Convicted on counts ranging from wire fraud conspiracy to sex trafficking, Keith Raniere was found guilty of crimes as striking in their breadth as the 120-year prison sentence he received for them last October. But even then the founder of NXIVM—an unholy blend of corrupt multi-level marketing company and sex cult, all drenched in the language of self-help and personal responsibility—did not face direct legal charges on his most notorious outrages, including having his initials branded on women’s bodies. As set out in Sarah Berman’s absorbing account, Don’t Call It a Cult, there were multiple layers to Raniere’s crimes and cruelties.
He built a culture of gaslighting, deflection and intense intra-group pressure within NXIVM, says Berman in an interview, that prompted women to somehow see female empowerment in a secret group that called its members “slaves” and allowed Raniere and TV’s Smallville actress Allison Mack to record their conversation about branding ceremonies. “It became evidence at his trial,” Berman says, “but at the time they didn’t see recording as problematic, since the idea was to get everyone to indicate they were willing participants.”
The story of NXIVM is extraordinary, not least in its many discrete elements. There’s the crucial role of the Bronfman heiresses, sisters Clare and Sara, who poured millions into his failed financial schemes and scorched-earth legal campaigns. Despite being sentenced to nearly seven years in prison after pleading guilty to identity theft and immigration fraud, Clare refused to disavow Raniere, telling the judge in a letter that he had changed her life “for the better.” According to the court’s sentencing document, she also personally infected the computer used by her billionaire father, a perceived NXIVM enemy, with a virus that allowed the cult to read Edgar Bronfman’s emails. Then there was the Mexican family whose three young daughters became Raniere’s most abject slaves. And there’s the “collateral” he collected from women, tokens of submissive trust handed over before they could move more deeply into NXIVM’s innermost sanctum. Nude photos were the first step, usually buttressed by confessions of crimes (legal or moral) or accusations against family members.
Berman was right, though, to focus on the thoroughly modern women of NXIVM—smart, educated, assertive, usually white and privileged. They were figures who raise thorny legal questions about consent (real or coerced) and more existential ones about why so many accepted what they did. More than 100 women became members of late-stage NXIVM’s key subgroup DOS—Dominus Obsequious Sororium, bad Latin for “[male] master of the female slaves”—offering up their collateral and submitting to their branding.
A 34-year-old Vancouver investigative reporter, Berman knew many people on NXIVM’s periphery, “an array of people who had either been pitched or gone to NXIVM classes or couldn’t afford the $3,000 they cost.” And she dove deeply into the world view of fellow Vancouverite Sarah Edmondson, whose explosive New York Times interview—complete with photo of her bikini-line branding scar—was the single most important moment in the cult’s downfall. “The DOS group was pitched to women in the spirit of empowerment,” Berman says. “An extreme version, certainly, where it was framed that you just needed to expose yourself to all the worst things imaginable and then [by refusing victimhood] overcome them all. If I had talked to them before all this became known, they would have seemed the bike-riding sort of feminist vegetarian people you have here.”
In January 2017, actress Edmondson was 39, a high-ranking, 12-year NXIVM veteran who had met her husband, Anthony Ames, and her best friend, Lauren Salzman, through it. Salzman, the daughter of NXIVM second-in-command Nancy Salzman, arrived unexpectedly in Vancouver to offer her Canadian friend a chance to enter DOS. Information about what that was—and the requirements for joining—were parcelled out drip by drip by Salzman until she had Edmondson’s collateral, and the latter submitted to being branded by cauterizing pen two months later.
For all its scope, the heart of Don’t Call It a Cult is Berman’s nuanced exploration of what drew Edmondson so far into NXIVM and then, with whiplash speed, drove her out. Shades of modern feminism colour it throughout. The women of DOS thought they were helping each other, in part by rejecting notions of victimhood, while Edmondson drew courage from the #MeToo support that had just surged for the film-world women involved after the New York Times exposé of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Raniere had always claimed that what he purported to preach—female empowerment through overcoming self-chosen adversity—would change everything. In that, if nothing else, he may have been proven right when Edmondson shrugged off the risk of her collateral becoming public and toppled him from his unassailable throne.
This article appears in print in the May 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “A sex cult’s ugly spin on empowerment.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.