The leader of NXIVM ran an all-male fraternity that later allowed women into the curriculum and used “horribly demeaning” tactics to humiliate them, according to testimony from a former member of the inner circle of the group.
During the trial of Keith Raniere, who is facing seven criminal counts including racketeering, wire fraud conspiracy, and sex trafficking, Mark Vicente, a member of the NXIVM inner circle and the de facto videographer of the group for more than a decade, testified about his experience as one of the founding members of the head council of Society of Protectors, one of the many companies under the NXIVM umbrella, which operated as a sort of fraternity for male members of the group.
Founded in 2011, Society of Protectors (or SOP, for short) was founded as the male equivalent to JNESS, the all-female group within NXIVM that charged $5,000 a pop for 8-day workshops. The goal of the group, Vicente testified, was to “build character” among male members and help turn members “from little boys into men.”
As part of the group, members of SOP were required to perform “readiness drills,” in which one leader of the group would send a text asking if the others were “ready,” and all would be required to respond immediately. The idea of the readiness drills, which required members to be on alert 24/7, was to prepare the men in cases of emergency, such as if a member was missing, though there was only one instance Vicente could recall when that actually happened. “The idea was, leave no man behind,” he said.
Members of SOP were also required to provide “collateral” to help them achieve their goals such as recruiting new members. Vicente said he would pay the group as much as $1,500 as a form of collateral: “if you said the thing you said you’d do, you’d get money back, if not you’d lose it,” he testified. Both collateral and readiness drills were also used by NXIVM leaders in the all-female secret sorority, DOS, to keep group members in line, according to last week’s testimony from Sylvie, a former DOS member; unlike members of SOP, however, whose collateral was largely monetary, female DOS members were required to provide it in the form of graphic naked photos or embarrassing testimonials.
In 2013, Raniere decided that he wanted to open up the SOP curriculum to female members of NXIVM, dubbing the new course SOP Complete. Although Vicente testified that he initially had “concerns” about opening up the group to women, he later relented when female members of NXIVM’s inner circle spoke with him and said they wanted to take the class.
Those concerns turned out to have been justified, however, when Raniere introduced SOP Complete to group members by telling them the primary tenets of the group: i.e., that women “lack discipline,” were “entitled,” and were “misusing their sexuality to gain an advantage in the world,” Vicente testified. The goal of the curriculum, which was authored by Raniere, was to give women “the experience of being a little boy in a man’s world,” or to essentially tease and bully them until they were forced to grow up and assume responsibility for their actions. “‘We’re gonna help them find themselves and push them the same way you were pushed,'” Vicente recalled Raniere saying.
SOP Complete, Vicente testified, was “run more like a boot camp” than an academic curriculum. In addition to using hazing and other military-inspired tactics, such as forcing group members to do “penance” for misdeeds in the form of planks or wall-sits, SOP Complete instructors also used props, such as fairy wings, to humiliate female members into submission.
At one point, Clare Bronfman, the billionaire Seagram’s heiress who had at this point assumed a central role in NXIVM, was given a “jock strap” for being “too bossy,” according to Vicente. Raniere also suggested that male group members take photographs of the women if they were dressing provocatively and then make a video slideshow to humiliate them.
Although Vicente said that he had reservations about SOP Complete, testifying that even his wife had approached him with her concerns about the group, he nevertheless kept participating in the group. “I believed with some reservation that the women wanted to feel stronger and this would help in some ways,” he said, before eventually coming to the realization that the aim of the group was to “make women submit to men and be obedient, no matter what.”
When asked by the prosecution how he felt about his involvement in the group, Vicente paused and took a breath before answering the question. “I feel very ashamed,” he said, his voice gently wavering. “[To] see that I was basically enforcing this kind of really dark, hateful misogyny was deeply upsetting to me.” He later said that he thought the group had left a lasting impact on the female members as well, referring to them as “shells of themselves. Something inside them was gone.”
A filmmaker best known for the 2004 film What the Bleep Do We Know?, Vicente became involved with NXIVM after he was invited to a symposium by two former group members, Barbara Bouchey (who left the group in 2009) and Nancy Salzman, the cofounder of the group (who has pleaded guilty to a single charge of racketeering conspiracy.) Vicente was drawn to Salzman and Bouchey’s claims that their founder Raniere had developed a method to “hack the human brain.” He later ascended to to a role on the executive board in 2009 and served as a confidante to Raniere for years before he left the group.
Although Vicente had a leadership role in NXIVM, he testified that for much of his time in the organization, he was unaware that Raniere had sex with so many female members of the group, even though he knew that he had fathered children with two different women in the group. He said he later came to believe that Raniere had sex with upwards of 20 women involved in the organization.
One of the first major red flags for Vicente was NXIVM’s obsession with weight loss and dieting, which former DOS member Sylvie had also testified to last week. Around 2015, he said, “I began to see a lot of the women becoming rail-thin, like their skin was translucent,” adding that many of these women would eat one particular food item all the time, such as cucumbers or squash, “to the point that their fingers were turning the color of their food.” Some female members told Vicente that as a form of penance, they would cut their food intake down to 500 or even 300 calories per day. “I thought, something’s not right here,” he testified.
One of his biggest concerns was with Allison Mack, the former Smallville actress who was a member of the NXIVM inner circle and served as a master in DOS. (Mack pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy in April.) At a certain point, Mack had lost so much weight that Vicente said he approached Raniere to discuss his concerns with him, telling him that Mack looked “broken.”
According to Vicente, Raniere’s response was simple: “He said, ‘I’m trying to break her.'”