The making of Vanguard

The story of how NXIVM's Keith Raniere went from gifted child to self-help guru to accused sex-cult leader

CBC/September 12, 2018

By Josh Bloch, Kathleen Goldhar, Anita Elash and Dave Pizer

NXIVM calls itself a humanitarian community. Experts and critics call it a cult. Uncover: Escaping NXIVM is a new CBC investigative podcast series about the group and its leader, Keith Raniere, who claims to be one of the smartest men in the world and insists his followers address him as "Vanguard." Read about how Raniere spent decades refining his guru persona and powers of persuasion — powers that prosecutors say he used to coerce and control women.

The story of how Keith Raniere became an international self-help guru — and, later, an accused sex-cult leader — is a cautionary tale about the power of storytelling itself.

The same way a chef spends years practising his knife skills and perfecting his recipes, Raniere spent a lifetime developing his powers of persuasion and adding to his own legend.

At the height of his influence, as leader of a New York-based personal development training organization called NXIVM, Raniere had hundreds of followers who would hang on his every word and address him as "Vanguard."

Toni Natalie first heard of Raniere in 1991, when her husband, Rusty, informed her that "one of the most intelligent men in the world" was coming to Rochester, N.Y., to pitch his discount purchasing club, Consumers' Buyline.

Natalie had no desire to join another multi-level marketing scheme, but she says Rusty convinced her that Raniere was special and they should hear him out.

"You're gonna love this," she recalls Rusty telling her. "He has a 240 IQ … triple-major graduate from RPI [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute], pianist, cyclist, East Coast judo champion. And he wants to save the world."

The aspiring saviour Natalie saw on stage was 31, short, with a bowl haircut, little round glasses and rosy cheeks. Raniere bounced slightly as he walked around in his suit trying to recruit members for his fledgling business.

Natalie found Raniere to be humble, but also very engaging. She approached him after the presentation.

"I said to him, 'God gifted you with all this brilliance, why aren’t you curing cancer? Why aren't you doing something magnificent?'"

She says Raniere replied, "Oh, I will be. I'm going to change the world. This is my platform. This is where I’m going to begin. Don't you want to come along?"

Natalie absolutely did. "Who says no to that?"

As it turns out, Raniere found new, more effective ways to convince people that he could change the world. After Consumers' Buyline collapsed in 1994, because various state and federal authorities suspected it was a pyramid scheme, Raniere ditched his business suits but kept his much-ballyhooed backstory, and re-branded himself as a self-help guru.

He founded Executive Success Programs, which later became part of NXIVM, and began recruiting followers in the U.S., Mexico and Canada, including a pair of wealthy heiresses and several TV actors.

Members spread the legend of Keith Raniere — that he's an enlightened being and humanitarian who developed a system that can unleash anybody's true potential and create a better, more ethical world in the process.

Prosecutors in New York, however, say Raniere's real story took a sinister turn.

Today, he is in jail awaiting trial on charges that include sex trafficking, forced labour, wire fraud conspiracy and conspiracy to commit identity theft.

The FBI says the 58-year-old ran a cult-like group within NXIVM that used fraud and extortion to get him property, labour and sex from "slaves" who had his initials branded on their pelvises.

Raniere has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

A new seven-part CBC podcast called Uncover: Escaping NXIVM takes an in-depth look at Raniere's life, including how he learned to use his story — and those of others — to create and control a secretive world.

Fact and fiction

Before his arrest, Raniere lived in the Knox Woods section of Clifton Park, N.Y., surrounded by dozens of his most devoted followers as his neighbours.

According to the FBI, he had a rotating group of 15 to 20 women with whom he maintained sexual relationships. He could often be spotted going for walks with his followers or holding court during late-night volleyball matches at a local community centre.

Sarah Edmondson, 41, a former top recruiter for NXIVM in Vancouver — and one of the women who blew the whistle on the branding group on the front page of the New York Times last October — never joined Raniere's inner circle in Clifton Park, but she did spend time there when she travelled to NXIVM's headquarters in nearby Albany for training.

She had little interest in volleyball, and even less interest in staying up all night watching others play, but says she remembers feeling an odd sense of obligation to show up to the games. It was as if Raniere was testing his followers' commitment.

"That was the pressure. If you didn't show up to volleyball, it'd be like, 'Wow, I guess you're choosing comfort over spending time with the smartest man in the world,'" Edmondson says.

Venerating Raniere was an essential part of the NXIVM program, she says. New students were taught on Day 1 to say thank you to his image hanging on the wall and refer to him as Vanguard.

NXIVM operates similarly to a multi-level marketing business, meaning members are expected to constantly recruit new members to keep shelling out big bucks for training. As with Consumers' Buyline, the sales pitch relies heavily on tales of Raniere's brilliance and benevolence.

"So much of what we believed about him was a result of what people said about him before I even met him," Edmondson says. "That's where his validity comes from — from other people going out and singing his praises."

Raniere's legend, so essential to his power, featured many claims from his childhood that are difficult to verify — that he was speaking full sentences by age one, reading by age two and had mastered college-level math before high school.

"East Coast judo champion, he rode a unicycle, he'd spit jelly beans in whichever colour you'd prefer. I mean, his dossier went on forever," Natalie jokes.

A few things we do know: Raniere was born in 1960, and grew up in Suffern, N.Y., about two hours south of Albany. His father was in advertising and his mother was a dance teacher who died when Raniere was 17. We also know that he graduated from the prestigious Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., with degrees in math, biology and physics.

Barbara Bouchey, a longtime girlfriend who split with Raniere in 2008, says he told her his parents divorced when he was very young, and that he moved in with his mother, who was an alcoholic.

She says Raniere told her he became a night owl because as a teenager, he was often up late looking after his mother.

Raniere's father, James, didn't respond to CBC's request for an interview, but Bouchey says she had a good rapport with him. In fact, Bouchey says she called him when she and Raniere were breaking up and shared her concerns about his son's controlling behaviour and narcissism. (One insight Bouchey shared with CBC is that Raniere's other girlfriends would lecture her about how her diet and bad moods could negatively affect Raniere, because he's apparently so sensitive that he can pick up on other people's energy, even when they're not in his presence.)

Bouchey says that during their lengthy conversation, James Raniere shared a remarkable story. When his son was seven or eight years old, he took an intelligence test that determined he was gifted. His father noticed a dramatic change in the boy's character when he learned the results, Bouchey says.

"He said it was almost like a switch went off. And suddenly, overnight, he turned into, like, Jesus Christ. And that he was superior and better than everybody, like a deity."

Adding to the legend

The first time Heidi Hutchinson saw Keith Raniere, it was around Christmas 1984 — and his 24-year-old rear-end was trying to squeeze through the window of her teenage sister's bedroom.

"I walked into the room. He was stuck in the window, butt toward the door," Hutchinson says.

She had no idea that her sister Gina, who killed herself in 2002, was romantically interested in anyone, let alone a man eight years older than her.

"She was caught. Keith was caught. And then they had some explaining to do," Hutchinson says.

Raniere excelled at explaining things. He managed to convince Gina's mother that he was interested in having a serious, committed relationship with her daughter.

But Raniere had other girlfriends at the time, and Gina eventually found out, Hutchinson says. Gina was heartbroken.

Hutchinson says Raniere had convinced his girlfriends that men are hardwired to be polyamorous but women are not, and that the only reason his romantic arrangement seems wrong to others is because people are brainwashed by society's flawed values.

She says one of Raniere's girlfriends later tried to persuade Gina to join their communal love-in with Raniere, but it didn't work.

Gina stayed close with Raniere after their romantic relationship ended. So did Hutchinson, despite her anger at the way Raniere had broken her sister's heart.

By this point, Raniere had a loyal crew of friends and admirers who seemed to think he was special in some way. Since graduating from college, his resumé included little more than a brief stint at Amway, the multi-level marketing company that sells health and beauty products. But by all accounts, people were drawn to him.

"He could be spellbinding," Hutchinson says. "He did listen very carefully, which I think was part of his charisma."

In hindsight, she thinks there was something more cunning behind his attention — that while he was listening so closely, he was actually "calculating how to influence you through that conversation."

Hutchinson, who was raised with a very structured Mormon belief system, says she was making an effort to break loose and explore new ideas. She suspects Raniere picked up on this.

"Someone like Keith can step right up ... and you know, 'Come this way.'"

Raniere lived with his girlfriend Karen Unterreiner, and in the late '80s, their townhouse in Clifton Park became a sort of hippie hangout. There always seemed to be a group of mostly women hanging around Raniere, and there were plenty of late-night discussions about philosophy, spirituality and, of course, making money.

Three areas of interest in particular would have an obvious impact on Raniere's future projects. Hutchinson says he was fascinated by Scientology; with neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), a personal development discipline popular back then that focuses on using perception and communication techniques to change people's thoughts and behaviours; and with the multi-level marketing structure of Amway.

He saw potential in improving Amway's model, says Eric J. Roode, a close friend of Raniere's at the time. Raniere's admirers seemed to think he was on the verge of some great idea and somehow destined for greatness. And they wanted to be part of it.

Hutchinson painted the scene this way: "Pretty much everyone's lounging around, and Keith, he's got a notebook, or he's got a Rubik's cube or something. And there was planning and plotting and packaging of Keith as this guru going on."

A key part of that packaging, she says, was Raniere's famous IQ test. But Hutchinson says she was surprised the test that supposedly proved his credentials as one of the smartest men in the world was a take-home exam.

"If he's a genius, it's in sales and manipulation," Hutchinson says.

Power of secrets

Toni Natalie says there was something besides charisma in Raniere's ability to influence people.

She remembers, for example, when she joined the team at Consumers' Buyline in the early 1990s and Raniere discovered she was a smoker. He asked if she wanted to quit, and she said yes.

They went to his office. All Natalie remembers is he asked her questions about what makes her uncomfortable or nervous, and then started applying pressure on certain parts of her knuckles. He told her to do the same thing whenever she felt like smoking.

Natalie says she walked out of the office and her husband said, "What the hell were you doing in there all that time?"

Baffled, she asked what he meant. She had only been in the office for 15 minutes.

"He said, 'Toni, you were in there two and a half hours!'"

The upside is that she never smoked again. "But whatever went on in that two and a half-plus hours definitely was a point that completely changed my life," she says.

Within a year of meeting Raniere in 1991, Natalie's marriage was over, and she'd moved to Clifton Park to be with him. (She says Raniere convinced her that her husband was sleeping with the nanny.)

Natalie and Raniere opened a health products store in the mid-1990s, and that's where she says Raniere met Nancy Salzman, the woman who would help him develop the blueprint for NXIVM.

Salzman was a nurse as well as an expert in neuro-linguistic programming and a skilled hypnotherapist. Raniere, who had long been fascinated by NLP, was in awe of Salzman's talents and was determined to bring her into the fold, Natalie says.

In true Raniere style, he and Salzman had a marathon meeting of the minds in the café behind the health store, Natalie says. Salzman went in skeptical, she says, but emerged four days later eager to be mentored by Raniere and to work with him on a self-help training business.

Natalie says she became their guinea pig. She says her gruelling sessions with Raniere and Salzman, which included hypnosis, seemed to lay the groundwork for what would become the Executive Success Programs curriculum.

The sessions involved probing and rehashing Natalie's most painful secrets, she says, including the molestation she suffered as a child. When Raniere and Salzman held their first intensive training course, Natalie says she felt profoundly uncomfortable as she listened to students sharing their secrets. She says she knew how Raniere had used the secrets of her own life story to manipulate her and control her emotions.

As Natalie listened to the students, she started having flashbacks of her own sessions — moments during which she suspects she'd been in a trance. "I started looking around and thinking, This isn't a self-help group. This is therapy. What are we doing?"

Character development

Daniel Shaw, a New York-based psychoanalyst and psychotherapist who has treated cult survivors and their families for 20 years and has spoken with more than a dozen ex-NXIVM members, says based on what the latter have described to him, Raniere demonstrates the traits of a "traumatizing narcissist." His behaviour seems driven by an insatiable need to constantly prove his own superiority, Shaw says.

If that's the case, what better setup than NXIVM? Its multi-level marketing structure requires members to constantly sing his praises to prospective recruits, who, once in the door, are told to say thank you to Raniere's picture hanging on the wall and encouraged to pay thousands of dollars to learn his secrets of enlightenment.

An essential tenet of NXIVM, according to ex-members who spoke with CBC, is that you are responsible for everything that happens in your life — all your successes and failures, every thought and emotion. The problem is that your belief system is full of faulty "programming" that has accumulated since childhood and holds you back with fear and other unnecessary emotions.

Raniere’s "rational inquiry" system can fix it, members are told, but it's a very long — and expensive — process that requires exploring and sharing your deepest thoughts and darkest secrets. If anything you're asked to do as part of the training seems odd or ill-advised — like paying thousands of dollars for more training, or allowing your "coach" to discipline you for failing to meet your goals — well, that's probably just your faulty programming talking, and is precisely why you need to stick with the lessons.

The way former high-ranking member Sarah Edmondson describes it, Raniere's thought system gradually overrode her own. She was trained to disregard what her supposedly flawed instincts and intuition would tell her, and to rely on what she was taught.

At the time, she thought she was becoming a better person. Now she says it was brainwashing.

And what about those secrets? Shaw says NXIVM's ideology serves "nobody other than Keith." It enables him to make people increasingly dependent on him. And the key to this is members' own secrets.

Another trait of a traumatizing narcissist, Shaw says, is that the need to constantly bolster their delusion of omnipotence inevitably leads to escalation. They must constantly ramp up their level of control.

"They take it to an extreme … they have to completely take over and enslave and dehumanize others," he says.

This is exactly what the FBI alleges Raniere did. According to the agency, what was pitched to NXIVM members as a secret, sorority-like women's empowerment group called DOS actually "operates as a pyramid" with levels of "masters" and "slaves" and Raniere sitting at the top.

The FBI alleges he had his most devoted female followers do the recruiting. They would allegedly hammer on the themes of NXIVM's training to convince the slaves to hand over potentially life-destroying material such as nude pictures or recorded confessions of their darkest secrets, real or imagined; to provide free labour; to have a strange symbol seared on their pelvises; and, in some cases, to have sex with Raniere.

In the document, the FBI alleges Raniere acknowledged to a DOS member that his initials were incorporated into the symbol as a "tribute."

Competing narratives

Keith Raniere's epic daily walks through the streets and trails of Clifton Park have been replaced by miles and miles of circles inside a maximum security prison in Brooklyn as he awaits trial.

And his marathon discussions about life and philosophy with admirers have been replaced by hours and hours of chats about legal theory with his lawyer, Marc Agnifilo.

Raniere has always cast himself as the master of his own narrative, and given the charges he faces, it's not an exaggeration to say his life depends on the strength of the story his team tells in court.

"He's very smart. He studies a great deal. He has a lot of ideas about his case," Agnifilo says of his client. "He's adamant about his innocence. And I think that's part of what animates him."

Agnifilo has experience representing men who claim to be brilliant but find themselves in a legal mess. He previously represented Martin Shkreli, the convicted securities fraudster who became an international pariah for hiking the price of a potentially life-saving drug by more than 5,000 per cent.

"So this is probably my 10th client who is the smartest man in the world," Agnifilo says.

Key members of Raniere's inner circle, including Salzman, Smallville actor Allison Mack and Seagram's heiress Clare Bronfman, have also been charged with racketeering conspiracy for their role in what prosecutors call an "organized criminal enterprise." They have all pleaded not guilty.

Bronfman's lawyer, Susan Necheles, said in a written statement to The Associated Press that the U.S. government is "overreaching." Mack's lawyer, William McGovern, told CBC in an email that Mack denies the allegations against her and "expects that she will be vindicated."

Agnifilo says he agreed to be interviewed by CBC because he's concerned the government's narrative about Raniere has gone unchallenged in the public realm.

And he sees some holes in that story.

For starters, he questions how prosecutors can prove that Raniere's accusers were brainwashed into making choices against their will.

Many of these former followers are highly intelligent and successful women, he says. And they committed themselves to training that's based on the fundamental idea that individuals need to take full responsibility for everything in their life — every choice, every reaction and every consequence. They were taught that by removing victimhood from the equation they were building stronger ethics and greater happiness.

"And people are now saying, 'Well, I was manipulated,'" Agnifilo says. "Wow. I mean, to sort of say that I was exposed to these concepts and somehow I was manipulated or coerced. Man, you're going to have to prove that to me because I don’t see it."

What Agnifilo does understand, he says, is that DOS was clearly inspired by Raniere's ideas. But he didn’t run it; the women did.

And he says his client didn't tell Sarah Edmondson or anybody else what do; they willingly made their own choices.

They thought DOS could improve their lives, he says. They voluntarily handed over potentially life-ruining material — known in NXIVM lingo as "collateral" — to seal that commitment.

And they chose to brand themselves.

In fact, Agnifilo says the government's case is sexist. Elite men have joined secret societies for centuries, he says, including at Ivy League schools like Harvard, and the larger society has never thought anything of it.

But when women want to be part of a secret group, he says, "all of a sudden we’re quick to say, 'Oh, poor dears. They must be victims because no right-thinking, free-willed woman would ever want that for herself.'"

Agnifilo says he has spoken with a dozen members of DOS and "they say it's the greatest thing they ever did."

"And what I’m sort of insulted by is that the federal government would come in and basically take this and say, 'No, no, you're actually a victim.'"

That Raniere still has devoted followers who call him Vanguard and believe they're part of his humanitarian mission is perhaps not surprising. Edmondson says members are trained to see any challenge of that narrative as nothing more than a smear campaign by unethical forces in the world.

But what has Raniere's humanitarian mission actually accomplished?

Edmondson says that's a question her family would ask when she was still a devoted follower. It always seemed like a major hole in his guru story.

"They'd say, 'Wait, Keith Raniere is supposed to be a humanitarian, but what is he doing? What actual things is he doing in the world to be a humanitarian? How is he changing the world?'"

Before, Edmondson says, her answer would have been that he's helping people to feel better about themselves and reach their true potential. Her answer to the question now is simpler: "There's nothing." 

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