NXIVM, Explained: Part 1

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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

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Disclaimer: Before the remnants of NXIVM sue me, I wish to clarify that the items covered in this post are allegations. I am merely recapping and collating the reporting done over many years by other media sources, including highly credible publications and media organizations that I trust to both fact-check their work and who also ran their articles or documentaries through their legal department. That’s all that is happening here. A simple recap of allegations.