How did NXIVM convince so many celebrities to join their cult?
The NXIVM brand has mutated from an obscure company that provided self-help seminars into a notorious cult responsible for sex trafficking, torture, and child pornography. The NXIVM cult started out modestly in 1998 and centered its self-help seminars around the concept of “rational inquiry”.
But before we discuss how the NXIVM cult used “rational inquiry” to convert so many celebrities, let’s delve into the ideas Keith Raniere had obsessed about a decade before he started NXIVM.
What obsessions created the NXIVM cult?
In the 80s, Keith Raniere had become obsessed with the Church of Scientology and Neuro-linguistic programming. We all know what the Church of Scientology is, but Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is an obscure pseudoscientific approach to communication & personal development. As Raniere slowly started to merge the tactics of control used by the Church of Scientology with NLP, NXIVM was born.
What provided Raniere with the soft power necessary to start the NXIVM cult are likely the concepts & methodology found within NLP. The main concepts of NLP are that the neurological processes of our bodies are intimately connected to language, and that behavior patterns learned through experience, dubbed “programming”, can be used to help people achieve specific goals in life.
What reprogramming concepts were used by the NXIVM cult?
Programming consciousness is woven into NLP by three main ideas. First, NLP practitioners accept that we experience the world subjectively, that this subjectivity is experiential and sensory-based, and that behavior can be described, understood, and modified through these sense-based subjective representations.
Secondly, consciousness is both self-aware and unconscious. Finally, we can re-learn our experiences. Re-learning experiences is called “modelling” by NLP, and Raniere used a similar term by breaking down his “rational inquiry” technique into “modules”.
The similarity doesn’t stop there, as re-learning and rational inquiry both require the individual to alter the meaning of the sensory stimulus the person experiences. This powerful technique was used by the NXIVM cult to conscript loyal followers.
When did Keith Raniere develop the manipulative strategies used by the NXIVM cult?
As Raniere continued to learn about NLP throughout the 80s and watched its founders bicker over legal rights, he began putting the ideas into practice. In 1984 Raniere, 24 at the time, started dating a 15-year-old. He had convinced the minor that she was a Buddhist goddess meant to be with him. She dropped out of high school to join his company, Consumer’s Buyline – before committing suicide.
Although you don’t need advanced multi-level marketing techniques to convince teenagers to do ridiculous things, Raniere would continue to persuade people to join his ventures. After a chance encounter with NLP practitioner Nancy Salzman, Raniere founded “Executive Success Programs”, ultimately rebranding the company to NXIVM.
What’s so rational about the “rational inquiry” method used in the NXIVM cult?
Raniere has unsuccessfully attempted to patent his “rational inquiry” method; exactly how it works is opaque at best. With the NLP concepts in mind, we can see how manipulative language, restructuring people’s remembered experiences, and physical threats can be utilized to create either pleasurable or horrific experiences. The question remains: why did people fall under this spell and join the NXIVM cult?
Much like any good brainwashing, the method of manipulation must first start out small. At the self-help seminars, Raniere would use a technique of “collateralizing”, whereby he would ask participants to pay small fees for doing things counter to their goals. For example, if your goal was to lose weight, you pay a fee when you eat junk food or skip the gym. Slowly, these fees were increased.
How did the NXIVM cult make irrationality rational?
As the price for infractions continued to go up, the NXIVM cult’s use of “rational inquiry” progressed into outright interrogation in order to match the beliefs of members with their behaviors. At its root, “rational inquiry” was used to change the meaning of a subject’s experience by redefining basic concepts & words, such as good & bad. Definitions would be manipulated to suit Raniere’s goals.
Once the definitions of these words had been reestablished, then more extreme changes could take place. Similar to the concepts of NLP, NXIVM’s method of “rational inquiry” was used to reframe the subjective experiences of members to fit these new definitions.
Via this reorganization of concepts in the subject’s mind, evidence could easily be fabricated to indicate a subject to be approaching or moving away from a goal and further push an individual into the direction Raniere wished.
Higher stakes: Deeper into the NXIVM cult
Like any manipulation technique, threats also encouraged members to continue trying. Collateral increased to include private information, and nude photos. Members further along were granted the privilege of being “masters”, required to recruit new members as slaves.
On the surface, members were drawn into the NXIVM cult by the promise of self-improvement. As they began their journey, distinguishing the difference between progress & manipulation became challenging. Collateral continued to grow and experienced memories were reinterpreted until a member no longer knew how deep he or she had gone.
How did people fall victim to the NXIVM cult?
Ultimately, the ability to manipulate and influence members likely rested in Raniere’s glazed Rasputin-like stare & arrogance. There’s no one specific method that all cults use, but lording at the pinnacle is a megalomaniacal figure who sees any others who can be manipulated as deserving it – a figure like Raniere.
Keith Raniere is still awaiting sentencing for the heinous crimes he committed in the NXIVM cult. His sentencing date has been moved since we’re all in a global timeout, but we’ll keep you updated with new developments when they become available.