Fall of the House of NXIVM

Jessica Loudis

Over two decades, the self-help organisation NXIVM recruited more than 16,000 members to its various training programmes with promises of empowerment and ‘self-actualisation’. It was based in Albany, New York, but its reach stretched across the United States and beyond. In Mexico, leaders of the Executive Success Program promised to equip participants with the psychological tools to break the country’s cycle of violence. In the $120,000-a-year Rainbow daycare centres that the group operated around the world, parents were told their toddlers would become fluent in seven languages. Members of DOS, an elite all-female subgroup that operated near the top of the organisation, believed they were part of a network destined to change the world.

At the centre of it all was Keith Raniere, a self-proclaimed ‘genius’ and Ayn Rand acolyte who was convicted last week of crimes including racketeering, child pornography, forced labour and sex trafficking.

In late 2017, the New York Times ran a story about DOS members being branded with Raniere’s initials. A defector told the newspaper that she had been drawn in by promises of a ‘bad-ass bitch boot camp’, but found a ‘master-slave’ arrangement where women needed permission to eat, sleep or cut their hair. Through radical weight loss and enforced celibacy, slaves would learn the ‘potency of commitment’. Only a fraction of the women knew that DOS was also a sex cult catering to Raniere, known to his followers as ‘Vanguard’. Five months after the Times piece, Raniere was arrested in a Mexican fishing village near Puerto Vallarta, where he had assembled DOS’s ‘front-line slaves’ for a ‘recommitment ceremony’ – i.e. an orgy. When the police showed up, Vanguard hid in a walk-in closet.

Among the many questions surrounding the six-week trial in Brooklyn was how Raniere, a charmless 58-year-old with the spiritual insights of a second-tier yoga instructor, had managed to lure so many educated, successful women into his orbit. They included several B-list actresses and two heiresses to the Seagram’s fortune, who spent more than $50 million on his legal defence. The women in DOS gave Raniere nude photographs of themselves as ‘collateral’, recruited new NXIVM members, and accepted any deviation from his wishes as a sign of their own moral turpitude. When a member of his inner circle was reprimanded for flirting with another man during one of Raniere’s all-night volleyball games (a favourite activity), she wrote a seven-page letter, with bullet points, apologising for the lapse.

NXIVM also had – and has – a large following in Mexico. It includes the children of two former presidents, the daughter-in-law of a third, and the daughter of the man who founded Grupo Reforma, Latin America’s second-largest print media company. It also includes members of a wealthy unnamed family that would later provide the prosecution with one of its star witnesses. In explaining the cult’s appeal in Mexico, Raniere’s lawyer, Marc Agnifilo, suggested that NXIVM’s emphasis on ‘readiness’ resonated in a place where mass murder and kidnapping meant people always had to be on high alert. Perhaps. But the group’s Randian emphasis on financial success as a moral good might also have had something to do with it.

The witness, Daniela, joined NXIVM in 2002, when she was 16, after attending a week-long training session in Monterrey. She gave up a scholarship in Switzerland to move to Albany and work with Raniere. ‘Work’ turned out to be a cross between a bad internship and outright sexual exploitation. She was tasked with organising Raniere’s library, writing 10,000-word ‘book reports’ on whatever he couldn’t be bothered to read himself, digitising his music collection, and, from the day she turned 18, catering to his sexual whims. At the same time, Raniere was sleeping with her older sister, and embarking on a relationship with her younger sister Camila, who was then 15. (All three had abortions.)

Daniela’s relationship with Raniere ended abruptly in 2010, when she told him she had a crush on another man. They never spoke in person again. With her parents’ consent, and without the necessary papers to remain in the country legally, for 23 months she was kept in a room in Albany furnished with nothing but a foam pad and blackout curtains. In court filings, Raniere described her imprisonment as ‘akin to a grounding’. She began hoarding cleaning supplies for a suicide attempt.

Daniela was eventually released and returned to Mexico, though NXIVM leaders kept her birth certificate and official papers, agreeing to return them in exchange for more book reports. Meanwhile, Raniere was deep into his relationship with Camila. Government evidence includes more than 240 pages of their texts, in which Raniere reveals himself to be an everyday misogynist with a talent for emotional manipulation. He pleaded with Camila to stop eating (‘the extra weigh[t] hurts my heart physically when I am with you’) and systematically tried to break down her defences:

As long as you find anything I say threatening, you are still protecting that which you find threatened. This is bad pride. In the future, I should be able to say anything, cause or effect otherwise, and you won’t find it a threat.

When she pointed out that they were in some ways not a good match, he replied:

You were not the perfect natural fit … You did not have much formal education, you were not a world-class athlete, you were not a musician … I made you my standard with pointed work and attribution. If there was something that wasn’t perfect for me I changed my definition of perfect for real.

In his official bio, Raniere claimed to have been a child judo champion and a concert pianist, and to have degrees in maths, physics and biology. He didn’t mention that his grade point average, as revealed by a university transcript presented in court, was a mediocre 2.26 out of 4.0.

When Camila revealed that she had become involved with another man after nearly nine years with Raniere, he told her she was no longer worthy of being his ‘virgin successor’ and tasked her with finding a young replacement, which she tried to do through Tinder. She needn’t have – the position appealed to other NXIVM members. The daughter of the founder of Grupo Reforma wrote to Raniere that she was ‘100 per cent clear’ he was what she wanted for her teenage daughter.

Raniere’s cruelty was matched only by his craven desire for power. He revelled in creating new bureaucratic structures – a men’s rights group, a ‘women’s movement for the modern world’ – and his sexual practices were based on unsubtle demonstrations of dominance. In mid-May, jurors were treated to surprise testimony from an employee of a California-based BDSM website that provided NXIVM with many of its toys. Alongside screenshots of hanging rubber strap cages, breathable ball gags and Good Boy Wireless Vibrating Remote Puppy Plugs, the salesman described the tools needed for ‘puppy play’, in which a participant takes on the role of a dog.

Raniere’s lawyer relied on the argument that these interactions, however ‘repulsive’, were all consensual. In his closing statement, Agnifilo inverted the government’s claim that Raniere ‘turned victims into victimisers’ by framing his client as the one who had been unfairly targeted. He cited Daniela’s teenage history of shoplifting as proof that she was a liar; pointed to friendly interactions between Raniere and women he had forced to have sex with him as evidence that they had been complicit; and asked the jury to remember how former NXIVM members had described their happy early days in the cult. ‘Everybody on the witness stand has had a tremendous change in perspective,’ he remarked. Several weeks earlier, the judge had cut Agnifilo off in the middle of a cross-examination, saying that his courtroom was ‘not DOS’ and he would not tolerate the lawyer driving the witness, a former NXIVM member, towards a nervous breakdown on the stand.

Agnifilo’s line of argument – which failed to persuade the jury – was a reflection of the perverse power dynamics that undergirded NXIVM’s structure. By co-opting vulnerability as a means to power and self-fulfilment, Raniere blended centuries-old female stereotypes with the mantras of wellness movements and lean-in feminism. In claiming to lead the women he abused towards a deeper understanding of their identity, he stripped them of it. ‘You have taken everything that is important and meaningful to me,’ Camila texted Raniere towards the end of their relationship. ‘But it is more than that. You have branded me for life. Your words have destroyed me.’