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NXIVM leader Keith Raniere in a courtroom sketch in U.S. Federal Court in Brooklyn, New York on June 17, 2019.JANE ROSENBERG/Reuters

Sarah Berman is an investigative journalist based in Vancouver and the author of Don’t Call It a Cult: The Shocking Story of Keith Raniere and the Women of NXIVM.

No story worth telling can be summed up in two words, and yet “sex cult” has endured as a shorthand for the NXIVM case.

Pronounced Neks-ee-um, the organization started out selling expensive executive coaching seminars in 1998. A mythology about leader Keith Raniere’s superintelligence and ethics was baked into the program from day one. As recruits learned to break out of so-called limiting beliefs, they also learned to exalt Mr. Raniere as a genius philosopher who’d earned the title “Vanguard.” Any objection to such praise was usually interpreted as a sign of an underlying psychological issue. As with Scientology, actual psychologists were banned.

As NXIVM expanded across borders and generations, the women closest to Mr. Raniere adhered to increasingly stringent self-improvement programs. Under the direction of their coaches, many of them left behind their partners and careers, took on unpaid work for NXIVM and began dramatically restricting their diets. Actors Nicki Clyne (Battlestar Galactica) and Allison Mack (Smallville) both followed this path from Vancouver to the outskirts of Albany, N.Y., more than a decade ago. The cast of characters changed, but a pattern remained consistent among the women: Their relationships with Mr. Raniere and his mission became the main focus of their lives, often at the expense of everything else – even their health.

Having studied NXIVM and groups like it for years now, I have a strong reaction when anyone suggests that these women turned their lives upside down because they were weak-willed or unintelligent. I’ve started countering that the long hours, loaded language and culture of confession built into NXIVM’s self-help classes resembled the thought-reform tactics described by U.S. prisoners of war returning from Korea in the 1950s.

Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, who interviewed POWs immediately after their captivity, first identified eight elements that could induce strong-willed, educated soldiers to renounce their home country. A psychologist who later assessed NXIVM’s course materials found examples of all eight.

When Mr. Raniere went on trial in 2019, defence lawyer Marc Agnifilo acknowledged the militaristic discipline enforced by Mr. Raniere and his inner circle of women, framing “control” as beneficial when intentions are good.

“Control can be very, very bad. Control can also make Marines,” Mr. Agnifilo told a Brooklyn jury. “Every downhill skier who won a gold medal was controlled by some ski coach. Every 18-year-old kid who comes from Biloxi, Miss., or Hauppauge, Long Island, who becomes a Marine is controlled by a drill instructor. The issue isn’t the control. The issue is the intention.”

Margaret Singer, another seminal researcher on cults, has pointed out some of the obvious differences between the U.S. Marine Corps and groups such as NXIVM. A Marines recruit knows which organization they’re joining up front, serves a term of enlistment and can depart freely without fear of retribution. NXIVM’s controls seemed to be framed in the language of empowerment and self-improvement, but in practice insiders wound up making massive contributions to Mr. Raniere’s personal, romantic and financial interests, in some cases seeking to harm his perceived enemies with lawsuits and private investigators. Anyone who left or publicly criticized the group risked shunning and intimidation.

Instead of weak-willed, I would describe Mr. Raniere’s inner circle as determined, resourceful and strategic bordering on paranoid. The commonalities I see among women such as Ms. Clyne and Ms. Mack is that they were idealistic, insecure about their privilege and willing to accept harsh assessments of what NXIVM called their inner deficiencies. They willingly signed on to the task of transforming their identities early on, but I don’t think they knowingly and freely consented to the conditioning, selection and social influence techniques that were imposed on them over a period of years.

Shame and guilt became powerful tools of compliance and control under Mr. Raniere’s direction. One early member told me she called Mr. Raniere’s fixers the “wolf pack” because of their concentrated methods of punishment and persuasion. This is how women who identified as feminists came to accept misogynistic ideas about women being naturally averse to discomfort and prone to tantrums.

The military-grade re-education was in motion long before Mr. Raniere shifted it in the deceptive new direction that ultimately got him arrested in 2018. NXIVM already ticked off most of the boxes on any cult characteristic checklist, and yet Mr. Raniere’s influence and control ramped up even more with the creation of a secret slavery-themed sorority in 2015.

Young women in NXIVM were pitched a life-changing mentorship opportunity that would help them become their best selves. In many cases, the pitch came from a close friend or higher-ranking coach. The scheme collected damaging photos and confessions as “collateral” to prove the women’s commitment to secrecy, then leveraged the life-ruining material to induce their submission as slaves. According to court records, as many as 150 women submitted collateral just to hear details about the secret group.

The group went by many names and descriptions, among them the broken Latin handle Dominus Obsequious Sororium, or DOS. It was a vow, a sorority, a secret society like the Freemasons, an elite talent agency or a “badass bitch bootcamp.”

Recruits learned they weren’t allowed to eat or visit a friend without permission from the “masters” who initiated them. Failure to comply with orders was grounds to release a woman’s collateral, which in multiple cases included letters falsely accusing parents of molestation. This underlying threat was internalized by the women, who outwardly talked about collateral as part of a positive lifetime commitment to facing fears. Some of the women were branded with Mr. Raniere’s initials near their bikini line during hours-long ceremonies that were filmed. Most had no idea the cryptic symbol was Mr. Raniere’s monogram.

Mr. Raniere’s status as the “grandmaster” overseeing the operation was hidden and outright denied to everyone but his most loyal fixers. Ms. Clyne and Ms. Mack were among the eight women who knew this, according to one witness, and were instructed to lie about his involvement if necessary. Ms. Mack pleaded guilty to racketeering charges in 2019 and is still awaiting sentencing. Ms. Clyne was named as a co-conspirator at trial but has not been charged with any crime related to NXIVM or DOS.

A handful of women who remain loyal to NXIVM launched a public relations effort in 2020 arguing that the women they recruited were given a brief chance to walk away after they were told about the brand and the master-slave relationship. It was only after women agreed to a lifetime of obedience and submitted a second round of collateral compromising all their important relationships that the master-slave mentorship was truly established, they maintain.

This “consensual screening and invitation process” claim was countered by a former first-line master at Mr. Raniere’s trial. “Once you have collateral over somebody’s head, then the way they interact with the situation is entirely different,” Lauren Salzman, the daughter of NXIVM’s president and co-founder, testified. “They agreed to a vow of obedience without knowing what they’re going to have to obey.”

Women testified about receiving assignments to seduce Mr. Raniere, take a photo and enjoy it – hence the “sex cult” label. They described having to pose naked for photos with other slaves on command.

They also testified about “readiness” drills that interrupted their sleep at all hours. One witness identified in court as Nicole described a bizarre spying assignment that required her to create a fake identity and influence one of Mr. Raniere’s perceived enemies.

Nicole said Mr. Raniere lectured her about the levels of obedience required in the military when she dared to push back on his controls. “He said in the army sometimes they will have you scrub an entire tank with a toothbrush and then, when you finish, put the tank in the mud, bring it back out and make you do it again,” she recalled on the witness stand. “I remember being like, ‘Well, that doesn’t sound like very much fun, and also I’m not in the army. This is not the army.’ ”

During and after the trial, I kept hearing from former members and the lawyers who represented them about the media’s portrayal of NXIVM. They said the “sex cult” thing didn’t fit their understanding or experience. I took this position to heart when writing my book. Those two words never appear next to each other.

Sexual autonomy or lack thereof was certainly one facet, but I came to understand that the NXIVM case is about power and control writ large. The organization harnessed money, labour, influence and belief as well as sexual submission for Mr. Raniere’s benefit. DOS directed when these women couldn’t have sex, who they couldn’t have sex with, what they could and couldn’t eat, when they could and couldn’t sleep. Beyond the sexual acts, the trial uncovered intense coercive deterrents put in place to make sure the women stayed in line.

Mr. Raniere was found guilty of sex trafficking, wire fraud and a host of racketeering charges ranging from identity theft to sexually exploiting a child. He was sentenced to 120 years in prison in October, 2020.

One thing prosecutors didn’t have to prove is whether or not NXIVM was a cult. Experts say it checks all the boxes, but this didn’t come up much over several weeks of witness testimony. I knew Mr. Raniere taught his followers a host of responses and deflections – brainwashing isn’t real, there are no ultimate victims, what about personal responsibility? – and I felt some relief knowing this can of worms didn’t need to be opened.

I’ll admit the phrase “sex cult” nevertheless headlined my reporting for VICE on many occasions, even though I knew that the case was about so many other things. It’s about the ways we seek meaning and purpose in our lives and about unregulated industries targeting vulnerable people. It’s about trauma, the inward-looking logic of wellness and the perils of influence inherent in all coaching relationships. I think NXIVM can also tell us about the co-optation of change-making, inequalities in the justice system and our increasingly fragmented communities. But above all, this is a story about coercive control.

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