NEW YORK—The founder and leader behind the now-defunct organization NXIVM was also behind a branding ceremony that members of an internal secret society were forced to participate in, an audio recording played during the ongoing trial on May 22 revealed.
Keith Raniere, 58, has been charged for an array of crimes including sex trafficking and racketeering conspiracy. He styled himself as the “grandmaster” of a secret society within NXIVM called “DOS,” while its members, all women, were his sexual “slaves.” The pyramid schemes the organization utilized were also Raniere’s creation. NXIVM presented itself as a company offering self-help classes.
DOS is an acronym for “dominus obsequious sororium,” which loosely translates as “master over the slave women” in Latin.
At the federal court in Brooklyn, the prosecution played a recording of a conversation between former “Smallville” actress Allison Mack and Raniere. Mack was a high-ranking member and part of NXIVM’s inner circle.
The brand was a symbol incorporating Raniere’s initials that was burned onto the skin of DOS members with a cauterizing pen, during a process that took “20 to 30 minutes,” according to court documents.
“The person that should be branded should be completely nude and held to the table,” Raniere told Mack during what may have been a planning session for the branding ceremony, in the audio recording played for the court.
“Almost like a sacrifice?” he seems to ask while trying to explain his idea. “It’s a feeling of submission.”
Raniere also said the branding ritual itself should be recorded on video from “different angles” to be used as “collateral.” DOS members were allegedly recruited on the condition that they give up personal, often embarrassing, information about themselves, including compromising images or videos, referred to as collateral. Once inside, members were regularly required to provide additional collateral to ensure that they kept the group’s activities a secret.
“It probably should be a more vulnerable position,” Raniere describes to Mack, referring to how members should present themselves during the branding ceremony. “Hands above the head … like sacrificial.”
Raniere, who was referred to as “Vanguard” by his followers, also said that DOS members should say that they themselves wanted to be branded, so that it “doesn’t seem like they are being coerced.” The conversation took place in January 2017, according to prosecutors.
“The person should ask to be branded,” Raniere told Mack. “Something like, ‘Please brand me, it would be an honor,’ something like that. ‘An honor I want to wear for the rest of my life.'”
Mack said “OK” in response to Raniere’s directions.
The recording played inside the court contradicted what Mack told The New York Times in a 2018 profile on NXIVM, in which she had claimed that the branding was all her own idea.
“Even if they cried when they were getting the brand, even if they wore surgical masks to help them with breathing in the smell of burning flesh … they were still able to transcend the fear and cry out to one another … ‘Let’s get strong together,'” Mack told the newspaper.
Raniere also tried to downplay the pain of the branding ritual, telling Mack that love is stronger than anything, “even over life itself.” DOS employed a pyramid structure involving levels of “slaves” headed by “masters”; slaves were then expected to recruit their own slaves, thus becoming masters themselves.
“Pain is how we know how much we love. Although my body may be burned or tortured or whatever, my love is strong,” Raniere told Mack.
As the recordings were played to the jury, witness Lauren Salzman—a former member of NXIVM who was part of the DOS inner circle—answered questions from the prosecution concerning certain quotes. Salzman, who has pleaded guilty in the case, confirmed all branding ceremonies were videotaped.
Salzman noted that though Raniere appeared to simply be giving suggestions in the recording, everything he said was incorporated into the ceremony, including word-for-word the phrase that members would say about wanting to get branded. Salzman said she had used the exact same phrase in her own branding ceremony.