Women branded his name on their bodies. They submitted to be his sex slaves. They ate what he told them to and sent intimate photos of themselves when he demanded it. As the NXIVM trial began in Brooklyn, NY this week, witness testimony gave a dark look into what inspired this devotion to its leader, Keith Raniere — and who was questioning it. Raniere now faces charges of sex trafficking, forced labour, extortion, and conspiracy.
People don't begin to worship a man out of the blue, of course. They first signed up to take expensive self-improvement courses called Executive Success Programs, where they were supposed to learn how to overcome fears and become more rational. In those classes, Mark Vicente, who was in NXIVM for 12 years, said that Raniere's teachings "played with our moral compass.”
"By the time you saw him, it was a little bit like you were seeing, you know, some kind of god," Vicente said in court on Thursday, per the New York Times. "I feel, honestly, stupid that I went along with it, assuming it was all the best of intents," he said.
At their self-help sessions, students had to recite Raniere's "Twelve-Point Mission Statement," which Vicente tearfully read aloud on the stand. It states that "there are no ultimate victims," discourages people from stealing, forbids them from sharing anything they learn with the outside world, and has an odd passage about "tribute" being a form of payment.
As they repeated these tenets, they were also supposed to refer to Raniere as "Vanguard," "Master," or "Grand Master." Leaders would deny the existence of the word "cult" and labeled anyone who questioned Raniere's ways a "suppressive." In this way, they continued to separate members from anyone in their lives who might pressure them to leave the group.
In addition to the classes, members exerted pressure on others to devote themselves further to the group. On Wednesday, a former member only identified as Sylvie told the court how Seagram heiress Clare Bronfman, a high-ranking member, befriended her when she worked on a farm caring for her horses. Bronfman lured her into NXIVM over the years and encouraged her to quit her job at Goldman Sachs. Breaking ties like that likely made people more dependent on the group. (Bronfman has since pleaded guilty to racketeering in connection with NXIVM.)
Sylvie eventually joined the group's subsect for women called Jness, which taught that women were victimizers. From there, she finally was invited to the notorious inner circle, known as DOS (Dominus Obsequious Sororium, or Master Over Slave Women), where women were allegedly forced to have sex with each other and with Raniere.
"That was a command from my master and that was my role as a slave," Sylvie testified of the first time Raniere performed oral sex on her. All of this was still under the guise of improving her life.
"If I was the best slave, things would work out for me,” she said of her thinking.
NXIVM allegedly held collateral over its members to control them. For Vicente, it was the form of secrets he had unburdened to other members, but for women like Sylvie, it was in photos of her vagina. But considering that they were already seeing Raniere as a god or master, it's hard to imagine such collateral was necessary.