Albany - The boy is 3 years old. He lives with a 40-year-old woman who is not his biological mother. And he is the first-ever enrollee in a unique educational project.
He is Gaelen, and he is being raised by Kristin Keeffe, a devotee of the secretive enterprise called NXIVM. It isn't clear where the child came from.
The boy has become part of a unique program begun by self-improvement organization NXIVM founder Keith Raniere called the "Rainbow Cultural Garden" aimed at helping youngsters master several languages. As a result, the child has been under the care of a number of different nannies, some from foreign nations, each using one of five different languages.
Barbara Bouchey, who worked within NXIVM's intellectual inner circle for nine years, handled financial matters for the organization's biggest benefactors, Seagrams heiresses Clare and Sara Bronfman. In an interview last week, Bouchey revealed that the boy came to the NXIVM associates around March 2007, shortly after his birth.
Barbara Jeske, a high-ranking NXIVM student, Bouchey recalled, declared that the boy's grandfather in Michigan gave up the boy after his daughter had died shortly after the child was born. Jeske and Keeffe traveled to the Ann Arbor, Mich., area to get the boy two days later and brought back the child to live with Jeske, Bouchey said. Yet, after about two months he was transferred from Jeske's home in Clifton Park to Keeffe's residence a short distance away but much closer to Raniere.
Bouchey said she did not see the child in distress and said that he was under the care of Keefe and a series of nannies who worked in shifts. Each nanny, she said, spoke to him in a different language, including Russian, Chinese, Hindi, English and Spanish, as part of a Raniere educational initiative.
Gaelen was the first student and others later participated to some degree, Bouchey said. Nannies also took NXIVM workshops, with self awareness training developed by Raniere. Some were foreign nationals.
Kristen Wilcox, a University at Albany professor of foreign language instruction, who has specialized in multilingual education of children, said very young people are capable of learning a variety of languages but they need to have a dominant language from which the other languages grow.
"Most of that kind of work is very difficult to do systematically," she said.
She said it helps to learn the cultural and historical traditions of the language and parents and teachers do not create a global citizen by training someone only how to speak various languages. "Understanding how to interact in a society needs to be supported over a lifetime. So that these kinds of programs to teach children languages very young are very good ... but in order to actually be able to use the language, that would need to be in context," she said. She said some children with multiple language households end up not mastering either and instead mix words and degrade the language.
The boy doesn't seem harmed. "I observed Gaelen being happy and outgoing," said Bouchey, who was a confidante of Raniere. "I also overheard that the child would be raised utilizing Keith's methodology and the child would be exposed to certain kinds of music, certain kinds of physical exercises and language."
On NXIVM's internet home page, Raniere discusses his ideas about humanity and ethics, saying he wants to spread his way of looking at things around the world, adding that "most profound ideas are first met with ridicule, and then opposition before acceptance."
On the site, he notes that he sailed through Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute beginning at age 16, taking graduate level physics and math courses, and that he began developing his model for a more ethical or noble society then. He says he is a master of several disciplines and the founder of "rational inquiry." He describes the Rainbow Cultural Garden as "a revolutionary child development program promoting children's cultural, linguistic, emotional, physical and problem-solving potential."
Bouchey, who was a member of NXIVM from March 2000 to May 2009, has become a witness in a civil lawsuit involving NXIVM officials and the Bronfmans, testifying that $100 million of the sisters' money was poured into questionable ventures at the direction of, or for the benefit of, NXIVM leaders, particularly Raniere. A former financial planner for the Bronfmans, whom she met though Raniere, she is restricted by a judge handling her bankruptcy from revealing details of the Bronfmans' finances. Asked about the costs of raising and teaching the boy, and supporting the nannies, she said she could not comment.
Besides covering many NXIVM operations, the Bronfmans sisters have paid for several Capital Region properties associated with NXIVM or related entities such as Executive Success Programs, records show.
NXIVM has many related and affiliated corporate structures.
For instance, records show the Rainbow Cultural Garden LLC has an address in Clifton Park and is affiliated with Ethical Principles Inc. in Saratoga Springs.
Rainbow Cultural Garden LLC, according to U.S. trademark documents, offers "educational services and curriculum, namely, teaching children language and cultures."
Tax-exempt foundations set up by NXIVM officials may be covering some of the expenses of the Rainbow Garden, said Joseph O'Hara, an attorney who formerly worked for NXIVM but has been at odds with them for more than three years. He settled a civil lawsuit in 2007 with NXIVM officials, turning over the Ethical Foundation to them with $230,000 in funds. He said the funds, raised for specific non-profit purposes and not supposed to be used specifically for one child, were transferred to another account. He said he complained to Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's office about this but has not heard back from that office.
Matthew McMorris, an accountant for the foundations, said wide latitude is allowed for tax-exempt spending. He said one of the new foundations that got the former organization's funds, the Ethical Science Foundation, led by Clare Bronfman, is doing brain research. He said it employs six people and some are "not native English speakers" and he would have to look into whether they are working for the Rainbow Cultural Garden and for the benefit of the boy living with Keeffe.
A Saratoga County blogger brought up the Cultural Garden recently and got into trouble with the Bronfmans. John Tighe of Milton who wrote about the youngster learned that the topic is considered off limits by Keeffe's friends. Last month, Tighe featured the boy's upbringing at the hands of people long connected with NXIVM, which is based in Colonie, but whose top officials live in the Clifton Park area in a cluster of homes surrounding the boy's home.
The group has generated interest because of its controversial self-improvement training approaches, which some critics have likened to a cult, built around the self-awareness philosophies of leader Raniere. It has also drawn interest because of its ties to the Seagrams fortune available to the Bronfman sisters, who underwrite much of the operation, and who helped arrange for the Dalai Lama to visit Albany last year.
On June 26, a lawyer for a firm representing the Bronfman sisters served Tighe with a letter demanding he take down the blog and stop writing about "Kristin Keeffe's son" or face potential criminal or civil actions. The letter was written by Pamela Nichols, of the law firm O'Connell and Aronowitz in Albany.
Tighe complied, but after a few days he pushed back, writing to the state court system's Committee on Professional Standards and arguing that lawyers are not supposed to threaten criminal prosecution. "It's highly inappropriate," said Richard Croak, a lawyer representing two people formerly connected with NXIVM, and who has sparred with other lawyers representing the Bronfmans. Such threats may be alright under certain circumstances, said Joseph Legnard, chief investigator with the committee, but any complaint about a deviation from professional rules would be reviewed.
The Nichols letter, which Tighe said was served on him about 8 p.m. on a Saturday night after someone waited four hours near his home, twice mentioned the boy as Keefe's son.
Testimony by Jeske, a top NXIVM student, seems to conflict with these statements. In October 2009, more than two years after the boy came to NXIVM, she was asked about him in a legal proceeding in a lawsuit NXIVM has pursued against people for allegedly misusing its intellectual property. She said he was adopted but, despite repeated questions, she was unsure by whom and did not know if he lived with Keeffe. She said she had found out about the child from a friend "from the distant past."
Raniere, the Bronfmans, Jeske and Keefe did not respond to a requests for comment. Nichols and her law firm colleague Stephen Coffey, who represents the Bronfmans, did not return calls.