leaders of NXIVM were arrested. NXIVM's president, Nancy Salzman, her daughter Lauren Salzman, bookkeeper Kathy Russell and Clare Bronfman, the Seagram liquor heiress, all pleaded guilty to various charges. 

After a six wee k trial and five hours of deliberation, the jury found Raniere guilty on the following charges: 

Sexual exploitation of a child and possession of child pornography with regard to minor victim “Camila”; Sex trafficking of Nicole, attempted sex trafficking of Jay; Identity theft against Edgar Bronfman, James Loperfido, Ashana Chenoa, “Marianna”, and Pam Cafritz; Trafficking for labor and services of “Daniela”; forced labor of “Nicole”; Conspiracy to alter records for use in an official proceeding; Sex trafficking conspiracy, forced labor conspiracy, racketeering conspiracy, and wire fraud conspiracy.

At his trial Keith maintained his defiant tone, although he said he was “truly sorry” that his organization led to a place where “there is so much anger and so much pain."

“I do believe I am innocent of the charges. ... It is true I am not remorseful of the crimes I do not believe I committed at all," Raniere said.

On September 8 2021, NXIVM's co-founder Nancy Salzman was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. On September 30 2020, Clare Bronfman was sentenced to six years and nine months in prison.  

Allison Mack was sentenced to 3 years in prison. Mack is required to have 3 years of supervised release after serving her prison term and has to pay a $20,000 fine.

Allison admitted to her crimes and publicly apologized in court. In an emotional statement to the victims, she said, “I renounce Keith Raniere and all his teachings.” 

Many of the NXIVM victims were appalled by Mack’s reduced sentence. A victim by the name of Jessica Joan refused Mack’s apology, claiming she was “an evil sociopath, a menace to society and a danger to innocent human beings.”

Although many people stood in opposition to the flimsy sentence, some view Mack as a victim of the cult as well but should still be adequately punished for her crimes. 

According to the Guardian, the actress, “Around the time of the [Smallville] show’s fifth season, she attended her first Jness/Nxivm meeting. Over time she began to reject friends that did not join the group and became increasingly insular. Soon she was sucked entirely into the group.

let’s talk about the disappearance of Kristin Snyder. In Nov. 2002, the environmental consultant enrolled in a 16-day personal development course for NXIVM/ESP led by Nancy Salzman. Snyder would then travel to meet Raniere in Jan. 2003. Snyder then went with her partner Heidi Clifford for another 16-day session in Anchorage. 

According to Clifford, Snyder became suicidal and she was convinced not to take her to the hospital. Snyder would disappear after leaving an NXIVM session on Feb. 6, 2003. On Feb. 8, police found a note that said:

“I attended a course called Executive Success Programs . . . based out of Anchorage, AK, and Albany, NY. 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 . . . I am sorry life, I didn’t know I was already dead. May we persist into the future.”

On a separate page, she wrote, “No need to search my body.”