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: sexual abuse and sex with a minor, and disordered eating.
Getting the Band Together, NXIVM Edition
The early 2000s is where things start taking off and all the NXIVM people you’ve heard about on the news start joining the team. This post is going to be mostly introducing these key players. Encyclopedia NXIVMica.
To recap: in the early 2000s we have Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman, “Vanguard” and “Prefect,” leading the Executive Success Program (ESP) courses. Raniere has several girlfriends, some of whom had been with him for almost ten years, and he is probably still having sex with underage girls. (I don’t know any specific named victims from this time period, but I can’t imagine he just took a break.) There’s a bunch of weird culty stuff happening as window-dressing for the ESP courses, and while many people love the courses, a few people have been mentally damaged or even died.
So now let’s introduce two players who appeared on the scene in 2000. Two women who started taking ESP classes, just normal, uneventful new students, a minor blip that nobody would have noticed as special.
The first is a woman named Barbara Bouchey, who ran her own financial services company. A friend of hers had just committed suicide and she was going through a divorce; it was a bad part of her life and she was looking for help. She found ESP and Keith Raniere. About six months after her first course, they started dating. At first she thought she was the only girlfriend; she would later say she was one of 12 during their 9 years together. After being a loyal NXIVM member for years, during which she helped control millions of dollars in assets, Bouchey would eventually dramatically break from Raniere and NXIVM. This led to years of lawsuits and harassment.
The other person who took her first ESP class in 2000 was a teenage Mexican girl who has been identified only by her first name, Daniela. Daniela ended up being one of the prosecution’s star witnesses in Raniere’s trial. In 2000, her parents were taking ESP classes and gifted a course to Daniela as a high school graduation present. A few years later, she would “start a relationship” with Raniere (he was 40 and she was 18 and I don’t consider 40-year-old men having sex with teenagers that they are manipulating to be a proper relationship, and I don’t want to hear about it if you disagree with me).
Daniela’s testimony is sobering and goes into detail about how Raniere was treating her and both of her sisters, but it also surfaces one of the many “what the fuck” beliefs spouted by Raniere. Taken here from a recap of her testimony:
The first time Daniela swallowed Keith’s semen, he asked her if she saw a blue light. He said some women saw a blue light when they swallowed his semen. Daniela didn’t see the blue light, and Keith told her it was because she wasn’t very sensitive.
This is a prime example of how disjointed it can be to learn about and process NXIVM. On the one hand, you just want to point and laugh at the absurdity of this man literally stating that swallowing his semen causes women to see a blue light. On the other hand, it’s part of how he victimized women, including this teenage girl.
His abuse of Daniela would continue for years, and in 2010, when he got pissed off at her for a “transgression,” he would keep her trapped in her bedroom for 2 years.
So that’s Barbara Bouchey and Daniela, two women who were just starting out with NXIVM in 2000 and would later be faces of his abuse. Now let’s move on to two women who also joined the team in the early 2000s but ended up as loyal abusers. Let’s meet sisters Sara and Clare Bronfman.
The Bronfman family is the Seagram’s gin money you may have heard about. The family has a mind-boggling amount of money. In 2010, the number circulating for “amount of money Sara and Clare have given to NXIVM/Raniere” was $150 million. And that was 10 years ago, before Raniere needed expensive criminal defense lawyers, and there are many other Bronfmans who presumably inherited a similar amount of money.
I highly recommend this 2010 Vanity Fair article about the Bronfman sisters, but to recap some of their background: their father, Edgar Bronfman, Sr, had 5 children with his first wife, divorced his second wife because she refused to sleep with him, married a third wife, had the two girls, divorced their mother, and then remarried their mother to keep the girls close to him, which ended in a second separation. Because they were so much younger than their 5 older siblings, they felt very distant from the family unit, two young girls being shuffled between parents and continents, not growing up in the “normal” rich New York socialite lifestyle the rest of the Bronfman siblings had enjoyed.
I’m fascinated by the psychology of the Bronfman sisters, and I hope someone writes a book about them eventually. Sara was looking for a purpose. She’d flitted from thing to thing her entire life, and in 2002 her 4-month-old marriage was already on the rocks. Clare, her younger sister, liked horses more than people and just wanted to be left alone. Sara was the blonde bubbly outgoing one that everyone loved; Clare was the dark scowling one with a chip on her shoulder, by some accounts jealous of how beloved her older sister was, how easy it was for her to be popular. Clare was more dubious about NXIVM at first, but Raniere made her feel important and loved for possibly the first time in her life; she eventually ended up being one of Raniere’s sexual partners and one of NXIVM’s biggest proponents and definitely its biggest financial backer.
Sara took her first ESP course in 2002, age 25, and she soon brought in Clare. They convinced their father Edgar Sr to take courses. At first he was very into it, going so far as to fly Nancy Salzman to NYC for private sessions. He also provided NXIVM and Raniere a connection to a lot of his high-value Mexican contacts, effectively planting the deep roots NXIVM would eventually have in Mexico.
Raniere and Salzman must have been stoked – they were in the big leagues now. But the Bronfmans also ended up being the cause of one of Raniere and NXIVM’s first public black eyes. Clare got annoyed about something (allegedly being ignored in an ESP class) and retaliated by telling her father that she’d loaned NXIVM $2 million, something sure to infuriate him. Edgar Bronfman was interested in money more than he was in self-improvement and was indeed furious – both at his daughter and at NXIVM. He stopped taking courses, and he gave an interview to Forbes about the organization. (Depending on who you ask, he advocated for the article as a fuck-you to the organization he now hated.) At first Raniere and NXIVM – unaware of Edgar’s connection – were excited to be featured in Forbes, and Raniere himself was interviewed. But then this happened:
Some people see a darker and more manipulative side to Keith Raniere. Detractors say he runs a cult-like program aimed at breaking down his subjects psychologically, separating them from their families and inducting them into a bizarre world of messianic pretensions, idiosyncratic language and ritualistic practices. “I think it’s a cult,” says [Edgar] Bronfman.
Raniere was furious. I believe it’s the last time he spoke to the press, and this article effectively finalized the split between Sara and Clare and their father. Barbara Bouchey became their financial planner, and the sisters started giving legit gobs of money to NXIVM and a NXIVM-run foundation. They bought NXIVM a jet. Raniere started losing lots of money in the commodities market (I don’t really understand what this is, don’t explain it to me, but somehow you can lose tens of millions there) and the Bronfmans covered all the losses. A company in Nancy Salzman’s name would crash and burn to the tune of $65 million – all covered by the Bronfmans.
We should all have such friends.
But really the main thing the Bronfmans were funding was litigation. In the early 2000s, NXIVM began suing renowned cult expert and anti-programmer Rick Ross and his Cult Education Institute, kicking off legal entanglements that would go on for years. (Ross had started referring to NXIVM as a cult and helping people “escape” it, which NXIVM didn’t love.) Raniere was also on his litigious rampage against ex-girlfriend Toni Natalie. One of the many reasons people were afraid to leave NXIVM was because of what Raniere did to Natalie and other former NXIVM members, making their lives miserable for years, outspending them at every legal turn, all funded with Bronfman money. Everyone knew it could happen to them, too.
We’ll end this round of introductions in Vancouver. In 2005, a man named Mark Vicente joined NXIVM. Vicente is a filmmaker from South Africa. Another fascinating character, really. His biggest claim to fame (before becoming known as “the guy who left NXIVM and starred in a documentary about it”) was that he directed a 2004 documentary-ish film called What the Bleep do we Know?, which is also known as What tнē #$*! D̄ө ωΣ (k)πow!? because of course it is. This film focused on the scientific teachings of Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment. To quote our friends at Wikipedia, emphasis mine: “Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment is an American New Age spiritual sect […]. The school was established in 1988 by J. Z. Knight, who claims to channel a 35,000-year-old being called Ramtha the Enlightened One.”
Yup! Cults within cults, guys. And if you have some time on your hands and want your jaw to drop, look up some videos of Knight while she is “channeling” the ancient warrior/teacher Ramtha. The accent “Ramtha” uses is quite… something.
Anyway. So Mark Vicente has a history of, uh… looking for enlightenment and not finding it in traditional places, let’s say. I also think it’s interesting that the two cults Vicente gravitated to were “sciencey” ones – he is a man who definitely would think he was too smart to fall for religious nonsense. And he truly believed Raniere was the smartest man in the world.
Raniere, like many narcissistic cult leaders before him (again, see Father Yod) liked the idea of having his greatness documented, and now he had a documentarian. Sweet. Vicente would spend over a decade shooting footage of Raniere for multiple documentary projects and, perhaps more importantly, recording conversations per Raniere’s request, and recording his own NXIVM-related phone calls. This media makes up the backbone of HBO’s NXIVM documentary The Vow, and also provided the prosecution with some key evidence in Raniere’s trial.
In 2005, shortly after he joined NXIVM, Vicente met a Vancouver-based actress named Sarah Edmonson on a cruise. He supposedly used traditional ESP/EM techniques to cure her of a cough, and she was hooked. Edmonson would become one of NXIVM’s top recruiters and instructors; eventually she’d retire from acting and her entire income would be NXIVM-based. Together, Edmonson and Vicente would push for and eventually open the Vancouver chapter of NXIVM.
Vancouver was a good place for NXIVM to be. Vancouver, a hop, skip, and jump over the Canadian border, is the cheaper alternative to Hollywood – a lot of TV productions are based in Vancouver. Until Edmonson and Vicente opened there, NXIVM faithful had to go to Seattle to take courses. Now they had their own home in discount Hollywood, with successful actors rotating through the city to film shows like, for example, Battlestar Galactica and Smallville. A whole new crop of semi-rich-and-famous people to reel in.
Vicente and Edmonson are both very important to any NXIVM narrative due to their place in creating and shaping that narrative. The reason there is so much quality footage of NXIVM’s activities is because of Vicente, who spent over a decade filming NXIVM and training other NXIVM members as filmmakers. And Sarah Edmonson was the main face of the 2017 NY Times exposé that put NXIVM’s branding and manipulation tactics on blast. They are also two of the primary subjects in HBO’s The Vow, so we know a lot about them compared to some of the other victims. (More on the documentary later; it’s divisive.) Suffice to say, the general public’s understanding of NXIVM would be very different without these two.
OK, we’re almost done here. You’ll notice that most of this blog post has not been directly about Keith Raniere or Nancy Salzman. They were there, quietly running NXIVM, the hub of all of these people, the top of the MLM pyramid. But the early 2000s were really about them turning ESP and NXIVM into a self-sustaining machine, gathering some key players around them, and setting the stage for what was to come.
Let’s finish with a quick recap of who Keith Raniere was dating in the mid-00s. Remember that these are all simultaneous girlfriends. This is not, I am sure, a comprehensive list.
- Pam Cafritz is of course still around, planning other womens’ abortions. Raniere had her on a strict diet, and there are images of her diary where she was tracking every item she ate in a day, which was not much. Her entire life was spent caring for Raniere, feeding him and telling him he was perfect and wise, and cleaning up his messes (both physical and interpersonal).
- Kristen Keeffe is another fascinating character. For many years she was the NXIVM “legal liaison,” which is a fancy word for Fixer. She was the bulldog that got set on people like Toni Natalie. In 2007 she gave birth to Raniere’s son Gaelyn. She would eventually (2014) leave NXIVM with her son, claiming that Raniere was conducting experiments on the child.
- Karen Unterreiner. This is one woman who remains something of a mystery to me. Her name always appears with Pam Cafritz and Kristin Keeffe as one of the “original three” girlfriends, the three who started dating him in the 90s, but I honestly have no clue what she was about aside from seeing her photo in a few documentaries and having the sense that she was omnipresent.
- Barbara Bouchey, the financial planner. In addition to managing the Bronfman fortune, Bouchey founded Vanguard week (“by 2006” is the closest I can get to an actual date here). Every year in late August (falling over Raniere’s birthday), NXIVM members would gather at a YMCA facility in upstate New York for what was basically an adult summer camp. They’d do classes, they’d put on plays, there would be celebrations as people earned new sashes, and the whole week would culminate in a birthday celebration for Raniere. Each of the local NXIVM chapters would prepare a performance of some sort to honor him, generally singing to him about how great he was. Thanks to Vicente there is copious footage of these, which is all very strange.
- Ivy Nevares, a writer with whom Raniere co-authored at least one book. They were together for 17 years; he lived with her for a few of those years even though he was in relationships with others. Nevares eventually broke ties with him and provided a victim’s statement at his sentencing. Her first-hand accounts are eloquent and chilling.
- Lauren Salzman, Nancy Salzman’s daughter who desperately wanted a baby with Raniere, which he kept promising but never followed through on. At some point, during a volleyball game, Lauren kind of playfully straddled another man, which Raniere disliked immensely. As punishment, she was informed that he would never give her a child. (Oh my God I haven’t even talked about the volleyball yet. There’s just so much.)
- I listened to a podcast that claims Nancy Salzman was also in a sexual relationship with Raniere during the early 00s but I’m not sure where they got that from, and it seems to be generally up for debate.
- Clare Bronfman, who already got a lot of airtime in this post. I think Raniere and Sara Bronfman were never sexually involved, but honestly who can keep track.
A common refrain among former girlfriends is that if you pissed Raniere off, it wasn’t just Raniere that you had to deal with – it was all the other women. Some would say that if they got off a tense phone call with Raniere, it was only a matter of minutes before Pam Cafritz or Karen Unterreiner would call, like clockwork. Raniere would make everyone’s lives miserable until the one girlfriend who was upset was brought, repentant, back into the flock.
Finally, one person I did not put on the list of girlfriends but with whom Raniere was still having sex was Daniela, the Mexican teenager. Her entire family was still heavily involved in NXIVM; her parents were fervent believers, and her older sister would eventually bear one of Raniere’s children. And in 2005, Raniere started raping Daniela’s 15-year-old sister, Camila.
So even though he’s been kind of behind the scenes, let’s not lose sight of our main thesis, namely, that Keith Raniere is a predatory, manipulative fuckface who gathered people around him who could stroke his ego and satiate his needs for sex and power.
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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.