A former member of the so-called sex cult Nxivm on Wednesday gave the first detailed description of the day-to-day life of a “slave” within the group, saying that “everything was just lies and deceit and darkness.”
The witness, who was identified in court only as Sylvie and who testified for several hours, described being recruited by a “master,” feeling compelled to allow the leader of the group, Keith Raniere, to perform oral sex on her and narrowly avoiding being branded with his initials.
Mr. Raniere, 58, who has been indicted on several charges, including racketeering conspiracy, extortion, forced labor and sex trafficking, co-founded Nxivm (pronounced Nex-e-um) as a self-help organization in the 1990s. Prosecutors, however, have said that he used the organization to exert control over the lives of his followers, including women who joined a clandestine sorority — known as D.O.S. — within the group.
Women who joined that group were referred to as “slaves” and were obliged to turn over to other members, known as “masters,” compromising or embarrassing material. This “collateral” would ensure their unquestioning compliance, prosecutors have said.
Sylvie said that soon after joining D.O.S. she was directed by her “master,” Monica Duran, to ask Mr. Raniere to photograph her and “go along with whatever else happened.”
Sylvie said that she met Mr. Raniere, who was known within Nxivm as “Vanguard,” inside a house where he told her to undress. He then performed oral sex on her. Even though she did not want any sexual contact with him, she testified that she felt powerless to object, adding, “That was a command from my master and that was my role as a slave.”
After the oral sex, Sylvie said that Mr. Raniere told her, “Now you’re part of the inner circle.” He then photographed her vagina.
“All around that time I felt so much shame about this cult thing,” she testified, her voice breaking. “Everything was just lies and deceit and darkness.”
Later, while being questioned by a defense lawyer, Sylvie acknowledged that she told Mr. Raniere after the encounter that she loved him.
Sylvie, who grew up in Britain, came to the United States when she was 18 and lived on a farm where she took care of horses belonging to Clare Bronfman, the Seagram’s liquor heiress who was a high-ranking member of Nxivm.
Over the next decade the group exerted a pull on her, according to her testimony. At one point, she said, Mr. Raniere suggested she leave a job she had obtained with Goldman Sachs. Ms. Bronfman also told her she would have to quit a running club she was part of.
Sylvie testified that she joined a Nxivm-related group called Jness that she said espoused, among other things, that women were victimizers who liked to pose as victims.
“I started to hate the fact that I was a woman,” she said.
By the time Sylvie was invited to join D.O.S. — the initials are an acronym for a Latin phrase that roughly translates to “Lord/Master of the Obedient Female Companions” — she was eager to join, she testified. She thought it might help her improve as a person, she said, even though she had no idea what being part of the group would entail.
She said she provided collateral in the form of a letter where she claimed to her parents that she was a prostitute.
In her roughly two years with D.O.S., Sylvie said, she followed any directive given to her by Ms. Duran, including the order to recruit “slaves” of her own and obtain collateral from them. She was also compelled by Ms. Duran, she said, to provide additional collateral of her own, including a letter that gave Ms. Duran the power to say whether or not Sylvie could have children.
Ms. Duran directed Sylvie to walk her dog, pick up her prescriptions and do her grocery shopping, she testified. She said Ms. Duran also gave her a necklace called a “dog collar” that was meant to symbolize their relationship and came with what was supposed to be an unbreakable clasp.
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At a certain point, Sylvie said, she was told that other D.O.S. members were being branded with Mr. Raniere’s initials and she heard that some were being struck with paddles. Newspaper stories and blog posts about the group began to appear and D.O.S.’s activities seemed to slow down as a result.
Sylvie’s branding, which she said was in the process of being scheduled, never took place.
Mr. Raniere began Nxivm in the 1990s in an Albany suburb, offering workshops and promising to teach participants the way to greater fulfillment. About 16,000 people took Nxivm courses, paying thousands of dollars apiece.
Five women who were charged alongside him have pleaded guilty, leaving Mr. Raniere to stand trial alone. High-profile acolytes of Mr. Raniere included Ms. Bronfman and Allison Mack, an actress known for her role in the television series “Smallville.”
Ms. Mack, one of the women who was charged as a co-defendant and has pleaded guilty, recruited other women into D.O.S., prosecutors have said.
On cross-examination by Mr. Raniere’s lawyer, Marc Agnifilo, Sylvie acknowledged that her collateral was never made public, and said that she had disobeyed directions by erasing messages between her and Mr. Raniere.
She also said that the “majority of the time” Mr. Raniere was “sweet” to her.
Mr. Agnifilo presented Sylvie with a series of messages that she had exchanged with Mr. Raniere in 2016 and 2017 on the messaging system WhatsApp.
Several messages that she sent included photographs showing parts of her nude body; affectionate-like emojis (such as hearts); and requests to meet with Mr. Raniere, according to Mr. Agnifilo’s descriptions. The messages were shown to Sylvie but not to the courtroom gallery.
Sylvie said that she sent frequent messages to Mr. Raniere as part of what she perceived as her D.O.S. obligations. Although she did not actually love Mr. Raniere, she added, she thought she had probably told him many times that she did.
“If I was the best slave,” she said she believed, “things would work out for me.”
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