Last night’s Law and Order: SVU was a tour de force of ripped from the headlines goodness. Focusing on a lightly fictionalized version of the NXIVM cult, episode 5 of season 20 of SVU found the detectives investigating a murder with ties to a mysterious “women’s empowerment” group called Accredo.
So how closely did SVU hew to the real-life (and bonkers and horrifying) story of NXIVM? Pretty close! It’s not surprising given how crazy the real story is.
On the show, while researching the group online, Detective Rollins (Kelly Giddish) finds the Accredo. It describes the group as a “Safespace where goddesses can speak their truth and live their dreams.” On their real-life website, NXIVM describes themselves as “a community guided by humanitarian principles that seek to empower people and answer important questions about what it means to be human.” Maybe it’s just me but the fake Accredo quote actually sounds a bit catchier.
After finding the mutilated body of an Accredo member, Detectives Carisi (Peter Scanavino) and Rollins are dispatched to a swanky Westchester mansion. We know it’s swanky because there’s a Ferrari parked outside. They arrive just in time for one of Accredo leader, Arlo’s “seminars.” Arlo is a charismatic, middle-aged, white man who declares he is “gobsmacked” by the progress of the group’s members. He introduces the detectives to his business partner Lila, a successful Wall Street banker whose shop employs only women.
In real life, NXIVM’s founder Keith Raniere was described as “a master of disorientation, of making people believe that up was down and down was up.” His female partners in the organization included heiress Clare Bronfman and actress Allison Mack (most recognizable from her role in the television show Smallville). SVU switched things up with the nature of their careers but kept the basic truth — these were smart, independently wealthy women who chose to dedicate their lives (and fortunes) to Raniere.
Both Accredo and NXIVM make their money selling expensive courses and workshops. Raniere and Mack have been accused of operating the sale of these products as a pyramid scheme. As cult members advanced to new levels of “self realization,” their training took on a more sinister and dangerous aspect. Raniere and Mack established Master/Slave relationships in which the slave was at the whim of the master in every aspect of her life: sexuality, economics, even food choice. SVU recasts this relationship as Lord and Serf, but judging by the enormous room filled with mattresses that Detective Rollins finds on the Westchester manse, the idea is very much the same.
One of the most striking similarities is the brand that the women of Accredo receive to signal their devotion to the cult. Former members of NXIVM have described the process of receiving a similar brand in harrowing detail, with one woman telling the New York Times that during the painful process, during which she was held down, she “wept the whole time.” NXIVM members were branded with a design that was a combination of Raniere and Mack’s initials. Accredo’s members are branded with the letters AHM which is revealed to mean “At His Mercy.”
In the end of the SVU episode Benson and Rollins (spoiler alert) capture Arlo as he attempts to flee the country. He’s charged with murder. After being extradited from Mexico earlier this year, Raniere and Mack are currently awaiting trial for charges of forced labor and sex trafficking. They haven't been accused of murder...yet.
Per usual, the truth is stranger (or just as strange) as fiction.