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Expert Witness at NXIVM Trial Describes How Abusers ‘Gaslight’ Their Victims

“If you have a perpetrator who’s able to control, manipulate, and trap you verbally… they don’t need to hit [their victim],” the expert witness said.

In this courtroom artist's sketch, Keith Raniere, second from right, leader of the secretive group NXIVM, attends his trial in Brooklyn federal court, in New York. Above him is a screen with an image of a branding, containing his initials KR. A federal prosecutor says the self-help guru used threats, "shame and humiliation" while grooming women for sex. She also described how some female followers were branded with Raniere's initialsBranded Women, New York, USA - 07 May 2019

Keith Raniere has been on trial in federal court in Brooklyn since last month.

Elizabeth Williams/AP/Shuttersto

A clinical and forensic psychologist testified today at the trial for Keith Raniere, the leader of the self-empowerment group and alleged “sex cult” NXIVM, about the gradual, complex behavioral patterns that characterize coercive relationships and complex patterns of abuse.

Dawn Hughes, PhD, a clinical and forensic psychologist who specializes in interpersonal violence and traumatic stress and has consulted on cases involving clergy sexual abuse and Boy Scout abuse, took the stand for the prosecution on Thursday. Although she specified during her testimony that she did not have intimate knowledge of the NXIVM case, nor had she assessed Raniere or any other defendant in a clinical setting, she took the stand to provide general context on “what we know in the field about coercive control and sexual abuse.”

Raniere has pleaded not guilty to a number of criminal charges, including sex trafficking and racketeering. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

During her testimony, Hughes described in painstaking detail how abusers exercise complete coercive control over their victims, which she defined as “a pattern of behavior that functions to get power and control.” Such behavior is characterized by stalking and surveillance, shaming and humiliation, and isolating a victim from her other relationships with her family or friends. Often, this does not involve physical abuse, Hughes said.

“If you have a perpetrator who’s able to control, manipulate, and trap you verbally…when you have all of that, they don’t need to hit [their victim],” Hughes said.

Hughes also went into detail about “gaslighting,” a term for a psychological abuse tactic that stems from the 1944 George Cukor film Gaslight, in which a man manipulates the light in his home to convince his new wife she’s going insane. The methodology, Hughes said, is designed to make a victim think they’re crazy and that everything is their fault, a recurring theme in many of the previous witnesses’ testimonies against Raniere, who would make his followers do various forms of penance if he believed they committed an ethical “breach” of some sort.

“When [gaslighting] happens repetitively and over time, it functions to make the victim not trust her own perceptions or judgment,” Hughes testified. She listed many of the ways that abusers could use threats of punitive action to wield ultimate control over their victim, such as threatening to call immigration services or release nude photos and/or compromising information. Many witnesses have testified about Raniere requiring DOS slaves to give up “collateral,” or embarrassing testimonials and nude photos, in exchange for their service; last week, a witness identified only as Daniela also testified that Raniere and other NXIVM members frequently threatened to call immigration services if she did not acquiesce to their demands.

Hughes also spoke about how abusers micromanage their victims’ physical health, hygiene and diets in order to exert control over their bodies, even demanding that they use specific types of menstrual products. The micromanagement of NXIVM members’ diets has also been a recurring theme throughout the trial, with some witnesses testifying that women were encouraged to adhere to 1000- or even 500-calorie-per-day diets.

The ultimate goal of such coercive control, Hughes testified, is to make victims feel as if they have no option other than to stay in the relationship with the abuser. Victims don’t remain in such relationships, she said, “because they’re unconcerned about being assaulted or abused….they have this sense of powerlessness, resignation, that nothing that I do works.”

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