In the early, frigid months of 2016, Nicole was struggling. An aspiring actress with pin-straight dark hair and small, delicate features, Nicole had lived for years in Los Angeles, where she had had some minor success booking commercial work; she had just moved to New York City to build her stage career. But almost immediately, Nicole regretted the move. In the few months after moving to New York, she had barely booked any auditions, nor had she made many friends. She was deeply lonely, and at one point seriously considered taking her own life. “I kept telling myself things would take time. But I was working really long hours and I was barely able to pay my bills,” she said, her previously chirpy voice quaking.
Despondent, she emailed her friend and acting teacher. Allison Mack had spent a decade playing Chloe Sullivan on the long-running CW show Smallville, and she had served as something of a mentor to Nicole when she had been a student in her acting course the Source. “I looked up to her,” Nicole said. “She had a lot of discipline and had reached a certain level in her career.”
In her email, Nicole confessed to Mack that she was depressed and suicidal and was struggling to make sense of her life. Mack was kind and reassuring. “She said she had something she thought would fix how I was feeling,” Nicole said. “It was gonna make everything better.” Mack described it as a “really cool women’s mentorship [program]… for women who were serious about being strong women.” But Mack had one condition. “If I wanted to get more information on this mentorship, I’d have to provide collateral,” she said.
This revelation drew audible groans among spectators at the U.S. District Court – Eastern District of New York, where Nicole, who was identified only by that first name, was testifying in the trial of Keith Raniere, the head of the shadowy self-help organization NXIVM, who is facing criminal charges of racketeering and sex trafficking. (Mack has pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy charges.) As other former members of NXIVM have testified over the past few weeks, the concept of providing “collateral,” such as nude or sexually explicit photos or humiliating testimonials, was the first step to becoming a part of DOS, the alleged all-female sex cult within NXIVM headed by Raniere, who was known as the “grandmaster” of DOS.
Nicole didn’t know this at the time; as she claimed during her testimony, she didn’t even know Raniere was involved with DOS at all. She had no idea that as part of her role in NXIVM, she would be asked to seduce Raniere; she had no idea that she would be blindfolded, tied down and told to have oral sex with someone whose identity would be kept a secret from her; she had no idea she would be subject to physical punishments, or asked to pose for invasive, close-up photos of her vulva, or branded with Raniere’s initials.
All she knew was what Mack told her in a follow-up meeting at New York City’s Ace Hotel: that she was being invited to join an “intense, growing empowerment group where women were pushing each other to be stronger, physically, mentally, intellectually, so that they could live the kind of life that they wanted to.” Nicole was on board. She trusted and respected Mack, who was just a few years older than Nicole and had built the type of career aspiring actors dream of having. Besides, she had few other options.
“Being mentored by another woman — being mentored by anyone, I think — in my mind at that time, was a privilege,” she said.
In many respects, Nicole’s tale of being drawn into DOS for a year was similar to that of other DOS slaves who have testified during the trial — yet she also cut a starkly different figure from many of the other women: unlike the wan, more self-serious Lauren Salzman or the patrician British runner and equestrian Sylvie, both of whom testified as serving as slaves under Raniere, Nicole was younger and had been in NXIVM for only a few years before leaving in 2017. (Salzman, by contrast, spent decades serving Raniere.) Compared to other former NXIVM members who have taken the stand, she seemed much more winsome, even childlike, her speech peppered with “reallys” and “totallys” and occasionally waxing effusive about acting classes she had taken or her fondness for Harry Potter. Under direct examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Moira Penza, Nicole rattled off her childhood theater roles with the facility of a longtime theater kid: Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Cinderella in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella.
But Nicole’s story was similar to other DOS slaves in one crucial respect: more than anything, she wanted to be considered a strong, empowered woman, and to be cast in strong, independent female roles: “I wanted to be like Wonder Woman. I wanted to play that role,” she said.
Nicole said she was first introduced to the Source, the acting curriculum under the NXIVM umbrella, by her ex-boyfriend Mark Hildreth, star of the TV show Resurrection. Hildreth had described it as an acting-cum-psychology intensive that was “part of a program that worked on making you a better person,” she said. (Hildreth had also previously dated Kristin Kreuk, Mack’s former Smallville costar and allegedly a former NXIVM member.) Because the Source, which cost $8,000 to take, was also pitched as a way for actors to become credentialed to teach the class, Nicole was drawn to it as a possible money-making opportunity.
Nicole took the five-week course under Mack in 2015, and also attended V-Week, the annual celebration of Raniere’s birthday, that summer, sharing a room (and a bed) with Mack and another female student. Although she did not meet Raniere at the time, it was there where she got her first taste of life in NXIVM. “They very much put him on a pedestal and idolized him,” she testified. “It just strikes me as weird because how would you know who the smartest man in the world is? It just sounds like bullshit to me.” (At this point, the courtroom erupted into laughter, with the noticeable exception of Raniere, who sat stone-faced.)
In February 2016, less than a year after Nicole’s initial foray into NXIVM via the Source, Mack and Nicole met up at the Ace Hotel, where Mack elaborated on the secret “women’s empowerment group” she wanted Nicole to join. She described the group, which was then called the Vow, as a mentorship organization intended to encourage women to become more resilient and self-sufficient; the harder, stronger, smarter, more badass versions of themselves. More importantly, she also elaborated on what she meant by “collateral,” asking Nicole to provide a sexually explicit video of herself as well as letters that would hurt her family members or ruin her career.
The latter was hardest for Nicole, who described herself as very close to her family; she burst into tears when she recounted Mack telling her to write a letter falsely accusing her father of molesting her as a child, the same collateral Mack herself had provided. But when Nicole balked, Mack assured her the letters would be placed in a lockbox, and were only intended as an exercise of “trust.” “Don’t you want to be the kind of person who trusts someone?,” Nicole recounted Mack saying.
Nicole quickly sensed there was something off about DOS. She was required to be available to check in with Mack at all times in exercises known as “readiness drills” and refer to her as “master,” and she was instructed by Mack to stay celibate for three months. The intensity of the group unnerved Nicole. “I had decided [DOS] just wasn’t for me,” she testified. But when she told Mack she wanted to leave, Mack responded that leaving DOS “wasn’t an option” and that the group was a “lifetime commitment,” noting that at one point her own master had threatened to release her collateral if she didn’t get her act together. “It’s the choice you made — now what are you gonna do about it?,” Mack taunted in an email to Nicole, which was read in court.
Mack’s response instilled a growing sense of dread in Nicole. “I thought, ‘What did I do? What did I get myself into?'” she said. Terrified that her collateral would be released if she left, she agreed to stay in DOS.
In April 2016, Nicole received another mission from Mack: to reach out to Raniere, a task she framed as a “secret spy assignment.” At this point, Nicole had never met Raniere, and had no idea why she would be asked to do such a thing. But she reluctantly wrote him a polite email thanking him for his role in creating the Source, which elicited no response. Mack encouraged her to reach out again, and to get more creative. “How do you get the attention of the smartest man in the world?,” she rhetorically asked. After three tries, Raniere finally responded, responding to one of Nicole’s inquiries about how to push past her fears to achieve freedom and joy in his trademark abstruse prose. “True freedom in the physical world comes from absolute commitment to a principle,” he wrote in his email, adding a phrase that would recur during Nicole’s time in DOS: “Love is only measured by pain.”
They began taking walks together during Nicole’s visits to Clifton Park, New York, where NXIVM was headquartered and where both Raniere and Mack lived. “He would talk to me about trust in general an how it would get you closer to enlightenment or this idea of freedom…. if you trust someone completely,” Nicole testified.
Shortly afterwards, Mack informed Nicole that she had another assignment, to tell Raniere that she would do anything he asked her to do. This unnerved her, to say the least. “My head started going through all sorts of things, worst case scenario,” she testified. “What if he asked me to jump off a bridge and commit suicide, or hurt someone…or asked me never to speak to my family again?” Next to those prospective scenarios, what he did ultimately ask her to do paled in comparison: He blindfolded her and drove her to a house, where he asked her to take off her clothes and tied her down by her wrists and feet to a cold table.
It wasn’t until she felt someone performing oral sex on her that Nicole realized another person was in the room. “I was so confused. I was like, ‘What is happening?,'” Nicole said, describing the situation as “terrifying.” The whole time, she said, Raniere circled the table, asking her questions about her sexual history. Later, he would only tell her that a woman had performed oral sex on her, and she would never find out who it was. (In opening statements, prosecutor Moira Penza claimed it was a woman identified as Camila, one of three Mexican sisters in NXIVM who had sexual relationships with Raniere and another DOS slave.) When Nicole later told Mack what had happened, she seemed somewhat surprised, but commended her for her bravery. She also said she had “earned working with Keith more,” Nicole testified.
That summer, Nicole learned what “working with Keith more” entailed: In the summer of 2016, their relationship became sexual, with Nicole testifying that the two had sexual intercourse three or four times. By this point, Nicole had become aware that Raniere was the head of DOS, and that he was also having a sexual relationship with Mack, who served as his slave; though he initially did not allow Nicole to tell Mack about the sexual relationship, Mack reportedly later became aware of it, telling Nicole, “Isn’t it so cool that Keith is working on my sexuality through you?”
During her testimony, Nicole said she was not attracted to Raniere and was not interested in sleeping with him, an assertion that defense attorney Marc Agnifolo tried to refute during cross-examination by trying to introduce text messages allegedly sent from Nicole saying she wanted to have sex with Raniere. (Judge Nicholas Garaufis refused to allow this testimony, as the texts had not been formally authenticated.) At one point, Nicole testified, Raniere lent her a little more than $3,000 after she had expressed financial concerns, which she never paid back, a point that Agnifolo hammered into during cross-examination, asking Nicole if Raniere was “sweet” to her.
But Nicole repeatedly emphasized that she felt coerced into being Raniere’s sexual partner. Because she was sworn to secrecy about her role in DOS and her relationship with Raniere, “I only had him to turn to to say, ‘I don’t really feel comfortable doing this,” she testified. “He always had some kind of reason as to why it was good for me and my growth or I’d learn to like it.”
The goal of their sexual relationship, as Raniere put it — and the goal of DOS in general — was to erode women’s autonomy in order to build strength and obedience in them. As Nicole testified how Raniere explained it, “he needed to break me in order to build me back up into a strong woman.”
Over the course of 2016, things in DOS started getting progressively more, as Nicole put it, “intense.” Mack had recruited three other slaves, including Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg’s daughter India, and the women were required to attend weekly “church” meetings on Monday nights, where they’d sit on the floor while Mack would sit on the couch and reprimand them. The women all had nicknames — Nicole’s was “the brat” — and many of them were required to adhere to strict, extremely low-calorie diets, with Mack at one point subsisting only on 500 calories a day until she reached 107 pounds. “[Mack] sometimes said Keith wouldn’t care about her if she gained weight,” Nicole testified.
In addition to having to perform “readiness drills” — responding to Mack’s texts within 30 seconds at all hours of the day or face harsh punishment — Mack’s “slaves” were required to pose for “family photos,” a group nude photo that Mack would take before the start of “church” every week. The women were required to smile and look happy, even though Nicole found the experience deeply degrading. “It made you feel really unsafe. Any time you were together with all the girls it could happen. She could tell us to do it at any point and we had to,” Nicole testified, sobbing. It made things worse to know the images were being sent to Raniere. “This was supposed to be a women’s empowerment organization,” Nicole said between sobs. “How was it empowering to take off all of our clothes and send them to a man?”
The situation in DOS escalated during a group “bonding” trip to the Berkshires in October 2017, when Mack gave her slaves another assignment. As Nicole put it, Mack instructed the women to pose for, “a close-up photo of all of your pussies.” Nicole said she initially refused, prompting Mack to accuse her of “throwing a fit” — a common NXIVM-ism for women refusing to perform a certain task or adhere to a certain behavioral standard. All the while, Mack posed the women on the couch and made comments about their genitalia, at one point referring to one slave’s “beautiful cunt.”
Mack later sent an email thanking the women for their attendance and referring to how “profound” the trip had been for her. According to Nicole, Mack’s vacillation between being loving and generous, and cruel and abusive, that further disoriented Nicole. Although she later recognized Mack’s behavior as a classic hallmark of abuse, at the time she was simply confused, causing her to sink even deeper into feelings of powerlessness and despair: “I felt like I was getting more and more trapped,” she testified.
In early 2017, Nicole and Mack’s other slaves were branded, with Mack telling them that the symbol was representative of the four elements: air, earth, fire and water. (As other members of DOS have testified, the symbol actually consisted of Raniere’s initials.) The idea behind the branding, Nicole testified Mack told her, echoing Raniere’s early emails, was that “pain is love, and you show your love to your master by pain.”
To get through the agony of being branded with a cauterizing pen, Nicole thought of her little brother, to whom she was close, and how much pain she would be willing to undergo to protect him. Thinking of her family, she said, allowed her to think of the brand not as an homage to her relationship with Mack, which she now knew full well was abusive and toxic, but as a testament to her own resilience — which, ironically, was why she had joined DOS to begin with. “I thought it could be a symbol of strength,” she said.
It was around this time, Nicole said, that NXIVM itself started “falling apart.” The blog the Frank Report had publicly exposed DOS, prompting many members to leave the group, and Raniere and his inner circle had scrambled to do damage control. Given the implosion of NXIVM, Nicole believed there was less of a risk of Mack choosing to release her collateral, an assumption that turned out to be correct. As Nicole testified, and as Agnifilo reiterated during cross-examination, Mack later told Nicole her collateral would not be released if she left DOS, and to date none of the DOS slaves’ collateral has been released.
Emboldened by Mack’s statement that her collateral would not be released, and disgusted at being publicly outed as a DOS slave in the Frank Report post, Nicole finally worked up the courage to leave in late spring 2017. She made one last trip to Albany to say goodbye to the other slaves and Raniere, and formally left the group that spring. Slowly, Nicole began to tell the people close to her what had happened to her, though by her own admission, it took her a long time to figure out that what she had experienced qualified as abuse to begin with. It took the Frank Report story to confirm what she had already suspected: “I [had] thought I was getting into a women’s empowerment group, and now someone is saying I’m a man’s sex slave,” she said incredulously.
Although Nicole had only been in DOS for about a year, she had become so deeply immersed in the group that she could barely tell what was considered normal, healthy behavior and what was not. “Things would get normalized, and slowly become more intense,” she said. Her emails, which were introduced during the trial, confirmed this, with Agnifolo pointing out that at times, she had portrayed her experiences with the group positively, such as her experience with the Source and her at-times warm and nurturing relationship with Mack.
On the stand, however, Nicole was clear that her relationship with Raniere and Mack, and with DOS in general, had caused her nothing but pain and psychic tumult. “Things would get normalized, and slowly become more intense,” she said in justifying her decision to stay. She likened her slow immersion into the group to the process of boiling a frog: “if you put a frog in hot water, they just jump out. If you put a frog in cold water, and slowly turn the heat up, they just boil it to death.”