Is NXIVM a Cult? What We Know

A secretive self-help group has been accused of recruiting women and branding them

NXIVM Executive Success Programs in Albany, New York, Credit: Nathaniel Brooks/The New York Times/Redux

Last month, the New York Times published a bombshell report about a private offshoot of NXIVM, a secretive self-help group run out of Albany, New York. Reporter Barry Meier interviewed ex-members of the cult-like group, with various women claiming they'd been branded, starved, held as "slaves" and blackmailed into providing naked pictures to prevent them from leaving or speaking out.

The story has intensified in the past few days, with disturbing new allegations emerging regarding the group's leader, Keith Raniere, 57, and one of his alleged co-leaders, Emmy Award-winning Smallville actress Allison Mack. On November 9th, former NXIVM publicist Frank Parlato told The Sun that Mack may have recruited up to 25 women to serve as sex slaves for the secret sect, which he says is named "DOS." 

Here's what we know so far about the bizarre developing story.

Is NXIVM a cult?
NXIVM – which began, in 1998, as a "personal and professional development program" dubbed Executive Success Programs – was founded by computer programmer Keith Raniere and his business partner, ex-nurse Nancy Salzman.The group holds seminars and training programs for people "concerned with developing their skills," and claims to have worked with more than 16,000 people in 30 countries. The organization uses a trademarked method called "Rational Inquiry" to help adherents achieve their goals (for the reported cost of up to $7,500 for an intensive, multi-day workshop). (Rolling Stone reached out to Executive Success Programs and Keith Raniere for comment but did not hear back.)

Raniere has been the target of unsavory rumors for nearly 15 years. Publications like the Albany Times-Union, Forbes,Vanity Fair and the New York Post have reported on him leading a makeshift harem of wealthy female recruits. In 2010, Vanity Fair published "The Heiresses and the Cult," a detailed account of Seagram heiresses Sara and Clare Bronfman's immersion in NXIVM; the sisters reportedly gave up approximately $150 million of their trust fund to help fund the alleged cult. But Raniere has been quick to hit back (the Times Union called him a "litigation machine") and sue journalists from Vanity Fair and the Times-Union after they published critical stories about his group. He also sued cult expert Rick Alan Ross for publishing snippets of NXIVM training documents on Ross' cult education website (the suit was dismissed in 2016, after a 14-year litigation).

Alexandra Stein, who has a PhD in the sociology of cults and wrote a book called Terror, Love and Brainwashing, tells RS that NXIVM does, indeed, qualify as a cult, per her five-point definition: it has a charismatic, authoritarian leader; it's "steeply hierarchical" in format, with possible front groups; it bears a "total, absolute ideology;" it uses coercive persuasion or brainwashing to isolate members from family; and it exploits followers and shows "potential for violence."

"Cults come in all forms," she explains. "Religious, political, self-help, therapy, sports/martial arts, commercial, business. If someone is promising you the world and starting to do [those] other things, beware."

According to the Times Union, NXIVM leaders have consistently denied that the group is a cult.

Who is Keith Raniere?
Raniere, whom a follower once described as being as if "David Koresh and Bernie Madoff had a child," was born in Brooklyn in 1950. In the 1990s he ran a company called Consumer's Buyline, which was shuttered after various state attorney generals began examining it as a probable pyramid scheme, but he never admitted any wrongdoing. He later founded Executive Success Programs with Nancy Salzman, a "human potential" expert and ex-psychiatric nurse. ESP attendees were reportedly required to recite a 12-step mission statement penned by Raniere each day (one point: that followers "pledge to ethically control as much of the money, wealth, and resources of the world as possible"). The crux of the Ayn Rand-influenced program appeared to be self-interest above all else.

Raniere and Salzman reportedly asked followers to call them "Vanguard" and "Prefect," and former clients told Forbes that Raniere kissed his female followers on the mouth by way of greeting. There are numerous claims that Raniere, who describes himself as a "scientist, mathematician, philosopher, entrepreneur, educator, inventor and author" on his website, allegedly used his status to manipulate women into sex, money, and more. He has also claimed to have "had people killed."

One anonymous woman told the Times-Union that Raniere repeatedly sexually assaulted her in 1990, when she was 12, after he'd offered to tutor her in Algebra and Latin. Another woman, Gina Hutchinson, died by suicide at 33 after saying she'd allegedly a sexual relationship with Raniere as a teen (the reasons for her suicide are unclear). 

What is "DOS"?
On his website, NXIVM's former publicist, Frank Parlato, says DOS is the name of Raniere's secret side-sect that purportedly aims to "empower women." Parlato claims DOS is short for "dominant over submissive." (Parlato has been blogging about NXIVM's inner workings since he stopped working with the organization. Reporters from the Times-Union have also been vigilantly covering Raniere for years.)

The initial New York Times story claimed this stealth sorority was comprised of various "masters" with private contingents of female "slaves" who went on to recruit their own minions. This alleged "master-slave" relationship may have been designed to encourage members to transcend the psychological pitfalls that Raniere believed were common in women. To VICE Canada, former NXIVM member Sarah Edmonson named these purported female "imperfections," as she says Raniere perceived them: "We're weak and we have no character, we're indulgent emotionally and we're princesses." Edmonson also said that members were required to take an oath of obedience to their masters.

The women were allegedly forced to follow brutally low-calorie starvation diets and regularly asked to provide naked photos, financial information, and criminal confessions as "collateral" to prevent them from defecting. "Once the group has naked photos and other private information, that is a great source of potential coercion," Alexandra Stein says. "These are fundamentally fear-driven systems and it is very difficult [and] frightening to resist once [you're] fully involved."

The New York Times reports that sect members did complain to police about being subjected to horrifying psychological tests, allegedly administered by local doctor Brandon Porter, in which they were reportedly forced to watch images of women being killed and dismembered. (Porter recently resigned from his position at St. Peter's Hospital and the hospital did not respond when reached for comment.)

Sarah Edmonson also told the Times that DOS members were forced to get branded by a physician with a cauterizing device (Edmondson did not respond to Rolling Stone's request for comment). Edmonson said she believed she'd be getting a "small tattoo" as initiation into the sect. She was shocked when her "master" allegedly told the initiates to strip, made them hold each other down, and then forcibly branded each woman on her lower hip. "I wept the whole time," Edmondson said. Some of the women say they also reported the brandings to police, but authorities didn't take action because they considered the practice "consensual."

That appears to have changed since the publication of the New York Times story. A spokesman for Gov. Anthony Cuomo told the Times in a followup: "Counsel's Office will be reviewing this matter to determine if applicable laws, regulations and procedures were followed."

But perhaps the strangest allegation is the claim that Smallville actress Allison Mack is, as The Sun puts it, Raniere's "second ... or third in command,” reportedly tasked with picking up new sex partners for Raniere as well as recruiting new members.

Who is Allison Mack?
Mack, too, appears to have walked away from her career and moved to Albany full-time. She has not publicly addressed the rumors about her involvement in the secret side clan, but her affiliation with Raniere is well-documented. She mentions him as a friend and mentor numerous times on her website (she also tears up while gazing at him adoringly in a YouTube interview series called Keith Raniere Conversations).

Mack is also allegedly involved with Jness, a NXIVM women's group that features "a 20-hour curriculum on the differences between the sexes," per the Times-Union. Indeed, Mack lists Jness as a "passion" on her website, writing: "Women in Jness have a beautiful opportunity to build and deepen their relationships ... through the guidance of ... small groups of women who meet weekly to share and explore questions and concepts." (Rolling Stone reached out to Mack's management for comment but has not heard back.)

How has NXIVM responded?
NXIVM has pulled its website and stayed silent in recent days. But Raniere did post a response to the first New York Times story on the ESP site, stating, "Recently a media outlet unfoundedly, and incorrectly, linked NXIVM corporation, and its related companies, with a social group. ... This story might be a criminal product of criminal minds who, in the end, are also hurting the victims of the story."