New York sex cult branded women and forced them into extreme dieting
Keith Raniere is said to be a charismatic yet dangerous man. He gained experience at Amway - a multilevel marketing company with links to US education secretary Betsy DeVos - before founding Nxivm. Ostensibly, this too was a multilevel marketing company. However, it has since been revealed as an oppressive, demoralising and violent cult.
Nxivm (pronounced nexium) was based in Albany, New York, and described itself as a "community guided by humanitarian principles that seek to empower people". It claimed to have 16,000 members across the US, Canada, Mexico and Central America. According to prosecutors, Raniere compared himself to Gandhi and Einstein, describing himself as the "smartest, most ethical person in the world".
However, in a setup somewhere between a pyramid scheme and a sex cult, the organisation housed a secret society called "DOS" or “the Vow". The purpose of this society was reportedly to recruit women to have sex with Raniere, otherwise known as Vanguard. The DOS “first line slaves" included Smallville actor Allison Mack, who is currently facing legal proceedings.
Meanwhile, 58-year-old Raniere is facing charges including sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy and conspiracy to commit forced labour. With his trial underway, some truly disturbing details have come to light.
Female DOS members are said to have been branded with a cauterising pen on their hips. The women stood naked during a process which was filmed by other members. The mark, they were told, represented the four elements, the process itself constituting the element of fire. FBI documents show that the mark is, in fact, a symbol formed of Raniere’s initials.
Mark Agnifilo, one of Raniere’s lawyers, warned jurors that they may be shown a video of this ceremony. According to the New York Times, he stated: “See if the women seemed forced or if they are doing it because they want to do it.”
Women close to Raniere and Nxivm are known to have died or disappeared. When Raniere was 24, he was romantically involved with 16-year-old Gina Hutchinson, who subsequently committed suicide in 2002. One year later, student Kristin Marie Snyder disappeared, having last been seen walking out of a Nxivm building in Alaska.
Police recovered a note which stated: "I attended a course called Executive Success Programs . . . based out of Anchorage, AK, and Albany, NY. I was brainwashed and my emotional center of the brain was killed/turned off. I still have feeling in my external skin . . . but my internal organs are rotting. . . . I am sorry life, I didn’t know I was already dead. May we persist into the future.” Snyder's parents reported that she was delusional and they believed she held herself responsible for the Columbia shuttle disaster.
This appears to typify the organisation's approach to members’ wellbeing. Raniere orchestrated a punishing “slave and master” system and was about to engage in a “Recommitment Ceremony”, expected to contain group oral sex, when he was arrested at his home in Mexico.
In an especially upsetting testimony, a victim identified as Daniela explained that she was “groomed” for weeks before she turned 18 for Mr Raniere to take her virginity. Her family had fallen prey to Nxivm when she was just 16.
"I had never been kissed and I didn't have any prior sexual contact," Daniela said in court, according to the Daily Beast. "I didn't see Keith that way but I could see in subtle ways that he was flirting with me. Now, I believe he was grooming me."
After meeting Raniere during his Vanguard Week celebrations - where members would pay $2,000 each to celebrate him - she said their relationship "escalated in a sexual way". However, she was made to lose weight before she turned 18. "He said he could not share his sexual energy with somebody overweight," Daniela explained.
When she did turn 18, they had sex in the storage room of an office building. She was then expected to perform oral sex on him, often multiple times per day. "We cried the whole time," Daniela said in court, speaking of the other victims.
Lauren Salzman, 42, testified that the same young woman identified as Daniela was confined to a bedroom for two years because she gained weight and asked to see a man other than Raniere. While this seems an extreme measure, Raniere was said to have a preference for "exceptionally thin" women.
One of Daniela's sisters is the victim in an allegation of child pornography against Raniere while another had a child with him. Both were allegedly forced to have group sex with Raniere on multiple occasions.
In an interview which was conducted this year, Raniere's former partner shared stories about his childhood which she states she was told by his father. According to Barbara Bouchey, his father James had said: "What we did is we told Keith about how gifted and how intelligent he was. And he said it was almost like a switch went off. And suddenly overnight he turned into like Jesus Christ. And that he was superior and better than everybody like he was a deity. He said it was that dramatic and that profound he said it went right to his head."
Raniere was indeed a gifted child and his intelligence even earned him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. He was a keen computer programmer, a former colleague describing his fascination with Scientology and neuro-linguistic programming.
Tempting though it may be to jump to conclusions, the trial is ongoing. Fittingly, perhaps, Raniere’s adoption of the name “Vanguard” was inspired by one of his favourite video games which centred on the destruction of one's enemies to increase one's own power.