NEW YORK—Exclusive interviews from five former school classmates of Keith Raniere—one of them an Epoch Times staff member who sat next to him all through 5th grade and rode the school bus with him for four years—paint a picture of how a young boy wound up on the path to becoming the founder of the execrable secret society known as NXIVM (pronounced Nex-ee-um).
Raniere was indicted on sex trafficking charges in April along with Allison Mack, the former “Smallville” actress who held the second-highest position in NXIVM. Raniere remains behind bars amid an ongoing court trial, while Mack was released on a $5 million bond.
The interviews, almost all from female classmates of Raniere, evoke memories of a bright, charismatic, and good-looking boy of short-stature who, on the surface, didn’t seem to stand out. But, as The Epoch Times explored these recollections reaching back 50 years, a more sinister picture formed. For fear of being tracked down by the NXIVM network, some chose to only use their initials.
Raniere’s classmates reveal how his immoral descent could have stemmed from a deep resentment of girls and women he developed after experiencing rejection in his youth. This apparent hatred of the opposite sex, coupled with a need to be adored, hint at what he would later become.
From the late 1960s to early ’70s, Raniere and his classmates attended a Rudolf Steiner grade school in New York. The specific school can’t be named for privacy reasons. Steiner schools, also known as Waldorf schools, focus on teaching holistic education, often through myths, legends, and Bible stories (famous Steiner school alumni include Annie Lennox, Julianna Margulies, Sandra Bullock, and Jennifer Aniston). However, the school’s moral-centric teachings seemed to have had little effect on Raniere, from even a young age.
“Some kids are born evil. Keith was born evil,” Jessica Plaut, who knew him from grades 2 to 4, said.
Need to Be Worshipped
All four women described Raniere similarly. They said he was charismatic to some degree but arrogant and always wanted to show off his intellect. Academically, Raniere excelled in math and was quite bright, at least in his preadolescent years.
“His ego was through the roof. There were after-school times … I guess Keith was waiting to be picked up, and he was in his martial arts outfit and would do all his moves in front of me, trying to impress me,” recalled Tracy McCarren, who chose to use her maiden name.
“He was sort of a show-off. He would always try to outdo someone,” J.S., a former classmate of Raniere’s from grades 1 to 4, said.
Raniere’s classmates remember him as a kind of loner who possibly only had one friend in grade school, a boy named Ronald. He was similarly unpopular in high school and didn’t seem to belong to any particular social group.
“He’s a sociopath, a narcissist. Everything was always about him. He was always bragging about how smart he was, how much better at math. He walked around like he was a miniature professor,” said L.M., who was in the class above Raniere, but rode the school bus with him for many years.
Mark Jackson, an Epoch Times writer who sat next to Raniere during 5th grade and spent time with him outside of school, said it was obvious that Raniere’s “need to be special” had reached new heights when Raniere came back to visit their school for one day in grade 12. Raniere had left the school in grade 7 to attend a public junior high school.
“When he came back for a visit, he bragged nonstop about all these girls that he’d fooled around with at parties,” Jackson said. “He was also preternaturally hirsute—he’d grown a 12th-grade beard that none of the rest of us could grow, and kept sticking his chin out and pointing to it.
“Everything that was sort of in germ form in grade school had started to blossom,” he added. “It was magnified—the competitive nature, the needing to be worshipped and envied, was starting to become visibly pathological.”
Jackson also remembers that on that particular day, Raniere had brought along another former classmate of theirs, Matthew, who’d taken to acting as Raniere’s “servant, of sorts.”
“Now, he had this valet, this guy like a sidekick, that was setting the stage up for ‘Master.’ Like, ‘Please, Master, tell us how you did this thing, how you did that thing, what’s the record and the fastest thing that you did,’ all that stuff,” Jackson said. “It had clearly become a court jester-king, servant-master relationship.”
This servant-master dynamic played out in full when Raniere later founded a secret society within NXIVM called DOS, or “The Vow,” around 2015. DOS is an acronym for the Latin “dominus obsequious sororium,” which translates loosely as “master over the slave women.” The secret society operated as a pyramid scheme, with levels of slaves headed by masters. Slaves were then expected to recruit their own slaves, thus becoming masters themselves.
In all of this, Raniere was at the top, the highest master within the society, and was referred to as “The Vanguard” by members, according to a recent court complaint filed in New York’s Eastern District court. The New York-based NXIVM masqueraded as a self-help company that ran “executive success programs” and other similar curricula.
Raniere’s need to always feel superior could explain his targeting of vulnerable women who had low self-esteem and were easier to manipulate. Even during grade school, Raniere displayed these characteristics, his former classmates say.
“He knows how to find your weak spots and poke at them. He had a really gentle voice and gentle approach. It was deceptive, it could draw you in,” said L.M., who knew him for a few years at the Waldorf school and about a year and a half in high school.
“He’s the kind of person who could sell ice to an eskimo,” J.S. said. “That combination of his intelligence or his vision mixed with vulnerable or desperate people—he’s a real salesman. He abused his power and intelligence.
“It’s like the devil took over him—very ugly.”
Plaut, who has had special needs since childhood, said that Raniere tormented her and teased her because she was an easy target. She said he was able to isolate peoples’ weaknesses and use his “superior intellect” to “nail people.”
One incident, which Plaut calls the “microscope incident,” took place in grade 3, and it has stuck with her since. Her friend Matthew and Raniere were looking at flies under a microscope, but when Plaut asked Raniere if she could look, he secretly took the flies away.
“I said, ‘I don’t see anything Keith, there’s nothing there.’ And he goes, ‘There is, but you’re just too stupid to see what it is.’
“I said, ‘I’m not stupid,’ and then he goes, ‘Oh yes, you are. You’re one of the stupidest people I’ve ever met. You’re so stupid nobody wants to be your friend.’ And Matthew just stood there with his mouth open.’”
Raniere’s targeting of vulnerable women appeared to pay off around 2009, when he pursued two wealthy and influential sisters, Sara and Clare Bronfman, the heiresses of Seagram, a billion-dollar Canadian liquor company. The sisters donated $150 million to NXIVM. Former insiders told VICE in April this year that Clare is currently leading the secret society.
One thing Jackson observed was that despite Raniere’s manipulative qualities, he could never get the “attractive” girls in class, “though he tried mightily, to the point of making a fool of himself.”
L.M. added: “I think girls who had a lot of self-esteem would have seen through him. I think they would have just told him to get lost.”
Obsession and Blackmail
As the master of the DOS inner circle of NXIVM, Raniere was known to have sexually preferred women who were “exceptionally thin.” He maintained a rotating group of about 15 to 20 women with whom he had sexual relationships.
Some of the NXIVM teachings also touted the need for men to have multiple sex partners, but for women to be monogamous.
“A number of the slaves’ assignments required them to adhere to extremely low-calorie diets and to document every food they ate,” according to notes from the recent court filing.
McCarren says Raniere’s skinny fetish may even have originated with her, as he developed a crush on her beginning in grade 2. But she stressed that Raniere could never get her attention back then.
“He had a crush on me. This was the time that someone started calling me ‘Twiggy,’ then all the other boys followed with that nickname,” she said. “That was during the age of puberty, and boys are starting to fixate on their likes and what not.”
McCarren continued: “My daughter, Sarah, had seen a couple of news clips about Keith, about how he likes his cult women exceptionally thin and starves them—Sarah looked at me and said, ‘Oh my God, Mom! What if that’s because of you?'”
Jackson was also a witness to what he calls an “ongoing crush” Raniere had on McCarren.
“We called Tracy ‘Twiggy’ because she was extremely pretty and rail-thin, like the supermodel Twiggy of the 1960s,” Jackson said, adding that he believes Raniere’s “obsession” with McCarren and inability to “get her” may have left a deep mark on him.
The former classmates say that, in other ways, Raniere was highly persuasive, and his blackmail and collateral tactics can be traced back to his childhood. L.M. said that whenever she looks back on Raniere, she remembers the “bottle incident.”
L.M. recalls being on the bus with Raniere when she unwittingly gave up some compromising information about one of her sisters. But since “they were all friends,” she thought no one would tell.
Later, Raniere approached her, and said, “You know, it’s like I have this little bottle of poison I can hold over your head,” L.M. recalled. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’, and he said, ‘Well, I don’t know. I just don’t think your parents or your sister would be very happy if I told them.’”
She said Raniere did not specifically ask for anything in return, only that he wanted her to know he had this “power” over her.
“He would call me sometimes and say, ‘Little bottles, little bottles,’’’ L.M. added.
After L.M. finally confessed to her parents about what Raniere was doing, her mother intervened and stopped Raniere from taking it any further. She said that, looking back now, it’s clear that Raniere’s use of “collateral” tactics started when he was about 9 or 10 years old. “It was basically the same thing,” she said.
Similarly, members of the NXIVM society were recruited on the condition that they gave up private information on themselves, including compromising images or videos, as “collateral.” Once inside, they were regularly required to provide additional materials so as to ensure that they kept secret the society’s inner workings.
Raniere would often stretch the truth to benefit himself. Jackson suggests Raniere seemed to take a page from Adolf Hitler’s book on telling “big lies”—he told them until people started to believe them.
“He said that he was the world’s smartest man, but then you find out he took some little IQ test and wasn’t recognized,” Jackson said. “All this stuff, like how he taught himself to be a world-class pianist at a young age—that’s nonsense, he was not a good musician. He took everything that he did, and said, ‘I was the best at it.'”
“I have a feeling he studied hypnotism and used it on women,” Jackson added.
“What strikes me the most, though, is that if you look at his eyes in photos now, he’s not really there; I don’t see Keith in there. It almost looks like something demonic took over.”
After the arrests of Raniere and Mack, the secret society they built started to collapse.
“It is with deep sadness that we inform you we are suspending all NXIVM/ESP enrollment, curriculum, and events until further notice,” the NXIVM website stated, as of May 27, 2018.
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