In an exposé published by The New York Times Magazine on Wednesday, contributing editor (and Rolling Stone contributor) Vanessa Grigoriadis dives deep into Nxivm, a so-called “sex-slave cult” that made headlines last year when former members came forward to allege mental abuse, manipulation and human branding. But in her 8,600-word article, Grigoriadis goes much deeper – talking with Nxivm founder Keith Raniere; his second-in-command, Nancy Salzman; former Smallville star Allison Mack, a high-ranking member; Clare and Sara Bronfman, members and daughters of billionaire Edgar Bronfman, Sr.; and several other members, both past and current.
For the story, Grigoriadis traveled to Clifton Park, New York – a suburb just north of Albany – as well as an undisclosed location in Mexico. She writes that she was the first journalist to be granted access in 14 years, though she describes the tour – which appears to have taken place several months ago – as “highly controlled.”
In the time since Grigoriadis first began her reporting, Raniere and Mack were both arrested in Mexico on charges of sex trafficking and forced labor. (Both have pleaded not guilty.) But what Grigoriadis uncovers through her reporting is something more subtle and chilling – affluent people so entranced by health, youth and self-improvement that they believed Nxivm could change their very being. “This was an intersection of theories about femininity, victimhood, money and ethics,” Grigoriadis writes. “As I observed in [Nancy] Salzman’s kitchen, its core tenet was wildly optimistic.”
From Raniere’s backstory to the truth behind the branding, here are eight things we learned from “The ‘Sex Cult’ That Preached Empowerment.”
Keith Raniere was an appealing and charismatic leader.
According to the story, the Nxivm founder claimed to be a child prodigy – speaking in full sentences by one, reading by two and playing concert-level piano by 12. Raniere, 57, graduated from Troy, New York’s Rensselear Polytechnic Institute and became interested in “the science behind multilevel marketing,” Grigoriadis writes. He then began Consumers’ Buyline, a company which offered discount groceries to members, but after the state attorney general looked into the possibility that it was a pyramid scheme, it shut down in 1997. (According to Grigoriadis, Nxivm leaders maintain that “Consumers’ Buyline had been unfairly targeted.”) After he got into a vitamin and alternative-medicine business with an ex-girlfriend, he moved into the self-help arena. He established Nxivm in 1998.
Raniere developed his philosophy based largely on the work of Ayn Rand.
According to the article, Ayn Rand – author of the novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, whose individualistic philosophy would go on to shape the modern conservative and libertarian movements – was one of Raniere’s favorite authors. “Like Ayn Rand,” writes Grigoriadis, “he taught that money isn’t inherently good or bad: It simply is.” He also believed, she writes, that in “Raniere’s Randian utopia, true value exchange was always upheld,” a philosophy he used to make sure that sessions and special classes were always paid for in full – even if it meant a member would go into debt.
Nxivm’s teachings are based on healing “technology.”
Raniere based Nxivm around a series of techniques – or “technology” – that he believed could “heal individuals and transform the world,” as Grigoriadis puts it. She interviews members who believe that these sessions – Scientology-esque sit-downs called “Explorations of Meaning,” in which one senior member helps a more junior member delve deep into childhood memories, thus helping them do anything from alleviate a fear of airplanes to manage Crohn’s disease or Tourette’s syndrome. The ultimate goal was to become a person who was “not only rich but emotionally disciplined, self-controlled, attractive, physically fit and slender.” One who fully achieved this was called a “badass.”
One offshoot of Nxivm, called Jness, promoted an old-fashioned, extremely heteronormative approach to gender.
For those who were especially interested in Raniere’s teachings, Jness was a series of $5,000 a pop, 8-day workshops – 11 in all – that promoted a worldview in which “women and men are wired differently,” Grigoriadis writes. Namely, men were naturally polyamorous while women were monogamous; men didn’t experience the same depth of experience, while women are less adept at understanding right and wrong. “Women feel oppressed,” Nancy Solzman’s 40-year-old daughter, Lauren Solzman, told Grigoriadis. “And the men would try to stick up for themselves and we would all attack them. … We cut them off constantly just because we’re excited and impulsive. But we didn’t understand that they really felt unheard or disrespected or uncared for.”
Devoted members could become part of the inner circle – but only if they gave collateral.
Those members who truly embraced Raniere’s teachings got to be part of smaller, more exclusive groups: For men, it was the ‘Society of Protectors,’ while for women, it was called “Dominus Obsequious Sororium,” or DOS. For the Society of Protectors, Grigoriadis writes, men did something called “collateralizing your word,” meaning that if you didn’t stick to your word – say, a pledge to run every day – all the men in your group would suffer a consequence, like skipping coffee the next morning.
For women, though, the collateral was much more literal – Raniere needed assurance that they wouldn’t speak about their experience within the group. But given that many of the women in this inner circle were quite wealthy, he asked for items often worth more than simple material goods – naked photos, a video confession of a crime, deeds to homes. For example, according to FBI documents cited in the story, Allison Mack turned over paperwork promising that, in the event that she left the group, he would be entitled to her home and any future children she had. She also gave him a letter claiming that she’d abused her nephews, which he could turn over to authorities if she defected.
Branding members of the DOS was Mack’s idea.
Readers cringed last year when the Times reported that members of Nxivm were getting branded. In a surprising twist in this exposé, Mack admitted to Grigoriadis that it was her idea to use red-hot metal to leave permanent scars on members of DOS – because, as Grigoriadis reports, Mack wanted “to do something more meaningful, something that took guts.”
“I was like, ‘Y’all, a tattoo?” Mack told Grigoriadis. “People get drunk and tattooed on their ankle or a tramp stamp. I have two tattoos and they mean nothing.”
According to the article, the design of the brand was understood by members to be a symbol that “represented the four elements or the seven chakras or a horizontal bar with the Greek letters ‘alpha’ and ‘mu'” – but, as the story points out, it also bore a striking resemblance to the initials “KR” and “AM.”
Penance was a large part of Nxivm.
“Facing your fears, especially in conjunction with penance, was key to Nxivm,” writes Grigoriadis. For example, Nxivm member she meets whom she calls Jacqueline is trying to abandon a long-held act of being a “helpless woman,” a way she received attention from men. She’d already agreed with Salzman, who was giving her an “Exploration of Meaning,” that she would do one terrifying thing a day, as to free herself of fear. On days she acted that way around men, she would do two terrifying things, she said.
For those in the DOS, Grigoriadis writes, this penance became more intense. Those who were brought into the group were called “slaves,” while the woman bringing the new recruit in would be called a “master.” According to the article, masters would force slaves to commit acts of “self-denial,” like counting calories, cold showers, even abstaining from orgasms – all in the name of being a better person.
Raniere was into polyamory – but that doesn’t mean it was a “sex-slave cult.”
In her interview with Raniere, Grigoriadis writes, he talks about how he sees himself as a polyamorist – yet he tells her that he’s only had sexual relationships with two of the women in the group. (The person Grigoriadis calls his “most important long-term girlfriend,” Pamela Cafritz, died in 2016 from cancer.) However, according to the article, the FBI found enough evidence to claim that Raniere displayed “a disgusting abuse of power in his efforts to denigrate and manipulate women he considered his sex slaves….within this unorthodox pyramid scheme.” And while Raniere maintains that all the relationships he had were consensual, Grigoriadis seems ambivalent. “A majority of women in DOS never had anything to do with Raniere sexually,” she writes. “And thus it is impossible to say that DOS itself was a ‘sex-slave cult’ rather than a sex-slave cult and a women’s empowerment scheme.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Clare and Sara Bronfman are the daughters of Charles Bronfman; they are the daughters of Edgar Bronfman, Sr.