"At This Point We Are In Despair": One Woman's Quest To Bring Her Brother Home From NXIVM
For Diana and her family, the loss of her brother to a cult was slow, steady, and certain.
For Diana and her family, the loss of her brother to a cult was slow, steady, and certain. Sometime in 2016, Alex, then 34, began a series of expensive self-help seminars put on by an organization called NXIVM (pronounced nex-ee-um). He described these as an “elevated” form of self-improvement and called the man behind them “a genius.” At a time when her brother was at a crossroads in his life, Diana says it seemed like the classes were helpful, even if his level of devotion seemed a little excessive. Success had always seemed to come easily to her brother. Alex was popular in high school, and had always been a high-achiever. He went to an Ivy League college, before landing a high-paying job on Wall Street right out of college. But after a year, he burned out. Ever since, he had been struggling to find a new path, working a series of unfulfilling sales jobs. He had been searching for something, and felt that he was close to finding it after meeting a couple of NXIVM recruiters at a meet-up for aspiring entrepreneurs.
“Looking back, we should have done more research — not that it would have made a difference,” Diana says, recalling how that first meet-up sent her brother barreling down a path, away from the family he had once been close to. (Names and identifying details throughout this story have been withheld to protect all parties.) That her brother is now gone and has been fully replaced by someone else became finally, irrefutably clear to Diana earlier this year, after yet another futile attempt to get through to him, and convince him to come home. “I tried to break it down for him: You got into this to be more successful, but you’re not achieving more success. Have you made more money since you’ve been in this? Absolutely not. You don’t have more friends. You have a terrible relationship with our family. What is success then? And it’s like he gets confused, like he can’t understand. When I talk to him I feel like I’m not even speaking English. That’s how brainwashed he is.”
What Alex apparently believes — what he’s doing with his life and the reasons for it — has come to dominate his sister’s every waking moment over the past few years as he’s sunken deeper into NXIVM, a purported self-help organization that, it turns out, is a cover for a twisted cult, according to federal authorities who earlier this year brought charges of sex trafficking and forced labor conspiracy against its revered leader, Keith Raniere, and his “co-conspirator,” the actress Allison Mack.
Over the past 12 months, Diana has tried everything. When Alex first started attending NXIVM seminars (which can cost up to $10,000 each) in New York City, termed Executive Success Programs or ESP, Diana says that “he seemed more social. He was making new friends. I thought this was great.” But then, in the spring of last year, Alex announced to his family that he was giving up his apartment in Brooklyn, leaving his sales job, and moving to Albany to attend The University of Higher Education — at the time, Raniere’s latest project to educate the masses and change the world.
This sent Diana’s tight-knit family into a crisis. “[Alex] told us he was joining the university at NXIVM, and we were like ‘What the fuck is that?’” Diana says. “That’s when I realized this was incredibly dangerous.” The unaccredited program costs $5,000 a month. By the time Alex let his plans be known to his family, he had already signed the paperwork for a one-year commitment, and a series of non-disclosure agreements. “He’s an indentured servant basically. He’s indebted to them,” Diana says.
Alex truly believes he’s being elevated as a human being. That he is in this program of cutting edge education that will change the world.
Diana spent the next few months trying to understand what Alex had gotten himself into. Her brother wouldn’t answer direct questions about the group, except to say how happy he was, and how great an education he was getting. She couldn’t quite put her finger on why, but it seemed as though his deflections were rehearsed. She was forced to do her own research during this time, which, surprisingly, wasn’t hard given all that has been written about Raniere over the years. “I learned about ‘Vanguard,’ which is what they call him. I learned all about the sashes and the uniforms and the bowing and the subjugation,” Diana says. “At that point, I freaked out. I went crazy. I was very concerned for his safety.” But even then, all Alex would say is that nothing that had been printed about Raniere lined up with his experience.
Diana confronted Alex about all that she learned multiple times, always in tears, begging him to see what she saw. His response was almost as though he had been trained in how to deflect it. “He would just deftly regurgitate my feelings. He would say he understands that I’m worried, but he was unwavering,” Diana says. “[Alex] truly believes he’s being elevated as a human being. That he is in this program of cutting edge education that will change the world.”
When berating him didn’t work, she tried to keep quiet, especially after The New York Times published, in October 2017, horrifying allegations of abuse, stemming from a secret sorority within the group that was branding women with Raniere’s initials and coercing them to sleep with Raniere. It took every fiber of her being to approach the situation with compassion. For a full two months, Diana pretended everything was normal, that her little brother wasn’t trapped in an abusive psycho-spiritual prison by a misogynistic scam artist. “We were actually talking. It wasn’t as robotic. He started communicating with me again, confiding in me. It was at arm’s length still, but it was improving,” Diana says. Over Christmas, when Alex was home with the family for the holiday break, “I saw a glimmer of him for the first time in years. He was thinking about moving. He had doubts. It was like he was a person again and he was thinking and looking at the world again. It gave me a lot of hope.”
But soon after the holidays, Alex was called back to the NXIVM “university” and the group was taken on some kind of retreat. “There is no doubt in my mind this was just to re-indoctrinate them because they knew the arrest was coming,” Diana says. “I spoke to him after the retreat. I reminded him of his doubts and all he would say was ‘That was a very dark period for me. I was not myself.’”
She and her family have contacted lawyers and mental health experts of all stripes. They asked about committing him to mental health treatment, but were told that would be illegal. “It’s kidnapping. We’ve reached out to various therapists and experts. All of them said that he has to fall really hard in order to get out of this,” Diana says. “His sense of self is completely gone. They’re programming him.”
It’s a story that was seemingly written especially for 2018, the era of “alternative facts,” and what feels like a total meltdown of the most basic tenets of right versus wrong: A guru that purports to sell self-improvement and enlightenment through ethical living is apparently a demented, power-hungry sexual predator. Last October, when the New York Times published its bombshell report featuring allegations of a master-slave sorority within the group that was branding women, forcing them to sleep with Raniere, and blackmailing them to keep them silent, Raniere’s name ricocheted across the internet. Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg, whose daughter India is reportedly a victim of the abuse, started speaking to the press about her “desperate fight” to save her daughter. She told her story in People magazine and appeared on Megyn Kelly Today. Around the same time, the FBI began investigating the group, and the media was whipped into a frenzy, especially after it was reported that Allison Mack, best known for her role in the popular CW show Smallville, was one of Raniere’s top "slaves”— both one of his victims as well as a mastermind of his most brazenly abusive scheme. The sorority had a series of creepy names: In some reports, it was known as the Vow, while others referred to it as Dominus Obsequious Sororium, broken Latin for “lord over the obedient female companions,” or DOS.
The fact that Hollywood actresses, heiresses, and perverted elements of BDSM are allegedly involved have made NXIVM the latest salacious cult story — right at a time when cults are kind of hot. Thanks to the Netflix documentaries Wild, Wild Country and Waco as well as Leah Remini’s ongoing assault on Scientology via her A&E docu-series, cults have re-entered the zeitgeist. At the same time, we as a country are grappling with a politics that feels gripped by paralyzing cult-like ideology and devotion, whether that’s #MAGA or even, at times, #Resist. In so many ways, the story of Keith Raniere is a fitting simulacrum for our post-truth world. Anything can be true now, as long as you believe in it hard enough.
And yet, it is no less mind-boggling. How did so many people — high-achieving, privileged people with big goals and their entire lives ahead of them — apparently fall prey to this? Part of the reason Diana’s struggle with her brother is so heart-wrenching is that it doesn’t make any sense.
To residents in and around Albany, New York, where NXIVM’s headquarters and “university” are based, Raniere has been well-known for a long time. For years, he and his self-improvement empire have been something of a local curiosity-cum-nightmare. The local paper, the Albany Times-Union, has written multiple exposes about him, including a story all the way back in 2012 about credible allegations that he raped underage girls as young as 12 in the 80s and early 90s. Despite this, and that his first company was shut down in 1997 after being investigated as a pyramid scheme, as many as 18,000 people have taken self-improvement courses through NXIVM, either in Albany or at one of their centers in New York City, Los Angeles, Vancouver, as well as various cities in Mexico, since the late 1990s. These courses, sold as Executive Success Program seminars, are supposed to help people overcome emotional blockages rooted in childhood experiences and be “more successful, more joyful,” as one ex-member explained to Refinery29.
From the outside, it’s difficult to wrap one’s mind around the appeal of Raniere. In pictures and Youtube videos, Raniere presents as the creepy high school English teacher who slides into the DMs the day after graduation. He talks a lot but says very little. On paper, Raniere is literally a nobody — he reportedly doesn’t have a bank account or a driver’s license. NXIVM is officially owned by his first student Nancy Salzman, a.k.a. “Prefect” to NXIVM devotees. He reportedly sleeps most of the day and spends the bulk of his waking time on long walks. NXIVM legend has it that he has an IQ of 240, spoke in full sentences by age one, and has multiple degrees from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York. But aside from perhaps his degrees, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence to back this up.
Noted cult expert and “de-programmer” Rick Alan Ross first came to know Raniere all the way back in 2002, when a pair of concerned parents came to him distressed over the fact that their children — two daughters, a son, and a son-in-law — were deeply wrapped up in ESP. This was not an unusual experience for Ross, who has built a career out of his niche expertise in performing interventions for families trying to extract loved ones from groups like Scientology and the Branch Davidians. Families come to him often for help, finding him through the website for his non-profit, the Cult Education Institute.
Ross’ work with the family would lead to interventions (only 3 were successful) for all four of the kids – plus a protracted, 14-year long legal battle with Raniere who alleged that Ross violated NXIVM copyright and hampered the business by publishing information about NXIVM’s teachings online. (Ultimately, Raniere lost the suit and the information is still available on Ross’ website, not to mention available in even more detail in court records.) But when the family first came to him, Ross had never heard of Raniere, so his first step was to investigate whether or not Raniere qualified as a cult leader. His verdict: Definitely a cult leader, but kind of a lazy one.
“What I came to understand is that Raniere is not an original thinker. He is really a copyist, which is typical of LGATS,” Ross says referring to Large Group Awareness Trainings. (Another example of an LGAT is Landmark Forum.) “All Raniere did was combine elements of Scientology, the Landmark education seminar structure, Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, plus a multi-level marketing aspect that’s reminiscent of Amway or Herbalife.”
This was back when the Executive Success Program was still the only program under the NXIVM umbrella. But now, Raniere has proved himself as a “master manipulator,” Ross says.
Whenever the program had problems, they would always blame it on you. It was your issue. ‘Oh, you don’t like the program? Do you feel entitled to the program?’ And after a while you start believing it. You start gaslighting yourself.
Most recently, NXIVM (which is kind of like a parent company to all these separate entities) offered multiple tracks to self-awareness: ESP remains the largest and is often the entrypoint for most people. But there’s also Jness, for women; Society of Protectors or SOP for men, both for teaching Raniere’s regressive ideas about gender. There’s The Source for actors, The Knife Media, Rainbow Cultural Garden for children, the University program, and of course, there's DOS. All of these various curricula have their roots in Raniere’s method known as Rational Inquiry. The teachings are quite confusing, filled with self-serving jargon and psychobabble, but the basic gist of the philosophy is that the only way to be “ethical” is to focus on your own self-interest and growth. To do that, people have to get out of their own ways, which is where exploration of meaning or “EM” comes in. These are essentially therapy sessions, somewhat reminiscent of Scientology’s controversial auditing methods, that supposes that childhood memories and past traumas create deep-seated illogical beliefs, behaviors, and “stimulus-response patterns.” The idea is that once you understand these barriers, you can reject them and live a fuller life, free of your chains.
This is not unlike many other self-improvement modalities — on the surface, this sounds a lot like run-of-the-mill group therapy. But what makes it sinister is that it’s delivered under false pretenses in a setting ripe for manipulation. “You are told this is about self-improvement, but really it’s all about serving Raniere,” an ex-member says. ESP seminars, for starters, are designed as intensives: 5, 10 or even 16 10-hour long days, with the content designed to make you emotionally vulnerable by encouraging you to share your fears and weaknesses with the group. You are sworn to secrecy beforehand, and each day, the group repeats a 12-point oath that includes a promise of not divulging the secrets of the program. You are told this is to protect Raniere’s intellectual property, but this also serves to keep you from talking to anyone who might point out how deeply creepy this is.
Part of the evil genius is that most people are recruited into the seminars by trusted, often high-achieving friends or loved ones. An ex-member Refinery29 spoke with told us that the pitch came from a trusted friend. “I’ve always been busy and achieving things and doing well in my career, never focused on emotionality or anything like that," the ex-member said. "It was pitched to me like, ‘What if your experience of life could be more joyful? What if you could achieve more and you could also have a more joyful experience doing it?’”
It is surprisingly easy to get sucked in. At the end of every intensive, you are encouraged to buy into more seminars, with the salespeople often using whatever you may have shared against you. “They’ll say to you, what do you want in the world? You might reply, I want to be happy, I want to build a business — whatever it is. And then they’ll say: Why aren’t you getting it? What’s getting in the way?” an ex-member explains. “Then during the pitch they try to make you see the problem is you. But the program can help you.” From there, you might sign up for another and then another on different topics, like “Love” or “Human Pain.”
The more you learn, the more entrenched in the community you become. After a while, you’re encouraged to recruit your spouse, co-workers, friends, and loved ones. Then, you’re encouraged to become a member at one of the centers, like the one in Albany or San Francisco or Mexico City, where you can take classes five days a week and become involved in Jness or SOP. In that setting, the people involved wear colored sashes according to rank, and bow to one another before entering and exiting a room. You learn about Vanguard and Prefect. This is the coach’s path: people who rise in rank become seminar leaders and “proctors,” who are paid staff members at NXIVM. You must earn the privilege of this by volunteering for menial tasks at the center, passing tests, and spending more on seminars. But, the most important thing you must do is recruit new people into NXIVM. “They slowly, incrementally introduce the weirdness, so by the end, you’re desensitized to it,” an ex-member says.
The key to all of this is the perversion of a very human desire for community; all together — the rituals, the hierarchy, the teachings — it amounts to the creation of a subculture, where a group of people have all been indoctrinated by the same teachings that are only comprehensible to members. This leads to a sense of superiority that binds people together, especially when a key ingredient of said teachings is that those who have taken the program are the only ones who truly understand; outsiders or those who leave are either “weak” or worse, “suppressive.” “It becomes a trap,” Ross explains, adding that this is all pretty much textbook mind control (or “thought reform,” his preferred term). “To freeze them there, you create the subculture, which is where the centers and the sashes and the bowing comes in. NXIVM devotees who are with each other constantly reinforce each other constantly.”
An ex-member says that in hindsight, they see how true that is: “So much of it was manipulative. The sad thing is that a lot of the content was helpful. I am a more emotionally attuned person now, having done it. But the problem is, when you’re learning these methods, when you’re drilling down into emotions and putting yourself in a vulnerable situation, people can introduce thoughts there that you wouldn’t necessarily be open to otherwise.”
In April of this year, it seems the truth had finally broke through for many people, when Raniere was arrested in Mexico. Mack was arrested soon after. Most recently, a federal judge denied Raniere’s bail, and NXIVM has ceased all official operations in the United States. There were as many as 700 active members at its height — either enrolled in weekly classes or taking seminars — with 100 of those people devoted enough to be dedicating their life to “Vanguard” and his teachings as coaches. In the immediate wake of media reports revealing the abuse of women, more than a third of the people involved left, with another third leaving over the course of the next few months.
“Whenever the program had problems, they would always blame it on you. It was your issue. ‘Oh, you don’t like the program? Do you feel entitled to the program?’ And after a while you start believing it. You start gaslighting yourself,” an ex-member says. But this time, it seems, it was impossible to ignore the physical evidence of the brand — especially when fellow NXIANs refused to explain it. “It was really creepy. Can you imagine if you said to someone, ‘Hey did this happen?’ And the only response they can give you is ‘Well, there’s no proof that I did it,’” an ex-member says. “No amount of personal development justifies the abuse of women.”
Now, just a small, tightly wound group remains in New York (splitting time between Albany and New York City), including Diana’s brother, Alex. As October turned to November and NXIVM became the subject of news report after news report, Diana became extremely fearful for her brother’s life. She does not believe he is involved with DOS, nor that he will be arrested. But at this point, that’s the least of it. “He’s changed forever,” she says.
These ardent devotees remain committed to the delusion that they are somehow changing the world, while their families agonize over how this will all end. “He’s given up his entire life. He’s already shown he’s willing to go to extremes for Keith,” Diana says. “My big fear right now, honestly, is a Jim Jones scenario.”
Raniere and Mack’s trial date has been set for October 1. How this will end is anyone’s guess.
Since the arrests, Diana has felt helpless and afraid and angry. She’s not sure what else to do to get through to her brother, but at the very least she hopes she can help make sure it doesn’t happen to another family. After their last argument earlier this year, Diana hasn’t spoken to him. “When Catherine Oxenberg started speaking to the press about her daughter, I realized we weren’t alone in this. There are so many other families that are being tortured by this man. It goes far beyond DOS,” she says, her voice cracking. “At this point we are in despair. I’m telling this story because I don’t know what else to do. All I want is for my brother to come home.”
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Correction added: An earlier version of this story misspelled Nancy Salzman's name.