On Wednesday, the first witness in the Keith Raniere trial, a 32-year-old woman identified only as Sylvie, wrapped up her grueling two-day testimony regarding her nearly 13 years in the organization. The daughter of well-off English parents, Sylvie recounted how she had been drawn into NXIVM’s orbit when she was just 18 years old, when her then-boss Clare Bronfman suggested she take a class to help her reach her career goal of becoming a successful show-jumper.
Despite her initial reluctance to join the organization and her initial aversion to Raniere himself — describing him as “touchy-feely” and “quite creepy-looking” — Sylvie recounted in painstaking detail how she was gradually drawn into his orbit: first as his trainee, when she was forced to exercise for a punishing six hours a day; then as a “slave” in the all-female secret sorority DOS, during which she was told to abstain from sex with her own husband and was forced to send naked photos to Raniere and have oral sex with him before recruiting other female “slaves.”
Following Sylvie’s testimony, the overwhelming mood among those observing the proceedings could best be described as credulous disbelief. It wasn’t that they didn’t consider Sylvie a credible witness: despite defense attorney Marc Agnifilo’s attempts to argue during cross-examination, among other things, that her use of heart emojis in texts with Raniere undermined her claim that she did not want to sleep with him, most of the observers I spoke with found her testimony compelling and believable. It was more that no one could quite understand how Raniere, who looked boyish and almost nerdy in a cornflower-blue sweater and thick glasses, could have exerted such control over a woman as seemingly privileged, sophisticated and self-assured as Sylvie, not to mention the dozens of other women he is alleged to have recruited as “slaves” in DOS (not to mention the women in NXIVM who are alleged to have had decades-long relationships with him). “I just can’t wrap my mind around it,” one reporter told me afterwards. “Like, how can one man have all that control?”
As the trial unfolded, however, it became increasingly clear just how a man like Raniere — a purported “concert-level pianist, judo champion, incredible human being” with a genius IQ, as former Nxivm member Mark Vicente later testified — could exert so much control over so many women. Witness testimony in the trial painted a portrait of an organization that, at its very core, consisted of a brutally oppressive power structure that placed men at the top and women at the bottom. It did this by exploiting women’s myriad insecurities — about food, about their careers, about their sex lives, about their bodies — and promoting a belief system that aimed to correct them by asking women to place themselves under the complete subjugation of men. And even though the very pillars of the Nxivm ethos were predicated on misogyny, Raniere and his cohorts were able to lure female followers into the organization simply by repackaging them in the trappings of female empowerment. And he was able to do this because of how normal these values seemed.
According to Sylvie’s testimony, Raniere exerted control over his female followers on the most fundamental level. Women in NXIVM were encouraged to enroll in JNESS, the all-female organization within NXIVM. (JNESS was a separate group from DOS, and was intended for mainstream NXIVM followers.) The point of JNESS, as Sylvie understood it, was for women to “work out what they were” outside the influence of men — a mission predicated on Raniere’s belief that women’s actions were primarily intended to attract male attention. Raniere also taught that women were prone to “objectifying men in a certain way,” meaning that women only assessed potential male partners based on whether they were good providers or caretakers. A common phrase in NXIVM was that women lived “in a bubble,” meaning women didn’t “have to be responsible for anything…we live in fantasyland and everything gets taken care of,” Sylvie testified.
In 2012, Raniere developed the curriculum for JNESS Tracks, in which this lesson would become more explicit. Sylvie described taking courses from male “mentors,” during which they would correct her tone of voice or the way she sat, or what they referred to as “antics.” “The kind of general teaching was that women do a lot of antics and a lot of different things to try and get stuff from men and so this part of the training was to kind of snap that out of you,” she testified. Another teaching that fit squarely within Raniere’s worldview was that men were obsessed with sex, while women primarily used sex as a tool to get what they wanted out of their partners. “That’s what I took away from it,” Sylvie testified. “That all we wanted was stuff and [to] be taken care of and not be responsible for anything. And for, like, men to be healthy or primitive men, they would have had sex with multiple people and had multiple partners and that was somehow kind of healthier or normal, whereas, women should be loyal to only one man or that’s what’s natural for them.” (It was perhaps this specific teaching that allowed Raniere to set what Agnifolo referred to in his opening remarks as his “ground rules” for his relationships with women: while they could not have sex with any other man, he could have sex with as many women as he wanted.”
The following year, Raniere taught a course led by Society of Protectors, the male equivalent of JNESS, which Sylvie said cost anywhere between $5,000 and $8,000. “It had been presented, I think, in JNESS specifically, that women lacked character and the SOP Complete would teach us character,” Sylvie testified. In SOP Complete One, women were taught, among other things, that they were inherently more impulsive than men, and that the best way to curb their impulsivity would be to adhere to a strict diet. Sylvie, who herself was in recovery from an eating disorder, testified that this aligned with her first impressions of the group’s female members, who tended to be “very, very thin” and adhered to extremely low-calorie or restrictive diets, such as the Master Cleanse or a raw vegan diet. The course also relied on humiliating, gender-based exercises to encourage women to “correct” their behavior. During one exercise, women were told they were showing too much cleavage, and were thus told to parade around like cows in a county fair and be awarded rosettes and prizes for their udders.
After years of absorbing these teachings, it is no surprise that women would be drawn to DOS, perhaps the most explicit way that the misogyny inherent in NXIVM was enacted. What drew women to DOS was not the idea of becoming closer to Raniere: as assistant U.S. attorney Tanya Hajjar stated during her opening arguments, and as Sylvie’s testimony later confirmed, many of the women recruited as slaves did not even know Raniere was behind the group in the first place. “They thought they were joining a women’s only group that was all about helping other women,” Hajjar said, adding that DOS was pitched as a “women’s empowerment group to make them happier, to make them stronger, to make them more successful.” During testimony, Sylvie confirmed this was precisely how the group was pitched to her: “I got the impression from whatever she said that she had this special project that could change everything for me and that it would help me be the person that I’ve always wanted to be.”
In forming DOS, Raniere exploited his female followers’ desire to empower themselves, to improve themselves — to be happier, better, more fulfilled, more, as he allegedly coached Sylvie when encouraging her to take explicit photos of her vulva, “vulnerable.” With his misogynistic teachings, Raniere spent years grooming his female followers for subjugation, to the point that many of them were persuaded to have his initials branded upon their very flesh on the grounds. Their reasoning: that it was more “bad ass — their words” than a tattoo, as Agnifilo said in his opening statement, seemingly just as befuddled by this perverse masquerade of self-empowerment as anyone else.
It may seem unusual that women would spend years — in some cases, decades — in the thrall of a man like Raniere, and it may seem shockingly naive that so many of them would shackle themselves to a man as a means of achieving freedom from patriarchal norms. But in doing so, Raniere would certainly not be the first man to sell traditional patriarchal structures to women under the guise of rah-rah feminist sisterhood. He would not be the first man to peddle self-help or self-improvement (or that most noxious of terms, “self-care”) while using the slick patois of female empowerment, and he would certainly not be the first man to take advantage of the myriad ways our culture makes women constantly feel sick and empty and inadequate, both physically and spiritually. But if he is convicted of selling his own twisted brand of female self-improvement, he may very well be the first man to go to jail for it.