NXIVM Explained, Part 6

Previously: Nine Traitors, One Dalai Lama, and One Captive
Click here to view all posts in this series.

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: misogyny, aggressive gendernormativity and heteronormativity (not really sure what to call this, hopefully you get what I mean), disordered eating, sexual abuse, physical harm (branding).

From “Empowering” Women to Branding Them

Dominus Obsequious Sororium. DOS. (pronounced doss

DOS is what you’ve heard about on the news – the secret women-only society run by actress Allison Mack, the “sex slaves,” the branding of Keith Raniere and Mack’s initials on women who were naked and strapped to a table. The phrase has been translated a few different ways, “master over slave” or “master over slave women,” though people who seem to actually know Latin point out that the words are actually misconjugated/misspelled nonsense. Regardless of the name, DOS was the pyramid of women whose primary purpose, unbeknownst to them, was to have sex with Keith Raniere. 

DOS grew out of two other NXIVM organizations. One, Jness, I talked about a few posts ago – the women’s empowerment movement that Raniere had founded. Well, a few years after Jness started the inevitable happened – the boys got jealous. In 2011, a group called Society of Protectors (SOP) was started under the leadership of filmmaker Mark Vicente and actor Anthony “Nippy” Ames (Sarah Edmonson’s husband – they met in NXIVM and eventually moved to Albany to be near the headquarters – I don’t know why he has the nickname Nippy). 

There is some very disturbing footage of Raniere speaking at one of the initial SOP conferences. Basically, his overall thesis is that men have always been subservient and are therefore weaker for it. (I know. Just… come with me on this journey.) All children are inherently subservient to adults, but boys are in the worst possible position. A girl could hit a boy, but if the boy turned around and hit the girl – he’d be in trouble. And then, older, men have to hold the door for women, men are constantly infantilized by women, men are constantly seeking permission to have sex with women. Men just want to fuck, it’s a primal need, but they can’t because women are restricting them from their natural inclinations. This is the worst injustice Keith Raniere can imagine. All men want to do is fuck, fuck, fuck, and it makes them angry that they can’t. It’s a vicious and violent way to look at the world, an “us vs. them” that is focused on male superiority and male sexual desire. 

The biggest injustice women face? They are “overly protected.” 

You’ll note only two genders are mentioned here. There are only two genders to Keith Raniere. There are aggressively only two genders.

Jness and SOP were the testing ground for methods that were later integral to DOS. 

The idea of “penance” was perfected here. Jness member Bonnie Piesse had a dog bed next to the bed she shared with her husband Mark Vicente, and when she believed she had done something that required penance she would sleep there for nights at a time. At no point would she have said the penance was anyone’s idea but her own; at no point did Vicente question it. Penance also became a group activity. If you promised to do something (go for a run in the morning? lose that 5 pounds?) but you did not… everyone in your group had to do penance. So there was an added layer of guilt and pressure to accomplish your goal, because the penalty was that much greater and affected your friends. Making penance a group activity bonded the members of Jness and SOP together even more tightly. 

SOP also implemented something called “readiness drills.” Basically, if the group lead texted “ready?” to his group, everyone had one minute to respond “ready,” or everyone had to do a group penance. I find this all incredibly scary – NXIVM never became violent in a military/Proud Boys way, but SOP had that potential. Raniere and the SOP were basically creating a group of he-men with scary ideas about gender who were very invested in being “manly” and being on call for whatever their leaders needed. They were making an army. NXIVM just fell before it was used. Or maybe Raniere was more interested in sex than in mass violence. 

It was only a matter of time before Jness and SOP combined forces.

People disliked HBO’s The Vow for a variety of reasons, but a primary one is that it tries to take people on the journey of how one might end up in a cult, which made the first few episodes seem kind of rosy – they were aiming for “here’s how we got sucked in” but it could read like “wow wasn’t NXIVM great?” But if you stick with it, the 8th episode is some of the scariest television I have ever seen, showing actual footage of Raniere’s joint Jness/SOP curriculum being implemented. (STARZ’s Seduced has first-hand accounts of some of the worst parts of the curriculum; The Vow has actual footage of some of the more quietly insidious parts. This is an example of how I feel that watching both of the documentaries is the only way to get a full picture.)

This “curriculum” was literally a week of treating women like shit in the guise of teaching them what men suffer through in their sad, tragic lives. Women were assigned numbers and not referred to by name. They were berated for how they dressed, either in the workshop or in general; one woman was called out because the way she dressed indicated that she wanted to be seen as womanly, so men could protect her. Every man was given permission to dock women points for things like “didn’t get out of my way” or “didn’t tell me to stop biting my nails.” Women had to do planks and wall-sits as penance. Women were screamed at. They were told that “crying abuse” was an abuse itself against the people they accused, and the curriculum reiterated the “an abuser doesn’t make you a victim, you choose to be a victim” narrative that Raniere was so fond of. 

It’s horrifying to watch. 

We also see Raniere declare that if someone is worried about being brainwashed, they should not join NXIVM – another twist on his “you choose to be a victim” narrative. Nobody thinks they are a person who can be brainwashed, and nobody will easily admit to being brainwashed – that’s inherently admitting to failure. By calling it out, by making people confront it, Raniere was making all of his manipulations his followers’ fault. 

In a later audio recording, he asks someone if they think they are being brainwashed. Of course the answer is no. Who doesn’t say no to that? When Catherine Oxenberg, trying to save her daughter India, told her that she was brainwashed, of course India answered that she was not. This only drove the wedge more deeply between the two.

So that’s Jness (the women’s empowerment organization) and SOP (the men’s Society of Protectors) and the aggressive gendernormativity and heteronormativity they perpetuated.

Two more things that need to be mentioned before we get to DOS. They both fall into the category of “I know this happened but I’m not sure when,” but definitely before DOS. First, Raniere created an empowerment group called “One Asian,” especially for Asian women. I will let the lawsuit filed on behalf of the victims provide some background (via the Albany Times-Union): 

“‘One Asian’ offered a special curriculum that Raniere tailored to what he characterized as women raised with more ‘masculine values’ than Western women,” the lawsuit said. “According to Raniere, this combination of female genetics and ‘masculine attributes,’ such as discipline and self-denial, made them virtually ‘perfect humans,’ who needed special adjustments to the ESP curriculum to maximize the benefit.”

So that’s One Asian. I’m a little unclear on what happened to it, if it shut down before DOS or was running concurrently.

Raniere also tried to create a sorority-type group for college-aged women called TEN C which, I shit you not, stands for The Emperor has No Clothes, a phrase Raniere used with sexual partners to refer to himself. This group seems to have failed because the local youth had better things to do than listen to Raniere’s bullshit. There is hope for the future. (Tangentially related to TEN C – if you want to go on a wild ride, I recommend sidetracking down this Reddit thread that lays out that time NXIVM/TEN C hosted an a cappella festival, an a cappella message board was dubious about the group, and a list of NXIVM elite including Mark Vicente, Clare Bronfman, Lauren Salzman, and Nicki Clyne came to the message board to defend NXIVM against claims they were a cult.)

So. This is the simmering stew of insanity out of which Raniere and Mack would create DOS. 

There is a lot of information about DOS available. I’m sure there will eventually be more, but currently the primary victim-centric narratives come from Sarah Edmonson, the Vancouver-based actress, and India Oxenberg, daughter of actress Catherine Oxenberg, who is the daughter of Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia. (And, like, India is a human in her own right obviously, but that’s how she’s connected to fame and Hollywood). You can find Edmonson’s story in many places, including HBO’s The Vow, the Uncover podcast, and her own book. Both India and Catherine Oxenberg have written books, and the STARZ documentary I keep mentioning, Seduced, centers on India. If you have the interest in learning more, I recommend going straight to the source, with the caveat that Seduced is very raw.

But I’m here to give you the basics. 

DOS was founded around 2015. It was pitched as a secret society for women’s empowerment, a way for women to focus on and improve themselves with the support of other women. Based on the successful MLM nature of NXIVM as a whole, it worked as a pyramid where there were “Masters” who recruited “Slaves” that reported up to them, and who were in turn expected to recruit more “Slaves.” They actually called themselves Masters and Slaves, something that was kind of jokingly explained away as just “the way it was” but like obviously you weren’t really a slave.

In order to join DOS, a woman had to provide collateral – something damaging about herself that could be used against her if she ever left DOS or told its secrets. This collateral went to her Master, and her Grandmaster (ie her Master’s Master), and on up the chain. Women who didn’t think they had anything damaging in their past were encouraged to send naked pictures, or to record videos of themselves saying damaging things – for example claiming their father abused them, even if it wasn’t true. This would never be used, they were promised, it was just a thing. Everyone did it. 

At first, women were told that the initial collateral they had to provide to join DOS was enough, but after a while it turned into monthly collateral. Sarah Edmonson was encouraged to sign over her mortgage. India Oxenberg was required to send pictures of her vagina directly to Raniere. More was always required.

The pitch for DOS was very girl-power centric, very much like “this is something you’re doing to make yourself stronger.” A way they could take control over their lives in a supportive, female-forward environment. Sarah Edmonson would say the group made her feel like a “bad-ass bitch.”

Allison Mack and Lauren Salzman were two of the “top-line” masters – aka they reported directly to Raniere. Slowly, they recruited from within the women of NXIVM. At no point were recruits informed that the top of the pyramid was Keith Raniere.

The DOS pyramid. Screencap from SEDUCED.

Weight loss was usually the initial thing women worked on, because (thank you, Western culture) many women are not happy with the size of their bodies, and it is something easy to quantify. You’re either X pounds, or you’re X-5 pounds. Women went on extreme diets, which involved asking their Master’s permission to eat anything. Whatever they were going to eat, they had to take a picture and send it to their Master with a calorie count and wait for permission to eat it. The number of calories allowed was very, very low; Raniere’s girlfriend Ivy Nevares was allowed 400 calories day. 

Penance was frequently required. Did you eat too many calories today? At 2am, you will wake up and stand naked in your bedroom for 30 minutes, or you will wake up at 5am and take a cold shower. There was always something to do penance for, but the good news is that penance makes you stronger. Penance is something you do for yourself. Penance is you showing yourself how strong you are.

It sounds extreme to those of us on the outside, but I want to reiterate that this was a gradual journey. Have you ever dieted to try to lose weight? Have you ever thought to yourself, “OK, I just ate this office donut, but I’ll have a salad for dinner to make up for it.” Congrats, you’ve just invented penance. You probably won’t be sleeping in a dog bed next week, but if you start with a tiny penance and keep adding them, little by little, trickle by trickle – that normalizes the mindset that leads down this darker road.

Based on the readiness drills used by the SOP, all Slaves had to be prepared at any moment to respond to a text from the Master. Immediately. “Ready?” the Master would text her group of Slaves. “RM” came the response – “Ready Master.” If you took more than 60 seconds to respond, your entire group of slaves was responsible for doing a penance as dictated by your Master. Your sister Slaves were depending on you. 

Slaves had to do literally everything their Master said, and in many cases they couldn’t do anything without asking their Master first. From their weight, to what job they should have, to their relationships. Masters would also frequently assign their Slaves little tasks. Some Masters, like Lauren Salzman, would have their Slaves run errands, literally using them as personal assistants. After a while, most Slaves who were in or visited NXIVM’s Albany headquarters were given a very special task: seducing Keith Raniere. 

I previously talked about how sex was used by Raniere, how he broke down women’s emotional connections and turned the act of sex into a kind of so-called therapy, convincing women that if they had issues with sexual activities the solution was to have sex – with Raniere. By the time women were in DOS, even if they have not yet had sex with Raniere, they were familiar with this thinking, and their Master reiterated it. 

It’s a disgusting task to “assign” at a surface level, but then when you realize that Raniere was at the top of the pyramid, directing the top-line masters about who to send to “seduce” him, it just adds a whole new level of grossness. They weren’t seducing him. They were unknowing actors in his fantasy of being seduced, helping reiterate his narcissistic fantasy that he was an alpha male that women lusted for and chased after. 

And then there was the brand. 

It looks like just some odd lines until you turn your head sideways and see the KR. By some sources, Mack and her wife Nicki Clyne came up with the design and snuck Mack’s initials in, which Raniere later figured out and was pissed about. There’s audio of Raniere and others “realizing” it could be read as initials, and what were they going to do about it? 

And there’s audio of Raniere and Mack talking about how it should be applied. In a recording that would later be used to close the prosecution’s case, Raniere says:

I think the person should ask to be branded. The person who is being branded should be completely nude and sort of held to the table, […] almost like a sacrifice. That’s a feeling of submission, you know? Pain is how we know how much we love. […] They should say “please brand me it would be an honor” or something like that. And they should probably say that before they are held down, so it doesn’t seem like they are being coerced. And also of course videoing it, and videoing it from different angles, gives collateral.

Keith Raniere, transcribed by me from Episode 4 of SEDUCED

Recruits were told there was an initiation ceremony for DOS, and that they’d receive a small brand that represented the four elements. If they were dubious, their Master talked them around. And eventually, many of them made their way to Albany for the ceremony.

A doctor named Danielle Roberts was responsible for the actual branding, using a cauterizing pen. Having never done this before, she practiced on oranges. 

There is nothing so harrowing and visceral as the first-person accounts. I won’t try to recreate them. Essentially: the women were naked, strapped to a massage table, requesting the brand which could take up to 45 minutes for Roberts to burn into their pubic/hip area. There was a group of women in each ceremony, getting branded one at a time over the course of hours, filling the air with the smell of burning flesh. If the women were not taking their turn on the table, they were taking turns recording the branding, creating videos that would eventually make it to Keith Raniere.

As these DOS horrors started to come to light, both the media and the average media consumer tended to respond with disbelief. How could these women have let this happen? How could they agree to do things like this?

To answer that, I would remind you that this was a slippery slope with a very gradual curve. “Let us brand you while you say ‘yes, my master, please brand me, it would be an honor’” was not Day 1. These women were groomed over months and years to be in the right mindset to accept the kind of logic that would make them think branding themselves as part of a Master/Slave organization was the correct next step. It started with Jness, it started with SOP – it started with colored sashes and special handshakes. In many cases these women were starving on their DOS diets. They were broken down. 

But as much as DOS was the culmination of a lifetime of Raniere perfecting his methods of abuse, it also served as his downfall. 


Up Next: The Fright Experiments and the Beginning of the End

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.

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