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: disordered eating, sexual abuse and assault, sex with minors, and rampant misogyny.
Hollywood Connections and “The First Women’s Movement that was Created by a Man”
The year is 2006. NXIVM, with its flagship Executive Success Program (ESP) self-help courses, is turning into a very lucrative multi-level marketing company (MLM) under Keith “Vanguard” Raniere and Nancy “Prefect” Salzman. All of Raniere’s current girlfriends seem to be under control at the moment, and he has an ongoing sexual relationship with now 16-year-old Camila. (ie, he is raping her with the knowledge and permission of her parents.) The Bronfman sisters Clare and Sara are continuing to finance… well, anything that needs financing, mostly aggressive litigation.
Things are good for Keith Raniere. They’re about to get better.
In 2006, two popular TV shows were being filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia: Battlestar Galactica and Smallville. (If you ever watched Smallville and marveled at the mountain ranges of Kansas, a state not known for its mountainous topography, this is why.)
Actress Kristin Kreuk (Battlestar Galactica) is the first big name to take ESP courses. She would leave pretty quickly (within a few years, I think), but first – she brought in her friend Allison Mack (Smallville).
Keith Raniere may not be, as advertised, the smartest man in the world, but he and Nancy Salzman aren’t stupid. Allison Mack was a pretty big deal, the biggest “name” they’d had a chance to hook. (Sorry Mark Vicente.) They flew superstar instructors Nancy and Lauren Salzman out to Vancouver on the private Bronfman-purchased jet to personally run the courses that Allison would be attending.
By the end of week one, Allison was flying back to Clifton Park, NY to meet Raniere.
Clifton Park is outside of Albany, NY, a generic American suburb with cookie-cutter housing developments and long, meandering, tree-lined roads. NXIVM owned many of the units throughout Clifton Park, and Raniere lived in one with his various girlfriends. The inner circle of NXIVM were scattered throughout the rest. They weren’t flashy; they had nice but not ostentatious cars and that private Bronfman jet, but Raniere wore sweatpants and t-shirts and was generally regarded as pretty frugal/austere. (This would often be used by the faithful as a defense – look at how monklike Raniere is! He doesn’t care for material things!) The neighbors all kind of knew the NXIVM people were there and a bit odd, but nobody really knew the details and didn’t have many run-ins with them aside from complaining when their visitors took up too many parking places.
Raniere, who does not drive because “his intellectual energy sets off radar detectors” (yup) instead preferred to take long walks through Clifton Park, often at night, usually accompanied by someone who could listen in rapture to his great thoughts. There are a lot of recordings of these chats, many of which would come back to bite him in the ass come trial time. Apparently Raniere needed very little sleep, so he was ready for a walk anytime day or night, and NXIVM members were expected to jump out of bed whenever Raniere was available to talk.
Raniere was also obsessed with volleyball. There was a volleyball match at least one night a week (some sources make it sound daily, which seems unlikely). And when I say night, I mean like midnight to whenever Raniere was done, which could be 7am. For a lot of people, these volleyball matches were their one chance to get a word in with the guru. It is unknown to me whether Raniere is actually any good at volleyball.
There’s footage in HBO’s The Vow from the literal first night Allison Mack met Keith Raniere, at one of these nighttime volleyball matches. She lays her soul bare, about how art is important to her because it makes her happy, blissful. Keith tells her she can practice having that feeling of joy, she can separate the joy from the art and be able to create it herself, independent of art. Mack is overwhelmed by the promise of this idea, and at the end of the conversation she is in tears, practically begging for more.
One thing I noticed as a refrain throughout various interviews and documentaries is that many people who later became True, Hardcore Believers had an initial reaction to Keith Raniere The Person that I can only describe as “meh.” He’s shorter than they expect, unassuming, unimpressive. From Mark Vicente to Lauren Salzman to India Oxenberg, they just aren’t wowed by him at first.
Allison Mack is one of the few exceptions to this. She is in immediately.
The third Vancouver-based actress NXIVM recruited in 2006 was Nicki Clyne (Battlestar Galactica). Clyne eventually quit Battlestar Galactica to focus more of her time on NXIVM, and she eventually married Allison Mack (allegedly so that Clyne, a Canadian, could remain in the U.S.). She is still deep in NXIVM, one of the women currently running the DOSsier Project, a pro-Raniere group that we’ll get to after the trial.
So now that all of these semi-famous actresses are on board, someone has the idea to start a women’s group within NXIVM. (Whether Raniere came up with this on his own, or whether some women asked for it is unclear; sources vary.) With the exception of Mark Vicente and later Anthony Ames, all of the leadership of NXIVM seems to have been female – with the Bronfmans on the Board, Raniere’s girlfriends in positions of power, Nancy and Lauren Salzman as the ESP stars, and many other women celebrated as NXIVM’s top recruiters and chapter heads. Many followers would point to the number of women in leadership roles as a positive aspect of NXIVM, something that drew them in and that they were excited about. Fair. Women continue to be underrepresented in leadership roles.
But the way Raniere treated and manipulated the women near to him was appalling. One could tell when a woman got into the “inner circle” because she started losing weight; Ivy Nevares reports needing to get down to Raniere’s “ideal” weight of 95 lbs. In hindsight, the underlying cause was that Raniere liked a) small women and b) to control women. But why would the women agree to so aggressively lose weight? As described in The Vow, one victim articulated the reasoning as, “losing weight is the most tangible way to see your limitations.” (This was regarding DOS, the secret society that would be formed a few years later, but the general thought process was being encouraged earlier.) If you were coming to NXIVM, ESP, and Raniere looking to improve yourself, an easy-to-understand and tangible thing you could take control over was your weight. He also broke down women’s understanding of and relationship to sex, claiming that sex was just a mindless, unemotional activity similar to playing tennis and that if you were uncomfortable with sex or your relationship to sex, it was because you were letting sex control you. The way to solve this problem of yours, to take back control, was – wait for it – to have sex with Raniere.
Two other big ideas that Raniere was using in his personal life and as the backbone of many of his courses were the ideas of “penance” and “collateral.” Like most of his teachings, Raniere did not come up with penance himself – as an extreme example, think of how self-flagellation is used as penance for sins in some religions. Raniere really did perfect it as a method of control, though. If you messed something up, you had to do penance. Maybe you slept on the floor that night, or fasted for a day. And collateral was something he’d been working on since he was a kid, you may recall. Collateral is basically blackmail, except that Raniere convinced people to provide their own blackmail material. People care more deeply about something, Raniere said, when they have a stake in it – so people would turn over information, money, deeds to their houses as their stake, and Raniere and NXIVM could hold these things over your head as a threat if you didn’t do what you said you would. These ideas of penance and collateral were incorporated, in small ways, in many of the NXIVM curricula, wrapped up in the idea that you were choosing to be there participating.
NXIVM rhetoric was very, very enthusiastic about the idea that you choose whether or not to be a victim. On the one hand, this can sound good, an empowering “I choose not to be a victim” mindset that could be helpful in recovery from a trauma. On the other hand, if you flip it around, you are only a victim if you choose to be. Therefore, if someone does something to you, for example rapes you – it is not their fault. If you choose to let that act victimize you, you are choosing to be that victim. It’s on you, not them. This leads to some very… concerning… theories about consent.
Finally, though it’s not directly related to his manipulation of grown women, I would be remiss if I didn’t at some point mention Raniere’s views on sex with children. I mean… I’ve shown his history of raping teenage girls, so I think his views are clear, but it’s different to hear him personally talk about it. Let’s just go to the source:
In many civilizations, Rome, Greece, whatever, it was often where they had older adults with children, six years old, seven years old, eight years old, having a type of sexual apprenticeship. This was common. Often you’ll have a person who was, we’ll call it “abused” by a father, there is one instance I know in particular, and the girl really loved it. Enjoyed it. There wasn’t a single part of it that she didn’t like until she recognized by society that it was abuse. So who abused who?Keith Raniere
I watched this clip five times to get the quote transcribed correctly, and then I had to go for a walk. In addition to just being… horrifying… this little lecture is disturbing for the very reasoned and calm way Raniere lays out this unreasonable and appalling message. The most terrifying thing about all the clips of Raniere, honestly, is the steady-eyed calm with which all of his worst ideas are presented. He just sits there, talking like your favorite Philosophy 101 professor, nodding along to his own words as he takes you on this journey. Watching the clips, you can imagine a hundred similar lectures, on a hundred despicable topics, and his followers nodding along.
There are many other questionable ideas that Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman utilized throughout their trainings; I’m hoping that by calling out these few you can start to see the small, insidious ways that the organization started to control people and make the irrational seem rational.
The brandings we’ve all heard about were not the beginning. Collateral and self-directed penance came first. Controlling people’s weight came first.
Jness came first.
Jness (pronounced j’ness) is a nonsense word, though it is similar in pronunciation to the French word jeunesse (the female version of “youth”). Some say Pam Cafritz officially started it; at the very least she was one of the initial leaders. There’s footage of a group of women sitting adoringly around Raniere while they all kind of group-think their way to the idea of Jness. Regardless of how it started, Raniere would be named as founder, leading to a disturbing promotional video where Nancy Salzman looks earnestly into the camera and says that what makes Jness special is that it is “the first women’s movement created by a man.”
I am not, personally, as a woman, sure why that is a positive thing, but there you go.
“A very unique man, a very amazing man, a man who has thought very deeply about what it would take to change the world,” Nancy Salzman says.
Jness was embraced by the NXIVM community. It was a public course, anyone could take it, and many did. From what I’ve seen of it, it’s a very stereotypical, heteronormative, male-centric kind of course – how are women different than men? How can understanding the differences help them be better wives and girlfriends? Sarah Edmonson appears in a promotional video with her husband Anthony Ames; Mark Vicente appears in another video with his wife Bonnie “Aunt Beru” Piesse. Both couples talk about how Jness made them a stronger couple.
Raniere also preached his belief that women should be monogamous but men are naturally polygamous.
Female empowerment centered around men. As you do.
Jness was not where the now-famous branding and Master/Slave relationships happened, but Jness is where the groundwork was laid.
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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.