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: physical harm (branding) and mental torture/trauma.
The Fright Experiments and the Beginning of the End
Great, I hear you say, we finally got to DOS, the Hollywood sex slave part of the NXIVM story. That’s it, right?
Oh, friend. We have one more detour to take before we reach the end, one more in the long list of “this is batshit crazy but also incredibly awful” NXIVM stories.
In 2016, the year after DOS was created, a group of NXIVM members agreed to participate in a research study run by a Dr. Brandon Porter. He’d joined NXIVM supposedly to study how effective their methods were overall. (Their methods were all so scientific, remember.) The origins of this particular study seem to be a patent filed by Keith Raniere in 2007 called “Determination of Whether a Luciferian Can Be Rehabilitated.”
One thing I learned while researching NXIVM was that anyone can file a patent, and once you’ve filed the patent you can then call whatever the it is “patent-pending.” Sure, your patent might eventually be rejected, but then you can refile it, or something similar, and then you’re patent-pending again. Sure does make you sound smart to have a lot of patents pending, huh? Raniere had a lot of patents pending at any given time. Most if not all of them were eventually rejected. (Maybe this con was common knowledge for everyone except me.)
The “study,” and I use the term loosely, run by Brandon Porter in August 2016 would later be referred to as The Fright Experiments. Subjects were seated in front of a screen or TV, hooked up to a “brain cap,” and made to watch increasingly horrifying films that culminated in an actual, non-fictional mass beheading of women by (alleged) members of a drug cartel.
One of the horrified victims, Jennifer Kobelt, would tell herself, in the middle of the experiment, “I’m not going to be shown to be weak. I’m not going to be weaker than every other woman you have had in here. I am a strong woman. I have character. I have discipline.”
Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman’s coaching at work.
After each film, Porter would ask the subjects what they were feeling. The answer was that they were experiencing trauma. Jennifer Kobelt initially filed a complaint against Porter in 2017, which was dismissed on the technicality that he was not “her” doctor, but Porter eventually got his license revoked in 2019. Apparently it is illegal to do a research study of this kind without being affiliated with a research institution. It is apparently also illegal, when you are a medical professional dealing with a 300-person outbreak of a mysterious illness at an adult summer camp that might hypothetically be called Vanguard Week, to not report said outbreak to local health boards. These kinds of details didn’t seem to be Porter’s strong suit.
The Fright Experiments were only one of NXIVM’s forays into medical “research.” Nancy Salzman and Keith Raniere also created a cure for Tourette’s. (According to the Mayo Clinic, Tourette’s can be managed, but not cured.) They were so proud of their cure that they – sorry, Clare Bronfman – would produce a documentary to showcase their success. This is a very good, comprehensive article about the Tourette’s situation.
So here we are, late 2016, everything is going swimmingly for Keith Raniere. He’s pulling science out of his ass to great applause, he has a cohort of women who have his initials burned into their hips who will have sex with him on command, he has the Bronfman money backing his every move. The 2016 election has actually benefited NXIVM and DOS recruitment – (liberal, white) women are feeling powerless and looking for something they can throw themselves into that will make them feel in control. NXIVM is there to prey on the surge of white female guilt that followed the election. NXIVM is there to help.
Then we get to 2017, and Lauren Salzman makes the mistake that will end NXIVM.
Lauren Salzman, daughter of NXIVM’s president Nancy “Prefect” Salzman, was a “first-line” DOS member, aka she reported directly to Keith Raniere. In January 2017, she recruited as her Slave the high-performing NXIVM recruiter and former actress Sarah Edmonson.
In March 2017, Sarah Edmonson was inducted into DOS (branded) in Allison Mack’s home in Albany, NY.
In June 2017, Sarah Edmonson and her husband Anthony “Nippy” Ames left NXIVM.
There’s a disturbing conversation, recorded, between Sarah Edmonson and Lauren Salzman where Edmonson is sharing her concerns about the brand – it’s larger than she thought it would be, and how will she explain it to her husband? Lauren Salzman responds, “I don’t think it’s bad for you to have something for you without Nippy. A lot of your self-esteem has been wrapped up in him.”
As always, the skillful push for a woman to reject the guise of male authority in favor of actual male authority. (Remember that Vanguard Keith Raniere is the head of DOS.)
2017 is where HBO’s The Vow picks up, so I won’t go into excruciating detail here. Suffice to say that in addition to Sarah Edmonson and Anthony Ames, there’s one other major defection: documentary director Mark Vicente.
Mark Vicente had been one of Raniere’s right hands for over ten years. In addition to being de facto NXIVM documentarian, he ran the company’s “news integrity” organization The Knife, which was basically NXIVM’s way to rhetorically tear apart media stories that they disagreed with. Very helpful for any cult. But by 2017, not only had his wife Bonnie Piesse already bailed on NXIVM, he’d started to hear rumors about DOS and the sexual abuse Raniere was perpetuating. He officially left NXIVM in May 2017. (There is a lot of discussion on the internet about whether we, as a people, like Mark Vicente. The Vow sure does read as him trying to get out in front of a story and start his apology tour. He was a top recruiter whose income was based on NXIVM, he was right there in the Jness/SOP training abusing those women, and for a while after “leaving” NXIVM he insisted the organization did good things and it was just Raniere that was bad. But this also wasn’t his first cult, so he’s obviously susceptible. Drawing the line between victim and abuser in this sort of situation is a tough one and I abstain from judgment.)
Having Hollywood people in your cult is great when they’re in, famous and happy and good for publicity. But when they’re out, they’re dangerous, because they know how the PR machine works.
In the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s arrest and with the #MeToo movement picking up steam, Edmonson, Ames, Vicente, and Piesse would team up with actress Catherine Oxenberg, who was distraught about what was happening to her daughter India. After months of working the story, on October 17, 2017 they landed on the front page of the New York Times.
Up Next: On the Run and On Trial
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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.