Dark secrets of the NXIVM cult: A chilling story of celebrity brandings
Content warning: This article mentions events that may be disturbing to some readers, containing topics such as sex trafficking and physical & emotional abuse.
Chances are you’ve probably heard of a multi-level marketing company at some point in your life. Some multi-level marketing companies, or MLMs, skillfully hide their pyramid schemes, luring those who are interested in the prospect of high earnings and a “family” of coworkers.
In reality, only a few members of MLMs actually make as much money as they claim, leaving many with too much of their own product and with thousands of dollars in debt.
Some MLMs are even more sinister; NXIVM is an MLM that turned into a cult, preying on women and the vulnerable, causing both physical & emotional harm to its members.
You might have heard of NXIVM in the news due to its relation to celebrities like Allison Mack (Smallville), who was revealed to be a NXIVM recruiter, or because of the first season of the CBC podcast Uncover. The cult was founded in 1998 by Keith Raniere & Nancy Salzman in New York, offering self-help “Executive Success Programs” in the form of seminars.
NXIVM started off looking like a self-improvement group set up like an MLM, in which participants earned money by recruiting others, promising change & enlightenment. MLMs are ideal for criminals to hide fraud: while members seem to be making thousands of dollars by selling & recruiting, they also spend thousands to get the product – sometimes even more than the revenue.
Once trusted in NXIVM, the entire landscape for a member changed. Members were forced to call leaders their “master” and they, in turn, are called “slaves.” Then, members were put through an initiation ceremony – which ended in literal branding of the member’s skin. The brand took the form of the letters K-R-A-M: the initials of Allison Mack and NXIVM’s co-founder Keith Raniere.
In addition, women who settled into NXIVM gradually exposed every secret of themselves. Some were even coerced into taking revealing photos of themselves, were later used as blackmail to stay in NXIVM, and do Raniere’s bidding. Some “secrets” were actually false, but “admitted” on record for collateral.
Since evidence has piled up about NXIVM, Keith Raniere and other NXIVM recruiters were arrested and indicted for multiple charges, including sex trafficking. Raniere was also revealed to have taken advantage of underage girls and been in possession of child pornography.
During Raniere’s trial in June 2019, more was revealed about the scope of the crimes within the NXIVM cult. Women were punished if they gained weight, reflecting Reniere’s preferences of what he thought a woman should look like. He also groomed a young woman to lose her virginity not long after she turned 18; she was held captive for two years.
It’s difficult to read through these findings and listen to victims’ stories, but learning how to find culprits like Raniere may stop schemes like this from happening in the future.
Many recruiters, including co-founder Nancy Salzman, Allison Mack, and others, pleaded guilty to charges and are awaiting sentencing. Raniere was convicted on June 19th, 2019 for sex trafficking & racketeering. His sentencing will be brought later this year.
To learn more about NXIVM, listen to season 1 of CBC podcast Uncover. An HBO docuseries on NXIVM is currently in production.
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