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.

NXIVM Explained, Part 5

Previously: Hollywood Connections and “The First Women’s Movement that was Created by a Man”
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: sexual abuse, kidnapping.

Nine Traitors, One Dalai Lama, and One Captive

As previously mentioned, the problem with trying to turn NXIVM into a coherent narrative is that there is just so much. This blog post is going to be a bit disparate, covering the end of the 00s and a little of the early 10s. Like most things NXIVM, it is going to be 50% bonkers and 50% tragedy.

One item usually treated as a side note that, again, I feel like could be a whole book is the Rainbow Cultural Garden, which was an international chain of childcare institutions founded by NXIVM where children were taught 7 languages at once. (It’s unproven that their methods work.) The Rainbow Cultural Garden was started around the time Keith Raniere’s son with Kristin Keeffe was born, around 2006. It is likely that Camila, the young Mexican woman that Raniere began raping when she was 15 years old, was one of the first nannies/instructors. 

There’s also all the ongoing litigation. Around 2008, Sara and Clare Bronfman pressured the New York State attorney general to investigate NXIVM’s “enemies,” including their father Edgar and U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer. Daniela (Camila’s older sister, also in a sexual relationship with Raneire) helped the Bronfmans install malware on Edgar’s computer, digging for things to use against him. There were also some real estate shenanigans occurring in California.

As part of these California shenanigans, the Bronfmans hired a man named Frank Parlato to do some PR work. Frank Parlato was not treated particularly well by NXIVM (also maybe wasn’t paid properly) and eventually would start a blog called The Frank Report, which is an internet hotspot for anti-NXIVM activity. He is also the primary voice claiming that Raniere was responsible for the slow murder of Pam Cafritz. I’ll go into this in the final post of the series, but in general The Frank Report is not the type of resource I look to for objective facts. In general, if the only place I can source something is The Frank Report, I use caution. But he was among the first, loudest voices on the topic of NXIVM’s crap, and I would be remiss to not mention him. 

But what was Keith Raniere himself up to in the late 00s?

Well, he had good days and bad days. 

In 2009, nine women in leadership positions within NXIVM called a meeting with Raniere. They had many concerns across many topics, including NXIVM’s financial chicanery (generally, their preference to not pay taxes or people) and Raniere’s ideas about gender and sexuality. Raniere listened, but shrugged. He admitted to no wrongdoing and proposed no changes to how NXIVM was doing things. 

All nine women left NXIVM. This group included Barbara Bouchey, financial planner and former girlfriend of Keith Raniere, and Susan Dones, an early NXIVM adopter who managed the Seattle chapter. NXIVM would quickly sue these nine women, kicking off another round of aggressive litigation against defectors. Barbara Bouchey is the most public name of these women, I think because she was also a girlfriend and had, prior to Raniere, been worth millions in her own right, and also managed the Bronfman fortune. But all nine of them were ruined, in their own way. One of the moments I found saddest from any of the documentaries was from Susan Dones; dealing with NXIVM lawsuits became her full-time job, and the only employment she could find that gave her the time to deal with the lawsuits was as a weekend DJ.

The departure of the “NXIVM Nine” sent shock waves through the organization, but Raniere quickly gathered the flock around him, holding group therapy sessions to reassure everyone that things were fine and that the Nine were the enemy. (An example of the classic cult technique of creating “enemies” out of defectors. NXIVM called these people Suppressives. If this sounds familiar, it’s because “no-original-ideas” Raniere stole this one from Scientology.)

With the NXIVM followers reassured, Raniere could look to one bright spot in 2009 – the Dalai Lama visited Albany, NY. The Dalai Lama visited him.

(I honestly don’t know if the defection happened before or after the Dalai Lama’s visit in May 2009, but for the purposes of narrative flow it’s going after, thank you for your understanding.)

The Dalai Lama’s visit to Albany and NXIVM was arranged by the Bronfman sisters as part of his U.S. tour. At one point, the Dalai Lama pulled out of the appearance, having gotten wind of some of the weird stories circulating around NXIVM. Sara Bronfman flew to Tibet personally to convince him; he changed his mind and reinstated the stop on his tour. That gin money, man.

(One of the Dalai Lama’s associates, Lama Tenzin, was later suspended from his role over allegations of corruption and abuse of his role. Allegedly he and Sara Bronfman were lovers for a brief period. As mentioned above, I am dubious of any news story that only references the Frank Report, but if you’re here for the bonkers headline-grabbing shit, I don’t want to deprive you.)

Raniere and NXIVM were obviously ecstatic; the Dalai Lama’s presence was a validation that they were a legitimate organization doing good in the world, just as they’d always claimed. The footage NXIVM gathered of Raniere meeting with the Dalai Lama, being embraced by the Dalai Lama – pure gold, in terms of marketing. 

So that took away some of the sting of the NXIVM Nine. 

He also still had his stable of sexual partners, of course. And that brings us to 2010 and the terrible culmination of Daniela’s story. 

Because Daniela was a major witness during Raniere’s trial, it’s pretty easy to find a recap of her testimony. As mentioned previously, her entire family was involved with NXIVM; her parents were long-term NXIVM members, her older sister Mariana would bear Raniere a child, and Raniere had started raping her younger sister Camila when she was 15. Daniela had started a sexual relationship with Raniere in the early/mid 2000s, when she was 18. 

In 2010, Daniela developed a crush on another man in NXIVM, Lauren Salzman’s boyfriend Ben Myers. (Unsure what the status of Lauren and Raniere was at this point.) This obviously pissed Raniere off, but he framed it as an “ethical breach” on Daniela’s part, for which she needed to do penance. Media shorthand has said he “locked her in” her bedroom; this is not technically true, which NXIVM members would later use as a defense – The door wasn’t locked! She could leave any time she wanted! But Daniela, after many years of indoctrination, was convinced that she needed to stay in the room as penance for her breach. And where did she have to go? 

Daniela would be in that bedroom for two years.

In the first post of this series, I referenced the Times-Union’s reporting on the teenage girls Keith Raniere had been raping in the 90s and early 00s. The article in question was published in 2012. Shortly after its publication, Daniela was removed from her bedroom in Clifton Park and taken to the U.S.-Mexico border. Some theorize that Daniela’s imprisonment came to an end because NXIVM was spooked by the Times-Union reporting. If they hadn’t been scared by the article, who knows how long Daniela would have stayed in her bedroom, or how her NXIVM experience would have ended.

Lauren Salzman, during her testimony almost a decade later, would say that her involvement in Daniela’s treatment was the worst thing she did during her time in NXIVM.

So that is a collection of anecdotes from late-00s/early-10s NXIVM, yet another example of all the random shit that was happening that didn’t necessarily make the mainstream news and didn’t really fit anywhere else in this narrative. Next time, we’ll dive headlong into the misogynistic organizations that would lead to all the “sex cult” headlines.

~

Up Next: From “Empowering” Women to Branding Them

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.

NXIVM Explained, Part 4

Previously: Getting the Band Together, NXIVM Edition
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: 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. 

OK.

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.

~

Up Next: Nine Traitors, One Dalai Lama, and One Captive

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.

NXIVM Explained, Part 3

Previously: The Beginnings of NXIVM: Nancy Salzman and the Executive Success Program
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: 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.

~

Up Next: Hollywood Connections and “The First Women’s Movement that was Created by a Man”

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.

NXIVM Explained, Part 2

Previously: Introduction and Keith Raniere Before NXIVM
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: 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.

~

Up Next: Getting the Band Together, NXIVM Edition

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.

NXIVM, Explained: Part 1

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: sexual assault and rape (including of minors) and suicide.

Part 1: Introduction and Keith Raniere Before NXIVM

OK, I’m doing it. 

This is a longread. Get some snacks.

Preamble

A few years ago I decided to just dive headlong into being a weirdo and started a small “cult club” with some friends. It’s like a book club, except each meeting we discuss a different cult that we’ve all researched. We often wear caftans. Please note that we are a club that studies cults, not a club that is a cult – I know it’s confusing. And I know this sounds amazing and you are jealous, but unfortunately we are not accepting new members at this time.

What is a cult? Definitions usually run something along the lines of “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious.” Honestly I find all religions a little questionable, so I prefer one of the secondary, more secular definitions: a “great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work,” and, specifically, a devotion that falls outside of the mainstream and/or causes harm to the devotees.

Most of the cults we hear about are the ones that take their devotion to the extreme – like Jim Jones’s People’s Temple and their mass suicide or the Manson Family. Most of the cults we hear about are the ones where things go badly, where the leader and/or the devotees turn criminal and people get hurt.

I can’t really explain why I’m interested in this topic. Like many women, I enjoy crime stories, fictional and otherwise. (Here is one of many articles on the subject.) Cults bring this extra element of “how can people believe in this weird shit” that I find fascinating. I want to understand. 

And what I find extra-fascinating about NXIVM is how truly bonkers it all is, and how much there is. Most other cults I’ve looked into I could sum up in, like, a paragraph or two. This 16,000-word treatise I’ve written on NXIVM is the summary. The depth of the insanity surrounding NXIVM and Keith Raniere is just mind-boggling, layers and layers, an onion with no end. From the Seagram heiresses (yes, the gin), one of whom may have had an affair with one of the Dalai Lama’s assistants, to the Fright Experiments, to the teenage girl who was locked in her bedroom for two years, to Keith telling his inner circle that they were reincarnated Nazis. And that’s not even getting into the brandings or “Hollywood Sex Cult” aspects that started the media frenzy. There’s just so much to it.

My recent dive into NXIVM serendipitously coincided with the release of two high-profile documentaries on NXIVM and – even more miraculously – with Keith Raniere’s being sentenced to a whopping 120 years in prison, so there has been a LOT of media to consume. And as I kept going deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole, I kept discovering things that were mentioned in some media and not others, some articles but not others, and I realized there isn’t really any one place that truly covers everything, even the Wikipedia page. I was also disappointed by the lack of structure in a lot of the narratives. The documentaries kept making things seem like they happened simultaneously that were in fact occurring years apart. I couldn’t keep track of what happened when, so I did what every other well-adjusted adult would do and made an 8-page timeline of NXIVM-related milestones. 

And every time people asked what I was up to I’d mumble about researching NXIVM, and if they’d express any interest at all, I’d start sharing all my newfound information, just stumbling over myself because there is so much. People would be like, “Oh, I see, I understand now why this is batshit bananapants,” and I’d be like, “NO YOU DON’T, I haven’t even gotten to the Master/Slave pyramid yet!” and people would be like “the what?”

(I am very fun to be friends with.)

So buckle up, buttercups. This is my attempt to turn the glut of NXIVM information into a single narrative that can be followed by any layperson who has not, like myself, spent too much time reading newspaper articles from 2012 and depositions from 2003.

Note that I have consumed a lot of information. I have not consumed everything, and new information is hitting the news every day. This is meant to be an overview, pulling together various sources. I’ll try to point out my deficiencies (I have not yet read Toni Natalie’s book, for example). I’ll try to identify sources, especially for the stuff that’s truly wild, so that you can make your own judgments of veracity – for example, I mentioned Sara Bronfman’s alleged affair with the Dalai Lama’s assistant earlier mostly for the shock value. I’m dubious, because I’m dubious of that particular source.

And finally, please keep in mind that this is a wild ride that careens between the absurdly bizarre and the truly horrifying – Keith Raniere caused a lot of harm to a lot of people. My goal is to share the bizarre while keeping us aware of the horror, in the most organized way possible.

Here we go.

What is NXIVM, Anyway?

First off, NXIVM is pronounced nex-ee-um, like the drug, though if you’re talking about the cult make sure you start by ensuring your interlocutor knows you’re not talking about the drug. Learn from my mistakes. Nobody actually seems clear on where the name NXIVM comes from, though some posit it’s related to the ancient Roman debt/bondage system nexum. Honestly, many of the NXIVM subsidiary organizations have nonsense names that are meant to sound smart, and I think NXIVM is just another of those.

NXIVM has kind of turned into shorthand for a series of organizations and a series of abuses perpetrated by a man named Keith Raniere (ruh-neer-ee). Let us not get it twisted. Keith Raniere was a predator who used NXIVM to create and protect his own world of Keith-worshipping women. Technically, NXIVM was the parent company of a bunch of smaller, specialized organizations, and the word “cult” doesn’t even really begin to define the situation. When people are thinking specifically about the sex cult/branding part of the equation, for example, that’s actually a different, secret organization called Dominus Obsequious Sororium, or DOS (pronounced as a word, not an acronym, doss). This appears to be Latin gobbledegook for something like “master over slave women.”

NXIVM the organization is technically past-tense; the organization officially disbanded in June 2018, a few months after Raniere’s arrest.

It was not a religious organization, which is one of the reasons that it fascinates me. Even though people truly worshipped Raniere as a guru, I don’t think many would have used those words. Everything Raniere created was based on “science” and his reputation as one of the smartest men in the world.

I’m going to go more-or-less in chronological order, because I honestly don’t know how else to organize this mess. If I try to do it thematically I’ll need to make one of those Charlie Day walls and we’ll be here literally forever.

Keith Raniere Before NXIVM

Keith Raniere was born in 1960 in Brooklyn, NY. His parents divorced when he was young, and he lived with his alcoholic mother until her death in 1978. He later claimed childhood feats that are reminiscent of those claimed by other cult leaders, such as winning Judo championships when he was 11 or 12. (As I’m sure we all know, James Baker/Father Yod/YaHoWha was crowned Strongest Boy in America at age 12.) (Also, if you’re into cults, I recommend the documentary The Source Family, which I think is available on Amazon Prime). 

And similar to many of his cult-leader peers, Raniere was reported in his early years to already show signs of narcissism, need for control, and belief in his own intellectual superiority. The podcast Cults recounts a story from his childhood that exemplifies some of the thinking that would later appear in NXIVM: a classmate let a secret slip, and Raniere made sure she knew that he had this info to hold over her. He was constantly reminding her that he had this piece of information, this power, and he could destroy her life with it. This smacks as the 1.0 version of what would later be a NXIVM staple, “collateral.” (More on that later.)

Similar to the Judo claim, there are also a lot of tales about his youthful academic achievements. He spoke three languages before he learned to write. (Sure, Jan.) And supposedly, in his teen years, he took a single weekend to teach himself all of calculus and a few other kinds of math that are mysterious to me, a non-math person. Just, like, a weekend. That’s how smart he was! At some point he also taught himself to play “concert-level” piano, an instrument he is seen playing in many of the documentaries. One of my favorite NXIVM-related Reddit threads is filled with musicians who dismissively point out that we only ever see Raniere play Mozart’s Moonlight Sonata, which is, and I quote, “the piece every 4th grader learns so Mom and dad can show off their little genius for company.”

Then we hit the 80s. Raniere got a lot done in the 80s. 

In 1982, Raniere triple-majored at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, graduating with a 2.0-ish GPA. He also took an IQ test and supposedly got something ridiculous like a 178. (A favorite media comparison is that Albert Einstein was suspected to be around 160.) Soon after that he took some double-weird test and got a 240 (??). I don’t really understand how IQ tests work, this was some sort of take-home exam that seems to impress nobody except Keith Raniere. There is also suspicion that  his girlfriends actually completed it for him. However it happened, he ended up in The Guinness Book of World Records as one of the three smartest men in the world. Or did he? Turns out that despite how he framed it, he actually ended up in the 1989 Australian edition of the Guinness Book of World Records and was quietly removed the following year.

Anyway, that was 1989, and he would forever-after claim to be one of the three smartest men in the world and nobody really had too many questions about it. 

The 1980s were also when a 20-something Raniere started raping teenage girls. 

Let us now meet the Albany Times-Union, one of the MVPs in this tale. The Times-Union noticed this odd guy living in their backyard outside of Albany, NY, and investigated. One of their first major stories on Raniere is this in-depth, pulls-no-punches 2012 article, that reported for the first time on his multiple victims throughout the 80s and 90s. One 12-year-old girl from a poor family was offered free tutoring by the great genius Raniere; he eventually taught her how to hug “like adults do,” pelvis to pelvis. He eventually raped her. Their “relationship” lasted 2 years. Another girl, 15 at the time (he was 24), he would take to the arcades to play games – including Vanguard. (Vanguard was released in 1982. Raniere would eventually name himself Vanguard.) She was initially hopeful that the great genius Raniere would help tutor her and help her graduate high school early. Instead he raped her multiple times over four months and told her that she needed to lose weight.

There was also a young woman named Gina Hutchinson, who was introduced to Raniere when she was 15. When Gina’s sister questioned the relationship, Raniere informed her that Gina’s biological age meant nothing because Gina was actually an ancient “Buddhist goddess.” Gina Hutchinson floated in and out of Raniere’s life, and eventually committed suicide at the age of 33. 

I encourage you to read the full article if you want more information about these and other early victims of Raniere. Like everything pertaining to Raneire and NXIVM, it is a combination of bizarre and criminal. I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page that NXIVM is not the problem here; Keith Raniere is. In the 1980s NXIVM wasn’t a thing yet, Raniere was just a guy. A guy who already liked to have power over young women, and a guy who liked to have a lot of sex.

In 1990, Raniere founded a company called Consumers’ Buyline, Inc. (CBI). Basically it seems like an earlier, more illegal version of Groupon – the more consumers who go in on a product, the cheaper it could be per person! Great! Except not so much. All of the money was really made in recruiting other people to join the club, and that is called a pyramid scheme, and the government frowns on those. CBI shut down in 1996, when Raniere signed a letter in which he technically admitted to no wrongdoing but also agreed to pay a $40,000 fine and never run a pyramid scheme again. This is a good short article about CBI and here’s another recap from our friends at the Times-Union.

Meanwhile Raniere’s personal life in the early 90s was taking off like gangbusters. I found it a little hard to track, but a lot of women became his girlfriend in “the early 1990s,” including some names that will be important later like Pam Cafritz, Kristen Keeffe, and Toni Natalie. Yes, simultaneous girlfriends, though they didn’t all know it. According to one documentary, socialite Cafritz met Raniere skiing, but I’m not quite sure when. (Raniere liked socialites, because socialites have money.) I don’t know how Keeffe got involved with him. We know for sure that Toni Natalie met him in 1991.

Sidebar on Pam Cafritz. Here are some facts about Pam Cafritz. 1. Cafritz hired one of Raniere’s teenage victims as a dog-walker in the early 90s, so that Raniere could have easier access to her. 2. During Raniere’s 2019 trial, an abortion clinic worker testified that in all of her years on the job, she had never known a single person (Cafritz) to call and make abortion appointments for so many different women. 3. Cafritz died of renal cancer in 2016. There are some dubious allegations that Raniere slowly poisoned her. Cafritz somehow was able to use her credit card a few days after her death, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. All the rest of her money was left to NXIVM.

We don’t hear as much about her as we do Allison Mack (who arrives on the scene in the mid ‘00s) because Mack was a TV star and Cafritz had died by the time NXIVM blew up, but Pam Cafritz was among the most loyal, most destructive of Raniere’s women.

There will be a bit more about Kristin Keeffe later, and I won’t talk too much about Toni Natalie, the woman wrote an entire book about her experience that you can read. She was married when she met Raniere, and a talented sales rep in CBI. The two quickly start dating, though she was initially unaware of the other girlfriends, and they would be together for 8 years. After CBI was shut down in 1996, Raniere and Natalie created a health food company/store. 

This is where the narrator looks into the camera and says, “Little did they know how much that store would change their lives.” 

Because one day, suffering from constipation and looking for a solution (or, “literally full of shit,” as Natalie would later say), in walks Nancy Salzman.

~

Up Next: The Beginnings of NXIVM: Nancy Salzman and the Executive Success Program

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.

Making Thanksgiving dinner for the first time? Auntie Grace is here to help.

Two quick notes. One, none of the links here are affiliates, they’re just links, I’m not fancy. Two, I want to acknowledge that Thanksgiving is a problematic holiday that does not celebrate good things in American history. For me personally, the day is a celebration of family and friends and delicious food, and it has been dear to me since I was a child for those reasons.

Preamble (this can be the part you skim)

What a year it’s been, huh? I’m going to skip over that. We’ve all experienced 2020. We all know why we’re here, entering a fucked-up holiday season that we’re all making up as we go.

I really hope you are not doing your standard Thanksgiving this year. There’s nothing more dangerous right now than gathering multiple generations and families from potentially multiple states and sitting them all around a dinner table to breathe at each other.

Your humble narrator, Thanksgiving Day 2019.

I am not doing my standard Thanksgiving, and I am very sad about it. Thanksgiving means a lot to me; some of my happiest childhood memories are Thanksgiving at my Italian Grandma’s house. Grandma made almost everything herself, giving a few key tasks to other family members. Aunt Olga made the gravy directly in the roasting pan as the turkey rested, a feat I have never accomplished. The first Thanksgiving I hosted myself was during my senior year of college, in England, and is a story unto itself involving 13 people, a dormitory kitchen, and affable British friends who didn’t really understand what I was doing but were happy to eat. (Also the British, surprisingly, do not really care about American Thanksgiving and don’t make a point to have the proper things in stock.)

When I became a proper “grownup,” with my grandmother gone, I took over my favorite holiday entirely. I have hosted Thanksgiving in Boston for 10 years; starting as “the Thanksgiving of Misfit Toys,” friends and family who couldn’t get home for whatever reason, it’s now its own thing and includes family and friends-who-are-family. Anywhere between 6-10 people join us each year, which has been an interesting challenge in some of my apartments.

This year, it’ll just be my brother and his wife joining us from literally up the street (so no travel involved), and we are going to sit at opposite corners of the roof deck huddled under blankets. A different kind of Thanksgiving. A 2020 Thanksgiving.

And since we’re all having a different kind of Thanksgiving this year, I thought it might be helpful to those who have not been hosting Thanksgiving for 10+ years if I shared some tips. I like to think I throw a pretty successful Thanksgiving, and this aggressively long post will go into ALL of the things I do to encourage that success.

Speaking of aggressive, my bullet journals have pages that look like this going back YEARS. Get excited.

Let’s get maybe your big question out of the way first. What if you can’t cook? Trick question! Anyone can be a good home cook if they follow a recipe. Recipes are great! Someone else has done the hard part, aka fucking up a casserole 100 times so they can tell you exactly how long to blanch the green beans. As long as you can follow instructions, you can cook! Also, fuck it, buy packaged stuffing. I don’t care. Just make it part of the plan.

Which brings us to the actual tips for pulling off your first Thanksgiving. Whether it’s you and a bunch of roommates, you and your spouse doing it on your own for the first time, or you by yourself finally able to make a sweet potato pie that you don’t hate, I hope this Thanksgiving primer helps!

Stop skimming now if you’ve been skimming.

Step 1: Plan the meal

This is the longest section. Please do not panic. Part of it is optional.

There is one primary reason that I successfully execute Thanksgiving every year: I plan it like a general planning a multi-day assault. Here’s how you do it.

Sit down with a pen and paper. (Or I guess open a Google doc, I don’t know what you kids do.) Do this now, today. You really need to plan this meal in advance so you can get a grasp for what you’re doing. I usually start the first week of November, but I’m extra. Given the difficulties shopping right now, the earlier you know what you’re doing, the better.

Here are the questions you start scribbling answers to:

  • How many people are eating?
  • Does anyone have allergies or other restrictions? Vegetarians? Vegans? (Sidebar: Vegans are really not as scary as many people make them out to be. I know many vegans. Some of them came to Thanksgiving a few years ago. They brought a few of their own sides, they ate part of my vegetarian partner’s Tofurky, and I put vegan butter in the mashed potatoes. Sometimes, when you like and care about someone, you can make small compromises to make them happy. It doesn’t hurt, I promise!)
  • What do you like to eat? No, really. Just because Thanksgiving has “rules” doesn’t mean you have to follow them. If you really only like mashed potatoes, gravy, and pumpkin pie, I’m not going to stop you from just making mashed potatoes, gravy, and pumpkin pie. Live your life.
  • Who is cooking? The whole point here is to avoid multiple households getting together, but if you do have non-household members safely attending, what can they bring? Outsource, baby. Are your roommates helping? Maybe fetch them in to help with the planning process. My only caveat here is if there’s a particular dish that you feel very strongly about or emotionally attached to, don’t outsource that one. You’ll be sad.
  • What’s your budget? And what’s important to you? For example, the bulk of my Thanksgiving budget goes towards an expensive turkey from the local butcher shop, because I am a “mostly” vegetarian who only eats meat that is raised ethically. (Specifically, I buy my turkey from Savenor’s Butcher in Cambridge, MA. This is also where Julia Child shopped. This is the only thing I have in common with Julia Child.) Literally everything that isn’t the turkey I buy the cheapest version of, from whipping cream to bulk mushrooms to generic-brand dry goods. The more dishes you make, the farther afield from your normal ingredients you go, the more meat you serve, the more expensive the meal will be. The more things you make from scratch, the cheaper the meal will be but the more time equity you’ll have to put in. If you’re used to working with a small-ish food budget, you probably already know the things that are sneaky-expensive: nuts, some dairy, out-of-season vegetables. (There’s a reason sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie are staples here.) And pay attention to spices; recipes that involve only spices you’ve never used before means you could end up spending $50+ on new spices before you even get to the main stuff.

Cool. Now list out literally every dish you want to make, noting the recipe you will use. If you don’t have a recipe immediately to hand, now is the time you start to trawl cookbooks, the internet, and your group chat with your aunts. If you aren’t going home for Thanksgiving, I assure you that your relatives will be happy to send you recipes. (Unless you’re one of those families with ~secret~ recipes that can only be made by one specific person, in which case Godspeed.)

Menu Tips

Overall, as you’re planning, think about balance over the entire meal. For example, I include a chocolate dessert to provide a different flavor profile from the pumpkin pie. (For a guest list this small, honestly two desserts are overkill but I’m doing it anyway.) I usually add what I call a “bright green” side dish to balance out the really heavy, cream-based vegetable dishes. Most importantly, think about what you want to eat.

Keep your menu aligned to your skillset and what you’ll have the time and capacity to execute. Think about recipes that you can prep in advance vs. will need to make day-of. Planning the execution of the menu is Step 2 below, but still keep execution in mind as you pick out recipes. Skip recipes that confuse you. Skip things that will stress you out. Or, use this experience to tackle something crazy and new! Just make sure you’re doing it on purpose.

(One other note, in this beautiful year 2020: A lot of restaurants are hurting and are having Thanksgiving specials. Maybe you want to build half or more of your menu out of pre-made things that will also support a small business!)

I want the key takeaway here to be this: Put together the meal that works for you, whatever that looks like. Whether you cook everything from scratch, buy pre-packaged items, or get most of it from a restaurant and focus on making desserts. But whatever your meal looks like, make it into a list.

As a sample, below is what my Thanksgiving menu looks like (with some notes about how 2020 is different).

Feel free to scroll down to step 2 if you are confident in your own menu-making, this is for example purposes and to share some tried-and-true recipes and tips.

Sample: My Menu and Recipes

This menu settled into itself in about 2015 and hasn’t changed much since then.

This year I have one strict vegetarian, two “mostly” vegetarians who will be eating turkey, and one omnivore. In normal years I also have a list of allergies to accommodate. (In other news about how extra I am, my friends’ allergies are taped inside my kitchen cupboard.) Keep in mind that I have been cooking my entire life and have been hosting Thanksgiving for 10+ years and make literally everything from scratch because I really enjoy doing it. Please don’t get overwhelmed if your reaction to this list is “I could never do this!!” This isn’t about you cooking my menu, this is about the thinking behind my menu, and I’m sharing it in the hope that it’s useful!

Also, this is definitely too much food for four people. We live for leftovers.

Here’s what I do:

  • Turkey – The general rule is that you want 1 pound of turkey per person, 1.5 if you’re excited about leftovers. This weight accounts for bones and stuff. Usually I buy a whole turkey, smallish, and roast it. This year, with only three of us eating turkey and all of us preferring dark meat, I’m just doing legs and thighs. If you’re cooking for a small number, I definitely recommend doing turkey pieces, or maybe even a chicken. Also, immediately breaking my own rule, I don’t know how I’m cooking them yet because I haven’t done pieces before. If you’re doing a whole turkey, here’s the dirty little secret: the reason turkeys tend to be dry is that the white meat and the dark meat take different amounts of time to cook. Every recipe, from spatchcocking to flipping it partway to deep-frying, is trying to mitigate this one issue. Honestly I think it’s mostly luck. I do a dry brine starting Tuesday night and then use the “just put it in the oven and baste every now and then” method.
  • Tofurky – My partner is a vegetarian, so every year I make a Tofurky. Best news ever for a multitasking cook: Tofurkys can be thrown in a crock pot and mostly ignored. Here’s my complicated recipe: put a layer of chopped potatoes and onions in the bottom, set the tofurky on top, and mix together 1/2 cup each orange juice and soy sauce and pour it on top. Put that baby on low and cook 4-5 hours, basting every 45 minutes. (Pro-tip if you’re doing a turkey AND a Tofurky: invest in two turkey basters so you can baste them both easily with no washing in between.)
  • Cornbread Dressing – Family recipe. I can share if there’s interest. I prep all the different components in advance and then assemble right before baking.
  • Green Bean Casserole – This recipe is a bit involved and involves frying your own onions, but you could also just make the green bean part and top with those French’s onions everyone loves. You can do everything except the onions the day before. I use veg broth.
  • Spinach Gratin – This is hands-down the most popular thing I make every year. I double it, and sometimes triple it, and there are never leftovers. I used to diligently make it with fresh spinach (which is a bitch to clean) but in my old age I’ve started making it with frozen spinach and nobody knows the difference. I use a half/half combo of cream and veg broth.
  • Sweet Potatoes – No marshmallows here. I actually didn’t know I liked sweet potatoes until a friend brought some roasted ones for Thanksgiving one year. That’s when I realized I like sweet potatoes when they’re savory. Make the kind of sweet potatoes you like, or none at all. This particular recipe can be made entirely the day before.
  • Cranberry Sauce – I don’t really like cranberry sauce, so my friend usually brings it. When I make it I just use the recipe on the back of the bag of cranberries. Find a recipe with some flavors you like (orange? nutmeg? booze?) and get on with your bad self. Can easily be made in advance, and should be so it has time to chill.
  • Mashed Potatoes – Also usually brought by a friend. Mashed potatoes are great to make in advance and heat up at the right time. I recommend doing that – they always take longer to cook than you think and you don’t want to hold up the entire meal because (hypothetically) you forgot to put the water on to boil early enough. (Hypothetically.)
  • Gravy – We have two: the vegan one that comes with the Tofurky, and the one that I buy from the fancy butcher with my turkey. I am a good cook. I can’t make a fucking gravy to save my life. Maybe it’s part of my lineage and that’s why Aunt Olga made it instead of Grandma. I don’t know. It’s also stressful because if you do it correctly from turkey drippings (or are attempting to) then you’re doing it last-minute. So I buy it. Feel free to use packets.
  • Bread – My sister-in-law usually brings homemade bread, and I’m hoping she will again. Bread is a great thing to outsource or buy, because it’s kind of time intensive with specific timing needs that can throw off the rest of your prep. Also I killed yeast once in like 2012 and I still haven’t recovered.
  • Pumpkin Pie – Family recipe. I can share if there’s interest. To me this is one of the requirements of Thanksgiving. For you it may be pecan. Or maybe you hate pie. (Update 11/11/20: a friend just shared this great idea for making mini pies! I might try this.)
  • Chocolate Peanut Butter Tart – This requires a food processor, but if you have one it’s DELISH and also can be made entirely the day before.

I usually make a third dessert just so there are options (and because, as previously noted, I’m extra). I also have 2-3 more sides with a larger crowd. The recipes above are all required in my heart, and I rotate trying other things to round out the table. In the past these options have included:

I also always do a round of apps, but am probably going to skip them this year with the smaller guest list. What I serve for apps changes more than the rest of the menu, but I always make these roasted nuts and have some sort of cheese and cracker situation. My big tip for apps – keep it simple. In normal years, you want the apps to be something that can sit around for a while and then just be grabbed out of the fridge and served whenever people start to arrive. Deviled eggs are also good.

“Wow Grace, sure are a lot of Smitten Kitchen recipes on this list!” Yup. Deb’s great, the recipes are clear and delicious, and they aren’t really as complicated as they look. She also usually includes tips about how to make things in advance, which is key when we get to Step 2.

So that’s what the menu looks like. Got all your recipes together? Good. Time to move on.

Step 2: Plan the execution of the meal

I will preface this step by saying if, in this step, you realize you can’t execute everything you decided to make during Step 1, that’s fine – just redo your menu. This is why we do things in advance.

OK, take out your pen and paper again. This part is more like a puzzle. Now it’s time to figure out when you need to do everything. We start at the end and go backwards.

What time are you eating on Thursday? Write that down. The timing of Thanksgiving dinner is a contentious issue across the United States. I usually do 4pm, since we’re outside this year we’ll do a little earlier, maybe 3pm. I’m not going to get involved in your choice, just pick a time. I like mid-afternoon because it’s the only meal of the day. (Note that if you do have guests, you want them there at least a half hour before mealtime, earlier if you have proper appetizers, but also definitely give them an earliest time you are OK with them arriving. Give yourself some breathing room.)

What MUST be done on Thursday? The turkey. Anything salad-like. Anything that really will only taste good if it’s served immediately. Dressing/stuffing. Gravy, if you’re making it from turkey drippings. Reheating anything you’ve prepped or assembling anything you’ve purchased. A SHOWER. Put your shower on the schedule. Please shower.

What full dishes can be almost entirely prepped, and when are you able to prep them? I take off work the Wednesday before Thanksgiving every year and I cook all day. This isn’t feasible for everyone. Can you cook Tuesday night and Wednesday night? Get up at 5am on Wednesday to prep something before work? Maybe you’re more rational than I am and you’re making a normal-sized meal that can all be made on Thursday itself. And how many dishes do you need to find time to prep? Some things, like pumpkin pie, I cook first thing Thursday morning. From the menu above, the spinach, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, and chocolate tart are made almost entirely on Wednesday.

What can or needs to be pre-prepped? Yes, this is a different category. Do you have anything (like a Tofurky, or a turkey) in the freezer? Put on the schedule when it needs to come out of the freezer. The turkey needs to come out earlier than you think it does. Thaw it in the fridge. If you’re dry-brining it, that takes a few days too. Make your pie crust, they taste better after they sit a while anyway. (Or, make your pie crust way in advance and freeze it – just put on the schedule when it needs to come out.) Are you, like me, very extra and you’re making the cornbread and white bread for your cornbread dressing? Do that on Sunday and stick the breadcrumbs in the cupboard.

What needs to be reheated, and for how long? Here’s where it’s key to remember one thing: once the turkey comes out of the oven, it needs to rest for 30 minutes. This is the magic 30 minutes; a lot happens here. I usually have 5-6 things prepped to heat up or cook; I average out the temperatures and jam everything in the oven. I promise it works. But make sure everything that you are carefully planning to prep you are also planning to heat up. It’s a separate step.

(If you have one) Can you put something in a crock pot? The crock pot will relieve valuable oven/stove space. I’ve heard you can make mashed potatoes in a crock pot, though I never have. The Tofurky always goes in the crock pot.

When are you preparing the place you’ll eat? Put that on the schedule, even if you’re able to assign it to someone else. Who is setting the table? That can be done in the morning. One of our tables is in the basement. I want that upstairs by Tuesday night, just in case something catastrophic has happened and it’s unusable. Do you (hypothetically) only use a tablecloth once a year? You’ll want to wash that, which can happen early in the week.

When are you shopping? More on this in a second, but you want to put your shopping on your schedule. In a normal year, I usually go to two grocery stores, the liquor store, the butcher, and then to Target at 7pm Wednesday when I realize I’ve forgotten something. This year will look different, but it’ll be on the schedule.

Are you sharing your kitchen? I have it pretty easy, I’m basically an Italian Grandma and my partner knows he is not allowed in the kitchen for two days. But maybe you’re cooking this meal with others. Make sure the schedule works for them. If you’re each making separate dishes, maybe you agree that someone else makes their stuff on Wednesday morning, and then you do your prep Wednesday night. If you’re cooking together, make sure your togetherness time is noted and amenable to all involved. If one member of the team is contributing by being responsible for dishwashing, make sure they know all the times that might be expected of them. I promise this saves trouble later.

What are you cooking in? Do you have all the dishes you need? You don’t want to realize on Thursday morning that you’re short two casserole dishes. Make sure you have every dish and tool you need, for both cooking and serving, and if you’re missing anything put on the schedule when you’re going to get it. If you are making a turkey, buy a meat thermometer. If you are making gravy from drippings, get a gravy separator. But you don’t need to go wild buying dishes you may never use again – not to sound like a shill, but I live for Reynolds foil baking pans. I have actually found that I prefer to use their disposable roasting pan on top of a heavy baking sheet because it makes cleanup a breeze. Reynolds, call me. I will take your sponsorship.

Basically, you need to take every step of every element and put them in order and assign them to people. If you think this is overwhelming, imagine trying to do it on the fly. This is really the most important step in this process. Play with it. What’s reasonable for your life? Maybe you can’t do tons of prep, but you can wake up at 5am on Thursday. I like to prep one recipe at a time, but maybe you can multitask. Maybe it’s OK if you cut that one dish that you can’t quite figure out a time to cook.

Here’s my big prep tip: you want to end up with two separate schedules. You want one that is overall, big picture, for the entire week, and one that is just for Thursday. Big Picture will make sure you get everything shopped for and prepped; Thursday is down-to-the-minute of when does the turkey go in, when does the Tofurky go in, when do things come out of the fridge to rest a bit before going in the oven, etc.

Here is what my “Big Picture Schedule” has looked like the past few years. You can see in 2018 (purple) where I fucked up the bread on Saturday and had to jam it into Tuesday, and also where I was simultaneously cooking for the book club that I was for some reason hosting the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

To get here, you may need to scribble around a bit on a piece of scrap paper and then once you’ve made decisions about what you are doing and when, transfer that into a final, clean checklist.

I don’t have a picture of my “Thursday Schedule” because I tend to do those on scrap paper and cross things out and rework times throughout the day (like oh crap the turkey’s cooking faster than I thought, what do I need to do sooner?). And then it gets thrown out at the end. Basically, time everything out as best you can, calculating backwards from your mealtime. Here are some key things to include:

  • Figure out how long your turkey should take to cook, add 30 minutes for it to rest at the end, and you have the time it needs to go in the oven. Which means you can time back when to take it out of the fridge and prep it. Budget more time than less to cook. The turkey can sit in a warm oven for a bit if necessary (the reason we have gravy is to cover up dry turkey), but you absolutely do not want to eat undercooked turkey.
  • Sides that need to be reheated while the turkey rests should come out of the fridge about 30 minutes before they go in, so an hour before planned mealtime.
  • Premade gravy should be heated up on the stove about 20 minutes in advance. If you’re making actual gravy, reserve the same 20 minutes to do that, but measure out everything before that.
  • Tossing a salad last-minute? Put on the schedule to take everything out of the fridge that you have already prepped. If you’re chopping the vegetables that day (which you should, for freshness), that is a separate, earlier step.
  • Shower.
  • Put the wine or bubbles in the fridge. My fridge is often too full of food on Thanksgiving, so I jam one bottle in somewhere and then have a few bottles on deck to swap in when the food comes out.

I know, math, I’m sorry. You are doing all this math and putting together a complicated schedule in advance so you don’t have to think about any of this on Thursday. You just do it.

Finally – schedule in some buffer for Thursday. If you end up with an extra half an hour to sit with a glass of wine, #blessed. But if you need it, you’ll be glad it’s there.

Step 3: Shop

This one’s going to be tricky in the year of our Lord 2020.

I assume you still have your pen and paper handy? Excellent. Because first you need a list. Sit down with all your recipes again and make a list of every ingredient you need. For things needed in multiple recipes (*cough* heavy cream in this house) make notes of quantities across recipes so you make sure to have enough.

Cool. Now examine your pantry and see if you already have anything, in which case you can cross it off. (Though don’t accidentally use up all your flour or spices between now and Thanksgiving.)

Great, what’s left is your shopping list! Now you just need to organize it based on how you are shopping during the pandemic. Usually I do a series of grocery runs over the week leading up to Thanksgiving, waiting until as late as possible to buy fresh vegetables. This year I’ve been using Instacart, and my main concern is that things will be out of stock and I won’t be able to make quick judgement calls on replacing them. It’ll also be impossible to pop from store to store if one store is out of something. Doing things ahead of time is the name of the game here. The earlier I know I can’t get something, the earlier I’ll be able to figure out a substitution or eliminate a dish.

A few tips that span regular-time and pandemic-time:

  • Get as many dry goods/basics as possible by the Friday before Thanksgiving. I’m talking butter, flour, things in cans. This gives you a bit of security, especially now. You don’t want to realize there’s no canned pumpkin left in your city on Wednesday night.
  • Try to be completely done with your shopping by Tuesday night. This means you can hit the ground running with prep on Wednesday, and you don’t have to deal with grocery stores the day before Thanksgiving. I usually wait until Tuesday to do my final shop for fresh veggies, just so they’ll be as fresh as possible. (If your prep schedule is different, adjust your shopping deadline – but if possible I really don’t suggest waiting until Wednesday for any shopping unless it’s an emergency.)
  • If you need anything very specific, get it ASAP. For us it’s the Tofurky Feast. There’s only one option we like. We need it. So we’ve already bought one and it’s in the freezer.
  • Don’t forget beverages, whether they are alcoholic or not. If you go non-alcoholic, get something fancy and fun! Treat yo’self. If you do drink alcohol, you don’t want to be fighting everyone else with a Drizly account on Wednesday afternoon. And I highly recommend getting yourself a beverage to cook with. I love a nice glass of white wine while I’m cooking.
  • Make sure you get those dishes and tools you discovered you needed in Step 2.

Finally, one thing that’s going to have to (continue to) hold true for all of us this year is to be flexible. Stores are going to be out of things, delivery times will be slower. Give yourself buffer time, be patient with employees, and if you end up absolutely not being able to get an ingredient – improvise. We’re all improvising this year.

Step 4: Cook

It’s time!! Literally now all you have to do is execute the plan you made in Step 2.

Sounds so easy, huh?

Honestly, just take it slow and stick to the plan. What prep work is on your plan? Do it on schedule, you made the schedule for a reason.

For me, Wednesday is the big day. When I wake up on Wednesday morning, I run through the list of tasks I need to do that day and just take them one at a time. My preference is to make one entire dish at a time, but YMMV. I usually start with the pie crust, it’s a quick easy win. Then if I’m making the spinach dish with fresh spinach, I do that next because it takes fucking forever. I tend to alternate throughout the day things that I consider easy prep with things that are more involved. When I’m done making the spinach, maybe I’ll sauté the veggies I need to prep for the dressing. When I’m tired of looking at vegetables I make the chocolate tart.

For anything you prep, store it with all of its component parts and instructions for how to complete it on Thursday. For example, for the spinach gratin, I prep the spinach, and separately prep the breadcrumb topping. Once it’s cooled I put the topping in a baggie, tape that to the lid of the spinach casserole dish, and then tape a post-it note on top that has an oven temperature and an amount of time. This saves you from trying to keep track of all your recipes in the final Thursday rush.

On Thursday, it’s all about the turkey and the timing of the turkey. Adjust your schedule as you go, if you end up getting delayed and putting the turkey in 20 minutes after you wanted to, fine, everything else gets pushed back a bit. Review the Thursday Schedule every now and then throughout the day to make sure you’re on track. Anything prepped that is going from fridge to oven should come out of the fridge about 30 minutes in advance to start casually coming to temp – make sure that’s on your schedule, maybe even set an alarm.

One important note: Keep up with cleaning the dishes! Every time you finish a task, wash all the dishes that were involved. If you have a dishwasher (lucky!) load it and run it as you go, but make sure you don’t put something in that you’ll need for the next dish you’re prepping.

Step 5: Eat

Eat up baby, you’ve earned it!

I assume nobody really needs directions for this part. This is the part where you reap the rewards of your hard work, and spend a lovely few hours with your family or housemates or cat while they all tell you what a great job you did. This is my favorite part.

Don’t stress about getting everything on the table exactly at the same time. People can start serving themselves while dishes are still finishing up, and nobody has ever been sad when mashed potatoes show up, regardless of when it happens.

Coda

This ended up being way longer than I anticipated, so many thanks if you read this far and I hope it was at all helpful. I have a lot of thoughts about Thanksgiving, and cooking for multiple days to feed my family and friends this special meal is truly one of my favorite projects of the year.

This is going to be a weird holiday season for everyone. Take care of yourselves. Take care of your friends and your family. We’re all in this together, “this” being the hellscape of 2020.

If you have any remaining questions about how to pull off Thanksgiving, or if I need to clarify anything I said above, I’ll happily respond to comments!

September 30, 2020: pop the champagne!

Just a girl and her Chandon and her thematically-appropriate shirt.

I know that finishing a first draft is only the beginning of a long journey, but damn it feels good.

This draft is clocking in at what seems like a whopping 107,642 words, and I honestly can’t believe it’s done. There are a lot of things to fix, of course, but it’s been 8 years since I finished a draft of ANYTHING* and I’m just going to revel for a bit. I quit my job a few months ago and finishing this novel was really my primary goal for how to use this time and… I did it!!

Up next:

  • Setting this one to sit for a bit before draft 2
  • Noodling on and then starting the next novel

Also, wow, I continue to REALLY hate this new WordPress editor!

*If this is the future and any agents or editors are reading this like “I wonder if I want to work with Grace,” I generally am much more productive and work much faster on tasks that I am being paid for.