With an outgoing and enthusiastic personality, the actress Allison Mack was the perfect person to spread the word about a feminist mentoring programme. She was passionate about the advantages it had given her and tweeted at her fellow actress Emma Watson and the singer Kelly Clarkson that both women would benefit by joining. “I hope we can work together. Let me know if you’re willing to chat,” she said in a follow-up to Watson.
Mack even proselytised when she was auditioning. The actress Samia Shoaib, who says she was at a crisis point in her life and drinking too much, recalled Mack was persistent in trying to recruit her at a casting call in Manhattan. “She told me, ‘It’s a bunch of women. We go on a retreat and we share our experiences and support each other,” Shoaib, who appeared in the films Sixth Sense and Pi, said on American television. “Looking back, it was a very contrived effort, but at the time she seemed so sincere.”
None of the women joined, which is just as well, because the 35-year-old blonde actress who played the friend of the young Superman in the TV series Smallville is on $5 million bail, having been accused of sex trafficking. She is under house arrest and is due in court again tomorrow.
It’s the latest development in the strange story of a secret sorority called Nxivm which has entangled a bizarre set of characters, from Hollywood actresses to billionaire heiresses (who happen to be the debonair actor Nigel Havers’s step-daughters) to a shady and mysterious cult leader called Keith Raniere.
Mack is alleged to have recruited women for a secret sorority called Nxivm — pronounced Nexium — run by a shady self-help guru called Keith Raniere.
Raniere is in prison in Brooklyn awaiting trial. According to the FBI, the 57-year-old cult leader exploited his female acolytes for financial benefit and maintained “a rotating group of 15 to 20 women” with whom he had sexual relations. These women were allowed to have sex only with him, according to the FBI agent Michael Lever.
Raniere and the grandiosely named Nxivm have been around for years and have long attracted controversy. However, recent revelations that female followers were branded — seared with hot irons in sadistic rites meant to prove loyalty to their “masters” — finally prompted the authorities to act. The US Attorney’s office in Brooklyn has opened an investigation into Nxivm, and New York state officials and the FBI are also investigating the group.
Details about what when went on in the group led by this creepily charismatic leader are bizarre.
Raniere urged women to follow near-starvation diets to achieve the physique he found attractive. Women were required to give female recruiters “collateral” — naked photographs of themselves and other compromising material — that would be used as blackmail if they wanted to leave Nxivm. Some women were branded on their lower abdomens with a symbol that included Raniere’s initials. Shockingly, this was women-on-women barbarity. So much for the sisterhood and female empowerment. The US Attorney’s office in Brooklyn has opened an investigation into Nxivm and New York state officials and the FBI is also investigating the group.
“Keith is one of the smartest men I’ve met in my life, but he’s the real wolf in sheep’s clothing. Every year he got a little crazier,” says Raniere’s former girlfriend Barbara Bouchey, a financial consultant.
Bouchey was 40 years old and says she was a self-made millionaire when she took one of Raniere’s workshops in upstate New York in 2000. She was going through a divorce, a friend had committed suicide and a business associate thought that she could benefit from the guru’s system of life coaching.
“He came over with Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, with parts of it highlighted, and said; ‘You’re Dagny,’ ” she recalls. He was referring to the beautiful and successful protagonist of the novel. “It felt improper because he was the teacher, but then I was flattered.
“He told me it was ordained that we should meet, that he had been having dreams that I was coming into his life. There was already a hierarchy of women. Everyone knew their place in the pecking order, but he told his inner circle about me, telling them I was like a thoroughbred racehorse who was going to help them cross the finishing line. I was deeply in love.”
Brooklyn-born Raniere had already got into trouble with the authorities in 1996 for his company called Consumers Buyline, described as a “multi-level marketing system”. The business was shut down after being investigated by regulators in 20 states and revealed to be a pyramid scheme.
Two years later, with his business partner and former nurse Nancy Salzman, Raniere started Executive Success Programs (ESP), which offered courses in the development of human potential using “Rational Inquiry” technology. These were the classes that Bouchey attended.
According to promotional material, the school would help people to develop consistent ways of approaching goals by changing the way students thought, made decisions and reacted. There were modules with titles such as Parasites, about people who crave attention, and Suppressives, about people who are disloyal to Raniere’s teachings. Adults were encouraged to have “disintegrations” and to learn to understand the world from the perspective of a small child.
Sashes of different colours were assigned to participants to denote rank. White sashes denoted the lowest rank, then moved on to yellow, orange, green, blue, purple and gold. Only Raniere was colourless and did not wear a sash. Courses started at $2,700 and went as high as $20,000. Yearly subscriptions to drop-in workshops cost $1,800. According to one estimate more than 16,000 people went through these workshops.
Bouchey joined the executive board and helped with enrolments. She says she was unaware Raniere was sleeping with other women.
They were together for nine years. “He was charismatic, he could hold an audience of hundreds of people in the palm of his hand. Everyone wants to say that he’s an evil crook, but he wouldn’t have been able to bring people through these doors if there wasn’t something brilliant about him.”
When they fell out nine years later — Bouchey says she began to feel disillusioned — Raniere started a smear campaign against her, she claims. “I’ve been dragged into 14 lawsuits, had to spend $700,000 on lawyers’ fees. They’ve hired people to follow me, hacked into my banking and phone records. One of the inner circle told me there was a plan to kidnap me and take me to Mexico and put me in a dark, dark place. This is crazy, crazy stuff,” Bouchey says.
Sara Bronfman, an heiress to the Seagram liquor fortune, joined Nxivm in 2002 and roped in her sister Clare. Both women became followers. The sisters spent part of their childhood in the UK after their mother, Georgiana — born Rita Webb in Essex and a former au pair – divorced their father, Edgar Bronfman, one of America’s richest men. She has since married Havers. Edgar, who died in 2013, gave ESP a try and was initially enthusiastic. However, the billionaire businessman changed his mind and said in an exposé in Forbes magazine in 2003: “I think it’s a cult.”
Reports emerged of how Raniere wanted his students to bow to him and to call him Vanguard and call Salzman Prefect.
According to legal filings and public documents, as much as $150 million of the Bronfman sisters’ trust funds was funnelled into the secretive organisation. Of that, $66 million was used to cover Raniere’s failed attempts to speculate in commodities markets, $30 million was spent on real estate holdings, $11 million went on a 22-seat, two-engine jet and the rest went to cover legal costs for lawsuits against Nxivm defectors and other enemies. The Bronfman sisters deny the amount of money involved.
Clare Bronfman, who is now said to be in charge of Nxivm, says that neither she nor Raniere have done anything wrong. In a statement on her website she says Raniere is “dedicated to the betterment of the lives of others” and calls him her dear friend.
The former Nxivm publicist Frank Parlato says when he came on board in 2007 he didn’t think there was anything sinister about the group. “I thought they were just a bunch of hooky people. As long as it was voluntary, it was none of my business,” he says.
Although Raniere had many women at his disposal, he was no Don Juan. Parlato describes him as 5ft 5in tall and feminine in his mannerisms. “He’s got a pudgy belly and he isn’t the most hygienic person, but he does have a certain nerdy, boyish charm,” Parlato says.
He described how women were indoctrinated with a regimen that sounds not unlike the life of many a Hollywood actress, involving long days and restrictive diets. “There’d be cold showers in the morning and periods of silence. You’d have to reduce your food intake to 800 calories, read certain books and there’d be readiness drills in which you have to respond within 60 seconds,” he says.
“Days started at 7am and might not finish till 10 or 11pm. The temperature was either too cold or too hot. Everyone who took the course said they were out of it for part of the time.”
Women were not allowed to meet Raniere until they had done 16 days of ESP courses. The new recruits, who were called slaves, had to agree to have naked pictures taken. “It’s coming from a woman you trust, somebody you look up to, and they’re telling you it’s never going to be used. These aren’t arty shots — I’m talking about something that would make Larry Flynt blush.”
Parlato, a former journalist who broke the story of the branding of female adherents, thinks there were between 25 and 50 victims. When a woman reached a certain level of proficiency she was told that she was getting a tattoo. “Other women would blindfold her, hold her down and burn her with a hot iron. There was no anaesthesia. It would have been extremely painful,” he says.
As for men, a handful were involved in the alleged cult and were called the Society of Protectors. “They were taught that their wives or girlfriends must be monogamous, but they had the right to sleep with whoever they wanted,” Parlato says.
Some of Raniere’s female disciples have scattered in the wake of the controversy, but others have stayed the course.
The family of India Oxenberg, the daughter of the former actress Catherine Oxenberg and granddaughter of Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia, says that the 26-year-old has been brainwashed by the cult. Her mother is writing a book about her attempts to free her daughter from Raniere’s clutches.
At Raniere’s last court appearance in Brooklyn, Catherine rubbished claims that all the behaviour in Raniere’s secret organisation had been consensual. “Ultimately, they’re all victims of Keith Raniere,” she told reporters. Asked what she would like to say to her daughter, who remains enmeshed with the group, Oxenberg replied: “I love you. Come home.”
The British writer Alexandra Stein, the author of Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in Cults and Totalitarian Systems and a specialist in the social psychology of ideological extremism, says Nxivm fits her five-point definition of a cult. “One: the leader is a charismatic bully. Two: the structure of the group isolates people. The third aspect is the total ideology and belief system. Fourth is the process of brainwashing and fifth is creating controllable, exploitable followers who serve the needs of a leader and who are not able to think of their own interests.” The women in the group will have been “victims as well as perpetrators” because of brainwashing, she adds.
America is no stranger to sex trials. Last week the 80-year-old comedian Bill Cosby was found guilty of drugging and molesting a former employee, Andrea Constand. In total, five dozen women accused the actor of a pattern of sexual assaults spanning half a century. When the women ensnared by Nxivm get their chance to have their say in court, who knows what other murky revelations await.
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