Content Warning: Please ensure you are in a good mental headspace before reading this, regardless of whether you consider yourself to have any specific triggers. Specific topics mentioned in this post include: suicide and mental manipulation leading to a psychotic break (these occur at the end of the post; it should be clear where the transition is happening if you want to read the beginning), and stalking/harassment.
The Beginnings of NXIVM: Nancy Salzman and the Executive Success Program
So here we are, 1997, 1998. Keith Raniere has been raping teenage girls for years, Raniere has had a multitude of enabling girlfriends around him for years, Raniere has started multiple companies and had one closed for fraud.
Enter Nancy Salzman. I’ll have to use her full name because her daughter is also involved. Nancy Salzman was, I think, a trained nurse, though maybe didn’t actually have a degree. She did have a deep interest in hypnosis and something called neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). As far as I can wrap my head around it, NLP is a pseudoscientific method of therapy (?) that uses specific words and linguistic cadences to create specific neural reactions. It honestly sounds like the sciencey version of hypnosis. Nancy Salzman was really into it and, apparently, really good at it.
Nancy Salzman’s husband was in the process of leaving her for another woman and she was hurting and vulnerable – Keith Raniere’s favorite kind of woman.
As payment/thank you for the constipation pills they gave her (??), Nancy Salzman offered to do a therapy session each for Toni Natalie and Keith Raniere. In Natalie’s session, they talked about how difficult Raniere was being in their relationship and Nancy Salzman was very thoughtful and helpful about how Natalie could address these problems with Raniere.
By the next time Natalie talked to Salzman, Salzman was helping her to understand how all the problems were her, Natalie’s, fault.
If it weren’t obvious, Nancy Salzman and Raniere had hit it off immediately.
Toni Natalie would leave Keith Raniere in 1999. He made her life miserable for years afterwards, hiring people to stalk her as well as sending her a helpful hand-drawn chart that showed when she would die. (“I’ll see you dead or in jail,” he told her. She made sure to show up for his sentencing hearing 20 years later.) NXIVM also kept her tied up in litigation for years, making leaving Raniere a full-time job. Among other things, they went after her for charges related to her bankruptcy, computer trespassing for allegedly accessing a NXIVM computer after leaving the company, and to dispute ownership of some patents that Raniere claimed belonged to him. Raniere would also, according to Natalie, literally have people break into her home and move her shit around as a form of gaslighting. A judge finally ruled in 2009 in favor of Natalie (re: at least the bankruptcy charges) with the bitch-slapping statement, “This matter smacks of a jilted fellow’s attempt at revenge or retaliation against his former girlfriend.” NXIVM continued to sue her throughout the 2000s. Here are a few articles about Natalie but again, she wrote a whole book if you want more about her experience or a first-hand account of early NXIVM.
With Natalie on her way out, in 1998 Raniere and Nancy Salzman would create something called the Executive Success Program (ESP), which was the first step towards the NXIVM we know. (Fun fact: When they started pitching ESP, nobody wanted anything to do with it because Raniere was involved and he still stank of the Consumers’ Buyline disaster. So it was all under Nancy’s name.) ESP was just what the name sounds like, your basic self-help program for executives who want to become their best selves.
Except it was also a multilevel marketing company, or an MLM. MLMs are common and legal – think Avon, think Amway and Herbalife, think all your friends on Instagram who want you to buy some leggings and then want you to join as a seller of leggings, and then they get a part of your profits as the person who “found” you. In general, MLMs make money for the boss, and for the first few rows of people who are recruited, and not much for the people down the line. The main difference between an MLM (legal) and a pyramid scheme (illegal, see previous about Consumers’ Buyline, Inc.) is that MLMs actually have a product. Pyramid schemes are just about recruitment. Raniere may or may not have been the smartest man in the world, as advertised, but he was learning. For ESP, the product was these self-help seminars.
There’s a scene in the HBO documentary The Vow where former NXIVM member Mark Vicente says, “We didn’t join a cult. Nobody joins a cult! Nobody. They join a good thing. And then they realize they were fucked.”
People were not joining a cult. They were taking classes with a desire for self-improvement, something thousands of people do every day. That’s where it started.
What ESP opened up to Raniere was an entire world of people who were looking for something. People who didn’t feel whole. People who were willing pay lots of money and try anything in order to find what was missing in their lives. People who would make excellent victims.
I look forward to the eventual dissection of the mental manipulation perpetrated by NXIVM and the ESP courses. It’s crazy, fascinating shit. Everyone talks about the branding, but that was still many years away. From Day 1 ESP was pushing people, testing them. Will they do this tiny absurd thing? Cool, let’s have them do it until it becomes normalized. What about this other tiny absurd thing? Great. Now how about this absurd thing that is slightly damaging to their psyche? Ah, they’ll do that too. Let’s have them do that over and over and pay for the privilege.
They started small: sashes, bowing, and handshakes.
Everyone wore a color-coded scarf/sash thing, conceptually similar to Raniere’s beloved Judo. (White was both entry-level and what leader Raniere wore because he is an “eternal student” or some shit.) Each level also had multiple stripes on it to signify levels within levels, thus, what you were doing as you were earning stripes and sashes was called the “stripe path.” You moved up the stripe path based on how many courses you’d taken (i.e. paid for), how many people you’d recruited, that sort of thing. And as top recruiter-turned-whistleblower Sarah Edmonson discovered, the speed at which you moved through the stripe path may also have had something to do with whether or not you were sleeping with Keith Raniere.
The stripe path was the perfect cross between MLM levels and achievements, pushing people to earn more, recruit more, the “businessy” side of NXIVM, and the ceremonial culty side. The sashes were dumb, and most people didn’t like them at first, but eventually they were just normalized and they became treasured status symbols with big ceremonies for people who earned their green sash and became senior proctors.
NXIVM also had a secret handshake. Instead of the standard vertical handshake, they shook hands sideways, one person’s hand on top of the other. There was an element of ranking, like if a white sash was shaking hands with a green sash, the green hand was on top. (I’m unclear what happened if people of the same level shook hands.)
And every student had to bow at the door when they entered an ESP training session room, and there was a clapping/bowing thing that began every session. Again, echoes of Judo.
So overall – some slightly weird things that were not in themselves damaging but were tiny baby steps to get people to accept weird things. The weirdest thing, possibly, was that at some point around this time Raniere started referring to himself as “Vanguard,” and Nancy Salzman took on the title “Prefect.” Raniere would later say that he was referencing a dictionary definition about being on the frontlines of the experimental spirit, but it was also the name of one of his favorite video games. And Prefect came from British school houses, related to how Nancy Salzman was NXIVM’s chief officer of… being a student?
And then of course everyone started kissing Raniere on the mouth. Just, like, as a normal greeting, like a handshake, but a kiss on the mouth. You’ll be shocked to learn that most of the available footage shows women doing the kissing.
But that was all window-dressing. That was the ceremony around the product; the product was the series of ESP courses created by Raniere and Nancy Salzman.
There were different types of courses, which ranged in price from a few thousand dollars to many thousands of dollars. The crème de la crème were the “explorations of meaning,” or EMs. These were heavy, intensive, tear-your-soul-apart-in-public courses where you would go to the front of the room and a coach (at first, often Nancy Salzman) would interrogate you using what I can only call Pickup Artist/negging techniques. Tear you down to build you up, give you a big rush of emotion, and leave you feeling grateful that someone cared. But with science. People would go through dozens of EMs over the course of their time in NXIVM. Have a problem with your wife? Do an EM. Questioning some of Raniere’s teachings? That’s obviously a you problem, and you need to go for another EM to sort through your beliefs. Salzman and Raniere set up a system where people literally self-selected to participate in what was essentially a brainwashing course. You may think this one-on-one sciencey interview thing sounds similar to Scientology’s auditing, and you’d be right, though notably EMs happen in front of a crowd. Both Scientology and NXIVM reject suggestions of similarity between the two methods.
Of course people thought that the EMs they were attending were changing their lives for the good, that’s why they kept doing them. Like I said earlier, Nancy Salzman was very good at what she did. People claimed that what she did worked, curing them of inherent phobias and neuroses that they’d had for years. This is where I shrug. I also don’t believe in religious miracles. But the people who went to the courses believed, and they signed up for more courses (there were always more courses) and they signed up for the stripe path and they went full-in on NXIVM. And they kept doing EMs.
NXIVM started opening different chapters around the country, Seattle, Los Angeles, etc. Since Nancy Salzman couldn’t be everywhere (and quickly became too important to teach entry-level), courses started with videotapes of Nancy Salzman and would then transition to a live instructor. These live instructors were the MLM sellers of ESP – they were people who took a course, fell in love, took another course, and then wanted to “sell it themselves.” You could also, of course, just take a bunch of courses without getting your certification or whatever, but getting people to want to be an instructor was where the money was, how you got them on the stripe path where they had to recruit X number of people and take X number of courses to move up a level.
There are basically no references to Raniere leading EMs or courses himself. Most people just knew the Vanguard existed, and that they were all grateful for his teachings. Those that did meet the great genius usually had to wait months to do so (and spend thousands of dollars on courses). In later videos we see him sounding calm and rational as he lectures about gender and violence and raping children, but he seemed to have more of the place of “man who shares his wisdom to rapt followers” than an actual instructor who ran a curriculum. (I use the word “wisdom” loosely here.)
In 1999, Nancy Salzman convinced her daughters Lauren and Michelle to take their first ESP courses. Lauren would become one of the superstars of NXIVM, generally regarded as one of the most talented coaches in ESP. She would also become one of Keith Raniere’s sexual partners and top lieutenants – and one of five women, along with her mother, who would be arrested for her part in NXIVM’s illegal activities.
Before we wrap up this post, I’m going to touch on a few of the darker moments in ESP history. Most of this post has been in the “isn’t this shit weird?” vein. These next anecdotes show just a few of the tragic outcomes these bizarre beliefs culminated in. The tactics Nancy Salzman used tore people apart mentally, with the promise to put them back together as a new, better person. It didn’t always work out that way.
One woman, after taking a course in Albany, had a mental break and ended up running from her hotel room in the middle of the night, half-naked, ending up in the hospital. (You can see her first-person account in the second episode of STARZ’s Seduced.)
And Kristin Snyder, after taking an ESP course in Alaska in February 2003, completely disappeared. She is believed to have taken a kayak into the bay off of Anchorage and committed suicide there. In the note she left behind, she said, “I attended a course called Executive Success Programs […] I was brainwashed and my emotional center of the brain was killed/turned off. […] if you find me or this note. I am sorry life, I didn’t know I was already dead.”
Despite cases like these, there was no investigation into ESP or NXIVM, and the courses continued.
If you are enjoying this series, please consider “leaving me a tip” by donating to one of the domestic violence organizations listed here or to a similar organization in your area. Thank you.
Disclaimer: Before the remnants of NXIVM sue me, I wish to clarify that the items covered in this post are allegations. I am merely recapping and collating the reporting done over many years by other media sources, including highly credible publications and media organizations that I trust to both fact-check their work and who also ran their articles or documentaries through their legal department. That’s all that is happening here. A simple recap of allegations.