The Rise and Fall of NXIVM: 20 Years With Raniere on the Throne

The Rise and Fall of NXIVM: 20 Years With Raniere on the Throne
In this courtroom drawing, defendant Keith Raniere, center, is seated between his attorneys Paul DerOhannesian, left, and Marc Agnifilo during the first day of his sex trafficking trial on May 7, 2019. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)
Bowen Xiao

NEW YORK—The umbrella organization known as NXIVM presented itself to the public as a company with noble goals: offering self-help courses to those seeking to improve their lives both personally and professionally. But its facade fell away after the group's founder and leader was arrested in 2018 for recruiting members of the organization into a secret society to be branded and made his sexual "slaves."

At least 17,000 people enrolled in NXIVM's self-improvement classes throughout the course of its two decade-long history. Founded in 1998, the company, which used the structure of a pyramid scheme, would continue to grow until its peak membership in 2016. Then, in May 2018, the company put out a statement on their now-defunct website stating that they were suspending all operations.
Critical media coverage of the group's inner workings played a pivotal role in the group's demise, helping to prevent future members from joining and ultimately culminating in an FBI investigation into NXIVM's leader, Keith Raniere, 58, and his group. Such reports, as early as a 2003 Forbes piece, were a constant thorn for Raniere, who relied on a stream of newcomers to attend his classes referred to as "intensives" that lasted multiple days and cost between $2,000 and $10,000.

Interviews with a former member of NXIVM, an ex-publicist of the group, and a legal expert on cults offer a deeper look into the twisted workings of the now-infamous organization.

The content of the classes, all transcribed from Raniere's speeches, was presented as the core of the NXIVM's curriculum. A “twelve-point mission statement” penned by him shaped much of the philosophy behind the organization. It contained guidelines students were told to recite such as “I will not choose to be a victim" and to keep “all its information confidential.” Much of the teachings played with the moral compasses of members, and focused on breaking apart traditional male–female relationships.

At a Brooklyn federal court, witness after witness—many of them former members—all spoke out against their former leader, who is facing a jury of eight men and four women as the sole defendant. Raniere faces a maximum sentence of life in prison for seven criminal counts, including sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy, and racketeering.

The accusations against Raniere center around the secret society—which he allegedly created in 2015—named DOS, an acronym for the Latin “dominus obsequious sororium,” loosely translated as “master of the slave women." Prosecutors say Raniere was the “highest master” of DOS and forced other members—all women—to have sex with him. Many of the DOS members were branded with a cauterizing pen while naked and being filmed.

The trial, now in its fourth week, is expected to last about six weeks. Raniere appeared calm in court, offering little reaction to witnesses breaking down in tears and speaking with visible anguish on their faces.

Beginning Ascent

NXIVM (pronounced Nex-ee-um) was the second company started by Raniere. In the 1990s, he had opened a company called Consumers Buyline, which was later shut down by the New York state attorney general for utilizing pyramid schemes. Before all this, Raniere was a member of the multi-level marketing company called Amway.
NXIVM grew steadily, reaching its apex around 2015, NXIVM’s ex-publicist-turned-whistleblower, Frank Parlato, told The Epoch Times. Parlato said Raniere was more focused on gaining power, control, and women, over running a successful company. This sentiment was also echoed by the prosecution's Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Hajjar in her opening statement, saying Raniere exploited the trust of his devoted followers to fulfill his own fantasies involving “sex, power, and control.”

"At that point [2015], it had reached its ultimate pinnacle," Parlato said. "Rainiere had accomplished his goals, he was absolute commander on a number of people, women were now branded, he created DOS, he had most of his enemies indicted or silenced."

Before its apex, NXIVM started with just three people, Raniere, co-founder Nancy Salzman, who would later become the group's president, and his current girlfriend at the time, Toni Natalie. Just a few months after the group was created, Natalie quit and would become a target of Raniere.

Parlato describes how in the group's early days, Raniere relied solely on funding from members he swindled, including $8 million from member Michael Sutton, helping him fund his operations and some of his commodities at the time.

But one of the major boosts to the rise in the group's influence wouldn't come until 2002, when Raniere attracted the help of Sara and Clare Bronfman, heiresses to Seagram, a billion-dollar Canadian liquor company.

"Suddenly, the Bronfmans come in and now, he is in the hundreds of millions. Now he could fund his operation. His operation basically was recruit women to have sex with and punish his enemies," Parlato said. "I don't think there was any real component to save the world, that was just a shtick, a front.

"He had 30 homes at his disposal, a harem, women fighting over the opportunity to do his laundry or pick up some food for him. In his own little community, he was a god, he was literally worshipped."

Clare Bronfman was affiliated with NXIVM for a long time, giving away tens of millions of dollars to bankroll Raniere. She also paid for lawyers to defend the group against lawsuits brought by its critics and also filed suits on behalf of the company against former members of the group. She pleaded guilty in April.

NXIVM was headquartered in Albany, New York, before new centers and operations were opened in Monterey, California; Mexico City; Vancouver, Canada; and Los Angeles. Members from around the world were sent to its international network of "intensive classes."

Parlato said that around the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016, NXIVM had "indicted," with the backing of the Bronfmans, multiple members who had left the group including Joe O'Hara, Toni Natalie, Barbara Bouchey, and Parlato himself. Parlato was never a member, working only as a consultant. He was fired six months into the job.

"It wasn't so much the rise of NXIVM, it was always obscure," Parlato said. "It was the rise of Keith Raniere, you can call it NXIVM because that was his alter ego. He thought that would save him legally."

The other five co-defendants in the case have all pleaded guilty; some pleas came after prosecutors added child exploitation charges against Raniere based on evidence he had sex with a 15-year-old girl. Raniere has pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
But Parlato said Raniere's inner circle of women also played an instrumental role in the group's growth.

The Inner Circle

Raniere boasted that he was the smartest man in the world, and his followers believed him.
Former NXIVM member Susan Dones, who first joined the group in December 2000 before leaving in April 2009, told The Epoch Times that Raniere deceived his inner circle of women first, who then tried to manipulate those below them.

During her time in the group, Dones, who resided in Seattle, later became the head of the Seattle Center of Executive Success Programs, also known as ESP within the group, an interchangeable term for NXVIM.

"If you question anything, they would make it all about you and how it was your issue," Dones said of the inner circle.

Some of the women who have testified said they were duped into believing Raniere, noting that he was articulate and bright. They thought he had their best interests at heart.

Dones said that despite the inner circle's strong influence within the group, Raniere was still at the top of the pyramid. She said it took her a while to see there was something going on behind the inner circle.

"Keith needed a group of front-line people to make it plausible to believe anything," she said. "It's like an 'emperor with no clothes' kind of thing."

Parlato described the group as reinforcing Raniere's lifestyle.

"If you had any doubts, there would be your best friends, all these women telling you that it's your issue," he said. "That you have misunderstood the greatness that is Keith, that his whole desire is to enlighten you." 

Dones echoed other members' testimony that nobody really made any money from the group. She witnessed Raniere's further descent into darkness when he gained the Bronfmans' support.

"The influence they were able to gain legally, politically, made him get worse and worse," she said. "The more he got away with, the worse he became. Once he got away with something, he had to up his ante to the next thing so he could get some kind of excitement out of it."

In Albany, the members of the inner circle varied, but usually included 70 women and about 10 men, according to Parlato. Raniere was sleeping with most of the women.

Although there may have been 20 people in one class, Parlato said most of them were returning core members, who were persuaded into taking the courses again and again.

Dones said inner-circle members who slept with Raniere were also part of the executive board, a major conflict of interest.

"The board can't really make a decision that's not affected by him," she said.

Raniere's Curriculum

Dones said she was intrigued by the structure of NXIVM's programs. It was a somewhat familiar structure, like that of other self-help classes she had attended. But instead of having one class leader, it was more of an inductive process. Those attending the class were divided into small groups and asked a set of inductive questions that were then explored as a group before they came back with answers.

She said when she was attending, Salzman was the head trainer, but there was something off about the content.

"For me, what was weird was how much they talked about Keith—that I didn't like."

Dones saw Raniere for the first time on the fifth day of her intensive. Her image of him from that day never changed.

"I always thought he was creepy," she said.

The programs, Dones believed, could be beneficial to some people in breaking their limitations. But she realized early on that Raniere was not as morally upright as he claimed he was.

"I caught on right away that he was overly affectionate with some women," she said. "Not all women."

Dones started asking questions about Raniere and turned to Salzman. The response she got was that they don't talk about these things. Dones couldn't get a straight answer out of anybody until much later.

The classes served as a "hunting ground" of sorts for Raniere to use in scoping out women, according to the former member.

"Keith used it for women he sexually desired," Dones said. "They also used it as a financial hunting ground for people who had assets. They used it for free labor."

According to court documents, DOS 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.

Dones said the group tried to get her to commit crimes and said she often felt psychologically abused.

"The first thing they did was to try to get me to not pay taxes, I think they used that to gain collateral over me, I didn't know that then," she said, noting that she refused their request. Nancy told her later they were bringing cash over the border from Mexico centers to avoid paying taxes.

The next thing they tried was to convince her to be unfaithful.

"I was in long-term relationship ... NXIVM's main pimp tried to pimp me out to Nancy Salzman," Dones said.

That person was Pamela Cafritz, a longtime member of Raniere's harem who has since passed away from cancer. Dones said that Salzman had a similar conversation with her, pushing her to have a relationship with another female member.

"They do this whole divide and conquer for people in a relationship because its easier to manipulate someone when they are single," she said.

DOS members were allegedly recruited on the condition that they would give up personal, often embarrassing, information about themselves, including compromising images or videos, as “collateral.” Once inside, members were regularly required to provide additional collateral to ensure that they kept the group’s activities secret.

"At some point, they [NXIVM] turned into a cult of personality," Cathleen Mann, a court-qualified expert witness told The Epoch Times. "The product that you see today sitting in the courtroom is the product of many, many years of isolation and complete reinforcement by his inner circle." Mann has testified in more than 40 separate cult cases. 

Confronting The 'Emperor'

Over time, Dones said her concerns deepened. She described herself as "too defiant" and too inquisitive. She rarely saw Raniere since the group kept her away from him.

Before leaving, Dones and a number of other women confronted Raniere. His response to them was one lie after another, she said. Dones recorded the confrontation on camera.

On the second day of their face-off, the small group realized they were getting nowhere. On their third and final day, they let Raniere know they were resigning. Dones was sued by the group the next year. She ultimately won the case.

Dones said she stayed in NXIVM because she thought it was "about helping people to help themselves" and not entirely about making money. She described creating a loving community at her own center in Seattle, which she headed. Members had potlucks together, talent shows, and created friendships.

But the premise, she said, was ruined by Raniere and his inner circle. She described them as "toxic waste."

"Water is good, but if you finely grind up glass to where you can't really see it and put a little bit of that finely ground-up powder to water—now all of a sudden the water's not good.

"And you can't separate the water from the glass that you put in there," she explained.

Ten years later, Dones said she is still suffering from the effects of her time in NXIVM. She goes to therapy for PTSD twice a month.

Mann said the organization was "created from power without checks and balances," adding that it was "more comfortable" for them to function like that. She said the case teaches a lesson into how a lack of checks, coupled with isolation, can "alter and affect" a person.

"It's pretty easy to be trapped when you are being manipulated emotionally," Mann said, referring to the women who had fallen in love with Raniere.

The Fall

Media reporting on the group intensified throughout the years, especially in 2010, when blogger John Tighe started regularly writing about the group's inner workings. "That shook them up pretty good," Parlato said.
Despite a growing number of media stories critical of the group, there was no law enforcement action. In 2015, Parlato began his own blog on the group. In June 2017, Parlato said he first broke the story about the branding scheme, causing rank-and-file members to flee the organization. 

In 2016, an annual event called "Vanguard week," a multi-day-long celebration of Raniere's birthday, had 450 members attend. In 2017, two months after Parlato broke the branding story, there were only 125 in attendance.

In October 2017, The New York Times wrote a report on the branding, prompting the Eastern District of New York to look into the case. NXIVM had already been on notice of criminality in the Northern District of New York for years but nothing had been done.

Seven months after that, Raniere was behind bars after a dramatic arrest in Mexico, where he had fled.

Bowen Xiao was a New York-based reporter at The Epoch Times. He covers national security, human trafficking and U.S. politics.
Related Topics