In May 2017, a friend sent Jade Alectra, a 34-year-old California-based yoga teacher and Instagram influencer with about 75,000 followers, a video featuring a spiritual guru she’d never heard of before. The man was small, blond, and sprightly, almost elfin in appearance; he spoke with a gentle Dutch accent, offering promises of self-actualization and reaching another plane of consciousness.
Although his teachings consisted of fairly generic spiritual koans, he looked nothing like a typical ethereal guru: On Instagram, he regularly showed off his fondness for cigars and fine blended whiskeys. He often posted photos of himself with his tanned arm snaked around the waists of one or more waifish, mermaid-haired women. And with his toned biceps, and Zack Morris-esque swoop of sun-kissed hair, he more closely resembled a pampered surfer boy whose dad had paid his way into Stanford than a spiritual leader.
The guru’s name was Bentinho Massaro, and at first, Alectra says, she was profoundly unimpressed by him, describing his content as “very mashed potatoes. A lot of things he says are almost like riddles: To know everything is to know nothing, which means to know everything,’ ” she remembers. “I never really found much value in that. I just didn’t understand it.” But Alectra, who lived in Los Angeles at the time, trusted her friend, a fellow teacher at the addiction-recovery center where she worked. So for reasons even she can’t quite understand, she followed Massaro on Instagram. “It was like, ‘OK, he’s kind of attractive. He’s young. He’s my age. Maybe in a few years, I’ll get it,’ ” she says.
After Massaro did an episode on his podcast deconstructing the boundaries of traditional monogamy and plugging polyamory, Alectra, who was in a flailing relationship at the time, DM’d him to let him know how deeply it had affected her. They had a brief, polite exchange. With his apparent penchant for tailored suits, high-end meals, and exotic, Instagram-ready locales, Massaro’s persona “all felt very Great Gatsby,” she says. “He seemed very opposite of all the teachers that I had met and known that teach spirituality. He was in the fast lane, and I liked that attitude. That seemed refreshing to me, and real.”
Alectra started following one of Massaro’s girlfriends, Cory Katuna, on Instagram, offering her an hourlong free reiki session. They had an instant connection, she says, and a few months later, seemingly out of the blue, Katuna invited her on a retreat, though she wouldn’t tell her where it was and said she had to sign an NDA if she wanted to go; one of the stipulations was that if she broke it, Massaro could sue her for $300,000. Alectra was simultaneously repulsed and intrigued. “I was kind of afraid that I would get there and it would be this crazy orgy, and I’d be this, like, fresh mouse that they drop into the cage,” she says.
Then she remembered that a few months before, she had gone to see a tarot-card reader, who had told her that she would meet a man who was a little older than her boyfriend, who wasn’t her soulmate, but who would be good for the world, and with whom she could one day do great things. She blames everything that happened to her afterward on that moment.
Part spiritual leader, part wellness guru, part aspirational Instagram bro, Massaro is a curious blend of various social media personae: He leads self-help retreats all over the world and has garnered tens of millions of views on YouTube, where he has been posting his slickly packaged lectures for the past decade. On Instagram and Facebook, where he has cultivated nearly a million followers with his daily affirmations, his message resists most attempts at interpretation: “The underlying subject of all objects is itself the subtlest object of them all,” he says in one recent post, in which he gazes blankly into the distance. “Release yourself of the subject as if it were a final object you can deny focus and realize your true state beyond.”
Yet if you probe beneath the surface, Massaro’s teachings seem to bear the distinct mark of a dark messianic complex. He has openly stated he can “teleport, bilocate, and levitate”; he allegedly prescribes restrictive fasts and diets, which cult experts say helps keep followers malleable (a claim he denies); he has sex with female followers as a way to reward them and to punish them for apparent misdeeds, according to two women I spoke with who’d had relationships with him; and his teachings skew toward open misogyny, instructing followers on the strict dichotomy of traditional gender roles and urging women to resist their more active “masculine” impulses, writing in one 2016 post that femininity is defined by “radiance and surrender.” (It’s worth noting that strict gender dichotomies are common in cults, with the self-improvement organization NXIVM espousing a similar ideology.)
One person has died following his involvement with Massaro’s group: Brent Wilkins, a handsome former college tennis player who took his own life at the end of 2017, after Massaro had made public comments at a prior retreat that appeared to endorse suicide, prompting a police investigation and Massaro and his followers to flee from the fallout. The group has since ping-ponged around the world, from a monastery in the Netherlands to a spiritual center in Quito, Ecuador. (Ultimately Massaro was not a suspect in Wilkins’ death, which was treated as a suicide.)
In February 2022, three of Massaro’s former followers — Alectra, Massaro’s former girlfriend Jacqueline Graham, and Alectra’s former partner Keilan McNeil — came out against Massaro in A Little Bit Culty, a podcast by former NXIVM member Sarah Edmondson and her husband Anthony Ames; and to the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, sparking a new wave of allegations that he was leading a cult. Such allegations have surfaced in the past, notably in a Guardian expose in 2020 and a 2019 Vice documentary titled The Controversial Guru That Wants to “Upgrade Civilization.” (The Vice documentary featured Massaro answering the question on how he feels about the cult label: “We are a cult. We are a Curious, Understanding, Loving Tribe.”) Yet with the Covid-19 pandemic leaving many searching for answers, Massaro has been able to exponentially grow his following — he has nearly a million subscribers on Facebook, and more than 100,000 on YouTube — prompting concerns from former members and those who track cults.
Massaro’s expanding influence is “very concerning,” says Diane Benscoter, a former Moonie and the founder of Antidote.ngo, an organization that helps those affected by psychological manipulation. According to Benscoter, Massaro’s teachings have “a real appeal for people who feel lost, who feel like they’re missing something, who are looking for love and looking for acceptance and looking for friends and community. They’re going to be really susceptible to this, and the cost could be years of their lives, or it could be worse.”
Though Massaro and his group make money selling admission to retreats and private coaching sessions, and outsource much of the labor to Massaro’s followers, he acknowledges that many people work for him without compensation. “We don’t operate as a conventional company. We operate more like a family,” he says over email. “We travel together, eat together, arrange for housing together, and so all who are committed to our mutual vision strongly enough to be part of the team are supported insofar as the company has the ability to support them.”
When asked specifically whether or not he runs a cult, Massaro does not explicitly deny the charge. “That would depend on your definition of a cult. What isn’t a cult?,” he tells Rolling Stone via email. “Movies have cult followings, political parties, countries, families, religions, military, Facebook groups about all sorts of topics … All could be considered to be cults. However, if you mean cult as in some kind of closed-off situation where people are controlled against their will and cannot leave at any given moment, then we are not a cult at all.” As Massaro tells it, free will “runs like a golden thread throughout everything we do and how we operate as a team,” and he denies having any power or control over his followers, attributing his followers’ perception of him as a font of truth or authority to their own misplaced beliefs. “The only way for me to never trigger in anyone else a feeling of inferiority is by not speaking or acting or even existing at all,” he says. “This would not accomplish our vision as a team nor would it be a true way for me to live.”
Those Rolling Stone spoke with who have left Massaro’s orbit, however, have watched his growing influence with concern. “He’s juggling all these plates to keep his operation going,” says Graham, who believes Massaro “gets off on the thrill of pushing the limits.” She alleges that he owes her hundreds of thousands of dollars (Massaro describes the money she gave him as a donation from her). “He can’t help himself from fucking up,” Graham continues. “Now there are these plates spinning and it feels like it needs to be exposed.”
The son of a Dutch elementary school teacher and an energy-company worker, Massaro grew up in a fairly conventional middle-class neighborhood, his former followers and girlfriends say, though he did tell Playboy during a rare interview that he used to experience “bouts of poverty.” His childhood was marked by acts of rage and violence, according to Graham, who was involved with him from 2019 to 2020. She says that Massaro told her he had been diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, and that he used to defecate on people’s lawns. Massaro also frequently told a story to his acolytes about having tortured a kitten by repeatedly throwing her into a thorn bush in his backyard, which would later be cited by his detractors as evidence of antisocial tendencies. (In an email to Rolling Stone, Massaro denies torturing his cat, but does admit to taking “a dump on a friend’s lawn a couple of times as a prank.” He also denies ever having been diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder.)
As a teenager growing up in the Netherlands, Massaro’s parents became involved in the Silva Method, a self-help program that purports to build states of heightened awareness and teach students clairvoyance. The Massaros enrolled Bentinho in a youth course, so he spent his teenage years adrift in India, hopping on rickshaws and studying yoga and meditation before returning to the Netherlands and starting his YouTube channel in 2010. In the earliest videos, he’s a goofy kid with a bad haircut and Chiclet teeth, training his steely gaze on the viewer while dispensing pseudo-spiritual koans. In one of them, he stares at the camera, grinning in silence, for a good 56 seconds before saying, “What is it that is seeing right now? Is it you? Is it the you that you believe to be? Is it seeing right now, as an act, as a doing?” (Long periods of silence also feature prominently in Massaro’s teachings, with followers encouraged to “eyegaze,” or hold each other’s gazes without speaking for long periods of time.)
After gaining popularity and appearing at spirituality seminars and panels, by 2016 he’d moved to Boulder, Colorado, home of a burgeoning spiritual community, where he launched his subscription service, Bentinho Massaro TV, and created a movement called Trinfinity. As an “upper-density being,” he claimed, he would be able to lead his followers to a higher plane of enlightenment, ushering in the rest of humanity by the year 2035. At that point, his company had reportedly started spending $10,000 a month on Facebook advertising, and was charging up to $5,000 per person for swanky retreats; a few of his followers, disillusioned with his deviation from the mission, convened to discuss moving Trinfinity forward without Massaro’s guidance. In response, he packed up and moved to Sedona, Arizona, where he held weekly talks at a local arts center and became known for his lavish lifestyle.
The core tenets of Massaro’s philosophy are not unique, and can be summarized as a melange of Ra’s The Law of One, positive affirmations, and the law of attraction as popularized by the spirituality cornerstone The Secret. “What he teaches is a very simple concept, and he dresses the same thing up in different words,” says Be Scofield, who spent time with the group in 2017 and wrote a highly critical Medium post referring to Massaro as “Steve Jobs meets Jim Jones.” “It’s New Age word salad,” she says. “[He’ll] sit there for an hour and say things in different words and his people are entranced.”
What Massaro arguably did best, however, was master social media. At this point, he had abandoned the bad haircut and the striped-T-shirt wardrobe in his earlier videos and pivoted toward working out, chugging green juice, and puffing cigars on Instagram, establishing himself as a sexier, flashier version of a New Age guru. He also carved out a strong presence on YouTube. “A big part of how people will get hooked into these kinds of things is just free time and the YouTube algorithm and looking up stuff on spirituality,” says former follower McNeil , who in 2017 was a deeply depressed college dropout who spent his time experimenting with LSD and watchingYouTube.
Graham, a Canadian vegan restaurateur and mother of three, also found Massaro’s work on YouTube. “He just seemed like a nice, genuine person who was really smart and got all of these teachings about the law of attraction, like how you are responsible for creating your life,” she says.
Many of Massaro’s followers were longtime seekers, some of whom had pinballed from spiritual organization to spiritual organization. And many of them agreed to work for Massaro for free. One of these followers, Callie Sorensen, a member of Massaro’s inner circle from 2017 to 2019, had spent time at the Brazil-based spiritual-healing center run by guru and convicted sex offender John of God; another, Ayla Verheijen, a Netherlands-based marketing coach, had briefly followed the tantric sex organization the New Tantra before becoming disillusioned with it and taking a corporate job. It was during this time, in 2016, that she stumbled on one of Massaro’s videos, Healing the Inner Child and Awakening the Chakras, devouring his oeuvre just a week or two before she spent 600 euros booking a trip to one of his Maui, Hawaii, retreats.
Verheijen was “elated” during the trip. She was instantly drawn to both Massaro’s onstage charisma and his eccentricities, such as his habit of wearing sunglasses indoors so his followers would not approach him during breaks. Among his followers, she says, he would vacillate between aloofness and bursts of affection, gazing directly into people’s eyes and giving them warm hugs; in return, they hung onto his every word. She recently browsed through emails she had sent friends during that time and found one message: “I wrote, ‘I’m so happy, I finally found this person who is not like a guru, who just invites you to connect deeper to yourself,’ ” she says. “I was convinced I had found somebody who came from a good place.”
From the beginning, former Massaro students tell Rolling Stone, there were a slew of red flags, though they did not identify them as such at the time. For starters, Massaro was prone to making bizarre claims about his own abilities, such as that he could control the weather or that he was more spiritually evolved than Jesus Christ. In one 2018 Instagram video, he appears to show off his telekinetic abilities by moving a piece of tinfoil without touching it (he hashtagged the post #telekinesis).
When asked whether he considers himself more spiritually evolved than Jesus or the Buddha, Massaro demurs, saying both figures “were probably more spiritually evolved than myself.” Yet he doubles down on his contention that he can control the weather, saying he has had a “high success rate with producing rain and stopping rain upon request from some farmer friends.” “This is a personal belief,” he says. “But I have seen enough evidence of this to assert that it is true.” (In a Vice documentary, Massaro was asked to control the weather on demand, and was unable to do so.)
Massaro’s former students say that he would encourage them to participate in “distortion readings,” where they pointed out each other’s flaws and insecurities. Massaro confirms this, saying he recommends “people to go to one another for reflections,” and that the “intention is to encourage hones and helpful communication.” But when he led such readings, it felt like a front for psychological abuse, says a former member who asked to remain anonymous. “It was a little like a game,” she says. “Sometimes it would be really harsh, and then he’d say, ‘Oh, but I do this out of love,’ and it kind of breaks you down.” She says that she witnessed many people breaking down crying after such readings, which would often invoke past sexual or physical traumas.
Alectra says that when she was with Massaro at a retreat in Quito, during one group distortion reading a member shared sexual trauma he had experienced. Massaro, she says, got “turned on” and told Alectra to go upstairs, where he instructed her to reenact the experience the member had just shared. They then went downstairs and Massaro told the member what had just happened, in an effort to see whether he had fully recovered from the event. “He [coerces] people to get their deepest traumas out, so then they feel like they can’t speak against him because he has this on them,” she says. (Massaro says, “I have never had anyone reenact any sexual encounter,” but adds that if “it came up in dialogue and they chose to do something like, that this is up to them.”)
Massaro also encouraged followers to detach from friends and family members, a common warning sign according to those who study coercive organizations. “Fuck your relationships. All of them. To your parents. To your family, to your friends, to the people around you, to me, fuck your relationships,” he says in one 2017 lecture. “They mean nothing. They mean nothing … don’t give a fuck about your family. Don’t give a fuck about your children. Don’t give a fuck about your parents. Don’t give a fuck about your partner.”
Such stark language didn’t strike those Rolling Stone spoke with as unusual, at least not at first. On the contrary, they viewed it as part and parcel with the rest of his teachings: that the stresses and attachments of everyday life were but projections on a wall, which could be ignored and dismissed in the quest for self-actualization. The effects of such teachings were subtle, but deeply felt, says Verheijen. “They were almost a kind of drug to me,” she says. “The combination of ‘nothing is real,’ which is what he would often say, and ‘this is all a game’, is a really tricky one. You can start to experience life more like it is a computer game. And you start to neglect intuitions like ‘I don’t know if that’s a good idea.’ ”
Those who attended Massaro’s retreats and workshops were also asked to sign NDAs, a copy of which was provided to Rolling Stone. When asked why retreat attendees and students were asked to sign legally binding documents, Massaro says that he started requiring them about five years ago, after an individual he did not identify “infiltrated” his team. “NDAs are a very common, natural practice in any company or organization,” even spiritual ones, he says. “As you must be aware, people accuse me of all sorts of things to enjoy their 15 minutes of fame and emotional validation; or to simply vent their repressed jealousy in insincere ways,” he says.
Massaro was also allegedly using that time to experiment with what Benscoter categorizes as coercive mind-control tactics. Two of his former followers told me that during their time in Sedona, they did a 40-day fast with Massaro (though they say Massaro lasted only seven days), drinking a mixture of grape juice, bentonite clay (which has been subject to warnings from the FDA due to its elevated lead levels), and charcoal. (Massaro dismisses this as a “ludicrous claim,” saying he did a two-week grape-juice fast and that he only recommended students do it four or five years ago, and has not done so again, as it has “nothing to do with my work or teachings.”) “He talks about densities, and I think by doing fasting and all of that, that it helps lighten the body,” says Sorensen, who did the juice fast. “So you’re able to enter into these enlightened states.”
Sorensen says she lost about 25 pounds, shrinking to just 102 pounds, prompting Massaro to comment approvingly on her weight loss. The fast, as well as Massaro encouraging his followers to engage in polyphasic sleep, a technique in which people sleep for just a few hours at a time, were framed as part of the pathway to enlightenment. Yet Benscoter says they are both common tactics to exert dominance over followers. “The goal is definite control: control over the person, what they eat, how much they sleep, their physicality,” she says. “You render them weak. It’s a power thing.”
Graham says Massaro was obsessed with policing women’s weight. “He framed it as it would be helpful to his work if there were women around him who look like that,” says Graham, who alleges Massaro often sent her unsolicited photos of thin women for inspiration. Another of Massaro’s ex-girlfriends, upon leaving the group, published a now-deleted Facebook post, as reported on by Playboy, detailing how Massaro told her he couldn’t have sex with her unless she lost weight because of his belief that she stored toxins in her fat cells, leading to her eating only fruits and vegetables and to work out twice a day for months. (This ex-girlfriend declined to comment for this piece; Massaro admits to telling her to lose weight because of “toxins” in her fat cells, but denies withholding sex from her in the process.)
In an email to Rolling Stone, Massaro admits that he did send Graham photos of thin women, though he casts this as in the context of “exploring fashion and style ideas” and not as a way to encourage her to lose weight. “I can see in retrospect how this was an ignorant and naive approach on my end, and insensitive to the sensitivity women may have towards their body image,” he says, apologizing for this “mistake” and for his previous “lack of awareness.”
At the time of what would become known as the Sedona Experiment, Massaro had very visible relationships with women in the community, and would continue to accumulate girlfriends among his followers as his group grew, posting photos with a rotating cast of willowy, ombre-tressed women on Instagram. While it was well-known among his social media followers that he was polyamorous, few found it unusual, as it is fairly common in the spiritual community. Indeed, Alectra says that far from being a red flag, Massaro’s polyamory was one of the most compelling things about him. “Just being able to love so openly and honestly, it was an intriguing thing to me,” she says.
To a select number of followers, Massaro would frame sex with him as a therapeutic method, a way to cure them of their trauma, Graham and Alectra say. He was open about this with his inner circle, saying in one group text message, “Whenever I connect with a young woman, I don’t need anybody’s fucking doubts because they can’t see beyond the image,” adding that people should look the other way when he “fuck[s] one [woman] into freedom.” “He has this notion that he heals people through romantic relationships or sexually,” says Graham. Massaro claims he has never framed sex as “therapy,” “nor coerced anyone into sexual relations with me under insincere pretenses.” “But yes, I do believe intimacy, and sexual interaction, can be healing when done in the energy of love,” he adds.
After Graham broke up with her former partner, who did not approve of Massaro’s teachings, Graham says Massaro approached her during a session and told her she was not fulfilling her spiritual potential because she was “too masculine.”
“He asked me to lay down on a couch, then he lay on top of me. There were other people in the room,” she says. “And my first impulse was, like, ‘Fuck off. You’re not going to get me to be sexual. I don’t want to go there.’ But then it immediately clicked. And I was like, ‘Oh, fuck, this is my masculine energy that doesn’t want to surrender like this.” They started dating shortly thereafter.
Massaro denies that his relationship with Graham originated in a student/teacher capacity, saying that they were “just two human beings connecting and feeling drawn towards spending time together.” He also denies building an environment of sexual coerciveness (“entirely not true”), claiming, “I have never been concupiscent” or excessively interested in sex, and volunteering that he has not had intercourse in months, “even though there are beautiful and interested women within reach.”
Not everyone in the community was aware of the details of Massaro’s relationships with female students. But even if they had been, they say, they would have easily chalked it up to Massaro’s status as a more spiritually evolved being. Because Massaro was a higher-density being, the logic went, any issue anyone may have with any of his teachings was their problem and a result of their own dysfunction, not his. “One of Bentinho’s teachings is that if something upsets you, then you’re not free, you’re not enlightened,” says McNeil. “He makes spirituality a game, essentially. And then he abuses the rules.”
In late 2017, Be Scofield published her article about Massaro on the website Medium. A journalist on the fringes of the spiritual community herself, Scofield had found herself in Sedona on the advice of her astrologer, and was quickly enmeshed in Massaro’s circle. While she was left unmoved by his teachings — “I thought it was New Age psychobabble,” she says — she was impressed by Trinfinity Academy’s slick online presence, and realized that she could use her skills as a graphic designer to infiltrate the group under the pseudonym Shakti Hunter.
Her resulting exposé, which details allegations about the polyamory, the grape-juice fasts, and Massaro’s self-comparisons to Jesus Christ, was titled “Tech Bro Guru: Inside the Sedona Cult of Bentinho Massaro.” It was the first time the c-word had been publicly applied to Massaro and Trinfinity, and it sent shockwaves throughout the community. “[The messaging was] like, ‘These entities are attacking us and they’re trying to take down this amazing mission of awakening the planet because there’s these dark forces and entities that are out to get us,’ ” says Sorensen. “Which seems so weird and sci-fi, in retrospect.”
Scofield’s story, however, would not nearly have the same impact as the events of Dec. 9, 2018, when the body of Brent Wilkins was found at the bottom of a ravine in Sedona. Wilkins, 34, was a well-known member of the community, a longtime Massaro acolyte who had followed the group from Boulder. He was boyishly handsome, a former all-American college tennis player, and had a history of depression, staying in a psychiatric hospital shortly before following Massaro to Sedona, according to Sorensen. Recently, he had been particularly struggling with his mental health, says Verheijven, who coached Wilkins during a 2017 session to figure out his spiritual calling. “He had a lot of questions,” she says. “He was seeking, but in an intense way and full of doubts.”
In recordings of calls with the Sedona police after Wilkins’ death, his parents directly attributed their son’s struggles to his devotion to Massaro. “He’s a member of a cult,” Wilkins’ mother says, with his father adding that Wilkins “came back a different person” after going to a retreat led by Massaro in Asheville, North Carolina. Wilkins was attending the retreat called the Sedona Experiment and was wearing a pass for the event when his body was found in the ravine.
What attracted the most scrutiny from local police, who questioned Massaro shortly after finding Wilkins’ body, was a lecture Massaro had given at another retreat before Wilkins’ death, in which he appeared to encourage nonbelievers or those struggling with their faith to end their own lives. “Wake up to something important,” he says in the clip. “Otherwise, kill yourself.” (Massaro never faced charges for Wilkins’ death, which was treated by police as a suicide, according to multiple followers familiar with the situation and an investigation by The Arizona Republic.)
Wilkins’ death rattled the community, particularly following Massaro’s reaction to the news. While Massaro posted a statement mourning Wilkins on Facebook two days after his death, some members of the community were puzzled by his seeming “lack of compassion and coldness,” as one of his former followers, Celine Brun, describes it. While Sorensen, who was friendly with Wilkins, does not directly blame Massaro for his death, she does take issue with his reaction afterward, and his apparent unwillingness to take accountability for his remarks. “He didn’t apologize,” she says. “He didn’t say, ‘I’m so sorry. That’s not what I meant to convey at all.’ There was no remorse in that sense.”
When asked specifically about Wilkins’ death, Massaro said, “I love Brent. His suicide was highly unfortunate, painful and a shocking surprise to us all. Had I seen it coming somehow, I would have done my best to intervene or get him professional help.” He did not apologize for his exhortations for followers to “kill [themselves]” if they were losing faith in the mission, claiming that he had made the remarks years ago and that they had been taken out of context. “The intention behind that statement or similar statement, was simply to encourage people to value their lives (not devalue!), and the precious opportunity we all have of being alive…my intention was to inspire people to prioritize their existence more consciously,” he says.
Sorensen says Massaro’s reaction to the tragedy was to close ranks. After unaffiliated Sedona residents left posts questioning Massaro and Trinfinity on Massaro’s Facebook page, Massaro left Arizona abruptly in 2018, taking many of his followers with him, which he says was the result of him receiving threats on his life: “It felt safest and smartest” to leave, he says. He displayed little patience for those still grieving Wilkins’ death, says Sorensen. “He was already feeling attacked before the Brent thing. I think he just fully went into preservation mode,” Sorensen says. She stayed in the group for a year afterward, only cutting ties with Massaro after an argument while he and a few members of her inner circle were staying at her house in Los Angeles. But the way he had dealt with the aftermath of Wilkins’ death left an acrid taste in her mouth. Rather than support his followers grieving the loss of a community member, for Massaro, “it was all about him,” she says. “It was all about the mission.”
Following their departure from Sedona, Massaro and his followers essentially went on the run, though one wouldn’t have known that from his social media presence. On his Instagram feed, he posted lush images from various far-flung locales: sandy beaches, Caribbean islands, the Egyptian pyramids. Many of his followers, including Sorensen, set up shop in a monastery in the Netherlands. It was meant to be a version of a utopian community, but the “vibes” were off immediately, according to Sorensen. “Everyone was sleeping with each other,” she says. “It’s not a good energy to have in a community, when people are trying to heal and going through these big processes and everyone’s very vulnerable. It felt dangerous.”
Sorensen and Verheijen both say they were made uncomfortable by sexual comments made by one of Massaro’s right-hand men, Anurag Gupta, who teamed up with Massaro to provide application-only spiritual coaching sessions for “wealthy individuals” in 2018. Verheijen, who viewed Gupta as something of a mentor, says that she was taken aback when she messaged him a photo of a property she wanted to buy and he wrote back, “Looks like a great place to have sex against a window.” “I saw him as a safe person who would never reach out in that way,” she says. “I trusted him.” They later began a consensual sexual relationship, though she says she would not have done so had she not been so deeply involved with the group. (She later splintered off from Massaro to join one of his other followers, who had founded a rival group.)
“Boundaries were never a concern in the teachings, which I think is important,” Verheijen says. “When you go into these deep-meditation teachings that can take you out of your body, it’s important to focus on safety, grounding, checking in. That was never a part of the teachings. It was always about going further and deeper, but not [boundaries] and safety.”
At least three former followers tell me that Massaro cultivated an environment where sex with multiple partners was encouraged, regardless if people felt comfortable with it or not, though he did not make this explicit in his teachings. “It was subtle, very subtle,” says the former follower who asked to remain anonymous, who lived at the monastery for a time. “The main thing that happened after a while of living there is that you are being brainwashed to think that your boundaries are wrong.” Massaro denies this as “another bogus claim.”
This is not unusual for coercive spiritual organizations, says Benscoter, the former Moonie who now specializes in psychological manipulation. “If you want to control someone, it’s really important that you somehow find a way to control their most intimate relationships,” she says. “In the Moonies, you couldn’t have sex until you were married, so abstinence is a form of control. Here, it’s so important to control sex lives and intimate relationships, because otherwise, if they are dating people outside the group, they’ll be drawn away by people who say, ‘Oh, [those teachings are] shit.’ “
Those in Massaro’s circle absorbed his teachings that sex with multiple people could be a form of spiritual fulfillment. In one text sent to Verheijen, Gupta informed her another girlfriend was planning a “sensual rejuvenation getaway” for him, in which “2 or 3 beauties can step in to this from the right space and love taking care of and replenishing me … to put a massive surge of feminine into me to match my output.” She left the group shortly thereafter. (Gupta did not respond to requests for comment.)
For Graham, it took her much longer to wake up from under Massaro’s spell. After an initial spate of what she describes as love-bombing, in which Massaro told her he wanted to marry her and have children with her, she followed him to the Netherlands, where, she says, he told her he was having difficulty setting up a bank account. After about a week, she says, he sat her down and said he wanted to skip the courting phase and go straight into marriage, but he thought that merging their bank accounts would be more powerful than actually signing a marriage license.
“When he said that, my heart sunk,” Graham says. “Part of me felt like, ‘This is true. I am meant to be with him and I can support him, and we can be a partnership, and this is so wonderful. I’ve never felt this amount of love and devotion from someone before.’ But another part of me was scared that I’d be giving away something of mine for this.” Massaro, she says, explained that he wanted to be able to invest money so he could give away his teachings for free, and that they’d both share in the residual income from the investment. He then asked her for hundreds of thousands of dollars (she requested that Rolling Stone not publish the exact amount due to security concerns). As soon as the money was transferred, however, she says, “his energy towards me shifted. I came into his room one day and he was kind of quiet with me, and he was like, ‘You know what? All of a sudden I’m not feeling very attracted to you.’ “
A few weeks later, she says, while they were in Panama on a retreat, Massaro came to her crying, saying he had lost all of the money in a bad crypto investment. Graham forgave him, but she says that while he eventually agreed to pay her a fifth of the money back when she left the group, he still owes her hundreds of thousands of dollars.
For his part, Massaro claims that Graham never loaned him any money, sharing a document signed by Graham that refers to the amount as a “gift for purpose of investing” and a “Transfer.” He says that the money was “clearly a gift, a donation, for the purposes of investing,” which he says she wholeheartedly agreed to. He also claims he did not lose interest in her sexually after the donation, instead losing interest in her “relationally [italics his] — and thus sexually as well — because of certain character patterns that started showing up in her behavior which I will not disclose here because I love her and respect her privacy and dignity.”
Alectra, too, says she eventually came to see how Massaro was using her as a way to achieve more influence. In WhatsApp messages from 2021, he revealed to her that he had approached her because of her significant following; he also told her that he wished to recruit influencer Alexis Ren, after learning that Alectra was friends with her sister. Massaro was laser-focused on attracting a younger, more attractive audience, she says, and he explicitly instructed her to trot out his photogenic followers front and center to cast that net. “Have them have the GQ face/vibe and make sure they can speak calmly yet ecstatically to the younger generation,” he instructed Alectra and McNeil via text in April 2021, when they were both working on a promotional video for his No Limits Society (NLS).
Both Graham and Alectra say that over the course of a few months, it became clear that Massaro was not very interested in them as individuals, but more interested in them as vessels through which he could exercise control. One night, Graham alleges, while they were out at a restaurant with a group of Massaro’s followers, Massaro asked her out of the blue if she would take her top off in public. Embarrassed, Graham said no. Later that night, she says, Massaro sent her a text explaining that the request was a test. (“This is either not true or I don’t remember it at all,” Massaro says.) “By me not trusting him and doing this thing in this public place and risking my own embarrassment, I was proving that I wasn’t all into this relationship,” she says. “Embarrassingly enough, I wanted it to happen again, so he could tell me to take my clothes off in the restaurant, and I would do it.”
But that, she says, was the beginning of the end. After confiding in another member of the community about Massaro losing the investment, she says, she received messages from Massaro asking if she was an “evil entity” or a “spy coming here to try and separate everybody and plant seeds of doubt in the community.” “He told me that if I wanted to stay, I’d have to confess to our little group any negative thing I’d ever lied about, ever done, ever said, basically to prove that I’m on the right side,” she says. Graham did so, but a few days later, while scrolling through her Instagram feed, she came across an ad for HBO’s The Vow, a documentary series about NXIVM, a multilevel marketing scheme and self-empowerment cult run by self-proclaimed smartest man in the world Keith Raniere.
“I was like, ‘Holy fuck,” she says of watching the documentary. ” ‘All of this is the same. All the characters were the same, Keith and Ben were the same — in their disposition, in what they talk about, in how they talk. And it really was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m not part of something special with some special leader. I’m actually just part of this weird, narcissistic abuse circle.’ “
Graham left in September 2020, at the height of the pandemic. She still struggles with the aftermath of Bentinho’s teachings. “He claims to be a mirror,” she says. “Everything that you feel about him, you’re trained to think is actually something about you. So whatever ugliness you see in him is ugliness about you. So even after, I kept thinking, ‘Oh, my God, if I’m feeling these horrible things about him, what must that mean about me? And am I an evil entity? My brain was so fucked for a while.”
At that point, Massaro had pivoted somewhat from posting vague self-help aphorisms to capitalizing on the tumultuous sociopolitical climate by jumping on the conspiracy-theorist bandwagon, posting Covid denialism, baseless speculation about the origins of the virus, and YouTube videos by noted antisemite David Icke on Facebook. In recent Instagram posts, he has referred to the coronavirus as a “ruse,” as well as encouraged followers to quit their jobs over vaccine mandates. Massaro declined to comment on such posts, stating that Rolling Stone’s questions about them “indicates a high probability of at least some measure of insincere/unfair intent behind this reporting.”
In June 2020, at the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement, Massaro posted a photo of himself gazing pensively into the distance with the caption, “If you truly want what’s best for you — don’t linger in blaming your oppressors. That’s not true courage. Thank them for showing you your weakness; where you agreed to not love yourself and then change accordingly.” Aside from a handful of comments criticizing Massaro for effectively dismissing centuries of historical oppression (in replies, he denied that the post was about race at all), many of his white acolytes applauded the sentiment, showering the Facebook comments section with heart and fire emojis.
On Jan. 7, 2021, Alectra flew to Quito, Ecuador to meet Massaro and his team. During her first week in Quito, Alectra and Massaro started becoming romantically involved. Those first few weeks, she says, were idyllic. “He was touchy. He was publicly affectionate,” she says. “We would go out to these nice dinners, and he would have me sit on his lap and light a cigar and just look into my eyes like he just was enamored with me, like I was the most beautiful energy he had ever encountered.” When he told her that she had the code for enlightenment, and would have to continue with her spiritual teachings by accompanying him to Panama City, she gladly agreed, forking over $1,300 in lodging and airfare in the process.
Massaro denies that his relationship with Alectra blurred the lines between student and romantic interest, claiming that Alectra flew to Quito “as a potential collaborator and friend,” and it was she, not himself, who aggressively sought a sexual relationship. “She was very sexually active, initiatory and interested. More so than myself. Which is common,” he says.
Immediately after they started sleeping together, Alectra says she realized that she had attained special status within the community. To be Bentinho Massaro’s new girlfriend was to achieve a form of spiritual ascendancy in itself, with others in his circle frequently commenting on how “nourished” Massaro was in Alectra’s presence, and how restorative she was to his energy. “Whoever is in Ben’s favor becomes like the queen, and everyone treats the queen like you walk on air,” she says. “The danger is, if you fall from that position, then you’re fresh meat.”
For Alectra, that happened fairly quickly. She says tensions quickly arose between her and Katuna, Massaro’s girlfriend, who had invited her to Quito in the first place, and they would frequently vie for Massaro’s time and attention, which Massaro seemed all too happy to encourage. Alectra says she would have to be invited to spend time with Massaro in his bedroom, and her social media posts were also subject to his approval, as were her reading materials: only books by him or Bentinho-approved spiritual leaders were allowed in the house.
Alectra, too, says she was asked by Massaro if she would take her clothes off in public, on a separate occasion in Puerto Escondido, Mexico. (McNeil, who was also present, confirms this.) During a house party, she says, Massaro was giving a lecture to the other guests about masculinity when he told Alectra to come over and take all of her clothes off. “My stomach dropped. I felt sick,” she says. “[But I thought], ‘I can’t think this is happening to me. I have to think it is happening for me. Everything is a teaching to him.’ ”
Humiliated, Alectra says that she complied, and was told to sit on Massaro’s lap while he felt her breasts, an experience she describes as one of the most demeaning of her life. “See?” she says Massaro told the group. “This is masculinity.” (“This is either not true or I don’t remember this happening at all,” Massaro says.) Alectra also alleges that Massaro regularly flouted or ignored the boundaries of sexual consent. Once, she says, he told her he wanted to have a threesome with her and another girlfriend when she did not want to, but she felt she had to comply; another time, she was meditating when she felt him pull her pants down and start having sex with her from behind. When she protested, she says, he instructed her to “leave her body.”
Alectra did not consider it assault at the time, and still is not sure if she does. (Massaro denies that anything nonconsensual happened between them, or between him and Graham, and says he does not “make use of [sex] unless truly aligned, appropriate, clearly communicated beforehand, and consensual.”) But she does know that it constituted a violation, and now feels that all of her time with Massaro was marked by his desire to exert dominance over her. She says he’d told her he already had a brunette girlfriend, so he asked her to dye her hair blond; he liked her hair straight and not curly, so she’d straighten it every day. Once, he shouted at her that she was “putting the entire mission at risk” because she folded his underwear incorrectly.
According to text messages, when room service at a hotel they were staying at took away special pillows his team had requested, Massaro had a meltdown, writing, “Can someone call and have them send 1 version of each of the non-regular pillows back and KEEP THEM THE FUCK HERE”; when Alectra said she would hold them in her room, rather than leave them on Massaro’s doorstep, as he had specified, he grew angry, stating, “Feeling negative entity attack came through me catalyzed by Jade, or through Jade. Feel a sudden cold sore coming on and excessive heat in my body building up.”
“That man is only considering of power and control,” she says through tears. “[It] just feels like he wants to assert dominance over whoever is in the room. All the women that were there, it was like they had been stripped of any power they had.”
Alectra started working with McNeil on various Massaro-approved creative projects; gradually, the two became closer and started to share their concerns about the group with each other. (McNeil and Alectra later started dating, though they have since separated.) At that point, Alectra had been pushed out of the inner circle by one of Massaro’s new girlfriends, and was no longer living with him. When Alectra received an invite late last year to teach meditation at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, she says, Massaro did not want her to go, despite the fact that she was no longer living with him. “He said, ‘You’ll lose everything if you leave now,’ ” she says. “That was always his thing with me.” After promising that she would promote Massaro at the retreat, he allowed her to leave.
The last night she spent with Massaro, she says, she could tell that he sensed some distance on her part. They cuddled together in his bed, with him telling her she had the most healing, beautiful hands he had ever seen. For a moment, Alectra says, her resolve wavered. She wondered if she could muster up the strength to leave, or if she would be able to survive outside of Massaro’s circle. “I went back to Keilan and I said, ‘I think I need to stay,’ ” she says.
Alectra ended up with Massaro because of a tarot card, and she decided to leave him because of one, too. Her friend had given her the artist Kim Krans’ tarot deck The Wild Unknown as a gift, and that night she consulted it, thinking that whatever it told her, she would do. She drew a card called the Box, with the description, “The Box is sneaky, insidious and everywhere. … Breaking through its confines requires awareness, continued effort, and bravery.”
“When I read it, I got chills,” she says. “And it reminded me to trust what was left of the small whisper of my intuition.” She went to Big Sur. And aside from exchanging a few texts shortly after she left, she and Massaro haven’t talked to or seen each other since.
For his part, Massaro is still active on social media, posting selfies of himself puffing on cigars and reclining on idyllic, footprint-dotted beaches, his heels perched atop stretches of white sand. He is constantly posting, and his messaging has not gotten any less abstruse. “I am organically human. Energetically, what you would call alien. Essentially God,” he wrote in a recent Instagram stories Q&A, over what appears to be a photo of crepes in a pan. “Much of this applies to all of you, BTW.”
What is even more unclear than the content of his posts is where, exactly, Massaro is posting from. Though he is still offering live training for his No Limits Society for $199 a month via Zoom (which requires all enrollees to sign NDAs beforehand), he does not post his geolocation. There are whispers among former followers that he is heading to South Africa and trying to secure land there to start some form of an intentional community, as he attempted to do in Sedona. On this point, Massaro is predictably coy: “We visited South Africa for a few weeks and I taught some classes there, that’s all,” he says. But wherever he is, his nearly 970,000 followers on Facebook and 102,000 subscribers on YouTube are observing his every move, and hanging onto his every word.
And it’s for that reason that Graham, Alectra, and many of Massaro’s other former followers say they have chosen to speak out against him: to ensure that those searching for answers to life’s biggest questions, particularly during these tumultuous times, do not find themselves drawn into his web. “There are vulnerable people out there seeking help,” says Alectra. “And they’re finding the wolf walking into the hens’ den.”
Shortly after she left Massaro’s circle, Alectra moved back into her mother’s house, living in her old childhood bedroom. She spent most of her time in bed, watching Netflix or staring at her ceiling, thinking about how much her life had changed since she met Massaro. She was 35 pounds over her normal weight, and she says she was $10,000 poorer as a result of her time with Massaro and his group, having squandered her funds on luxurious dinners and hotel stays in far-flung locales. “He’d brainwashed every bit of me,” she says. “He’d erased who I was. He made me doubt every powerful thought I’d ever had.”
It was around this time that Alectra saw The Vow, the 2019 HBO documentary about NXIVM and Raniere. Unlike Graham, she didn’t immediately see her story reflected in those of NXIVM’s now-disillusioned followers; the young, attractive, successful, wealthy spiritual seekers who had decided to drop everything in their lives to follow the self-proclaimed smartest man alive. “I thought it was silly,” she says. “I thought, I’d never fall for someone who looks like Keith Raniere.’ ” (For his part, Massaro declined to comment on any parallels between his organization and NXIVM “I have no knowledge of them, what actually transpired, or even what the allegations made against this group are. As such, I cannot comment intelligently,” he says.)
But as Alectra has processed her time with Massaro, both as his student and as one of his partners, she has come to see parallels between him and Raniere. She sees it in the way Raniere’s acolytes would trail him like puppies, eyes shining with the gift of newfound wisdom, hanging onto his every word. She sees it in the way Raniere assigned women circumscribed gender roles, urging them to avoid being too “feminine” or “masculine”; and she sees it in Rainiere’s polyamory, the way he ultimately used an unconventional sexual lifestyle as a guise for exercising control over his partners.
But when Raniere was ultimately arrested in a Mexican fishing village while on the run (he was convicted on charges of sexual exploitation of a child, sex-trafficking conspiracy, and more, and was sentenced to 120 years in prison), he was 58 years old. Massaro is 34. When she thought about that, Alectra realized: “We have an opportunity to pull a weed out,” she says, “before it becomes something that you can’t remove so easily.”