When NXIVM multilevel marketing company leader Keith Raniere was convicted in 2019 of recruiting and branding female sex slaves, it made headlines around the world.
The salacious and deeply disturbing story of NXIVM had all the ingredients to attract the interest of the media: female TV stars, including some working in Vancouver; billionaire heiresses; sex trafficking; and a savvy conman, described by the prosecutor as a “modern-day Svengali”, who was sentenced to 120 years in prison.
Vancouver journalist Sarah Berman has unpacked the details of this story—and drawn some lessons—in her new book, Don’t Call It a Cult: The Shocking Story of Keith Raniere and the Women Of NXIVM. Below, you can read a transcript of a recent phone interview she gave to the Georgia Straight.
Georgia Straight: Why would you want to spend so much time on someone as awful as Keith Raniere?
Sarah Berman: Ha, ha, ha. Good question because it definitely was a struggle. I definitely had to sit with so many uncomfortable things, so many decisions I would hope I would never make. And Keith Raniere, yes, as a person, [is] not someone I would ever want to spend time with.
But the reason I stuck it out is ’cause there was so much of a puzzle to solve. Why and how?… There were no easy answers and even a year in, even two years in, I wasn’t totally sure what was going on.
And I did sort of have to deconstruct this system of influence and control, over time, and kind of hear people’s firsthand perspectives because what they were thinking and seeing was completely different from what it looked like from the outside. So, I think it was not an easy thing to do but it was a rewarding thing to do because, at the end of it, you come away with a much better understanding just of social influence and persuasion and coercion.
So, I’m glad I did it but I’m ready to move on and sort of power-wash my brain and hopefully write about other things for a while.
GS: What accounts for the title Don’t Call It a Cult?
SB: That references a couple of things. It is sort of cheeky because obviously I’m not saying NXIVM isn’t a cult. A lot of experts look at NXIVM and they say “it fits all the characteristics.”
But when I first met Sarah Edmondson who was a whistleblower who first came forward about the branding and other course of ethics, she didn’t want to say the c-word on camera. She was afraid that there was going to be some kind of backlash against her. And that was the first of many sort of upside-down moments for me where I was like, what’s going on here?
And then later on, I realized you can’t really talk to somebody who’s in a group like this with that language. You can’t say: “You really need to get out of that cult. That’s really cult-y.” That’s going to shut somebody down.
So, the better approach is to come with good faith, want to understand, maybe even attend meetings if they’ll let you, and sort of get them to start questioning on their own. And finally, just at the trial, the prosecutors didn’t need to have a cult expert on the stand. They weren’t interested in proving whether or not it was a cult. So those were sort of the sources of inspiration for the title.
GS: How important is Vancouver in this story?
SB: It’s really interesting. So in the mid 2000s, NXIVM becomes really popular in this friend group of Vancouver actors. So it started with Sarah Edmondson. And she was already quite close friends with a bunch of folks in local productions—so on Battlestar Galactica and on Smallville—and she was a true believer. She thought this was the key to success and happiness and she wanted all her friends to do it.
So, she became this prolific recruiter and it sort of spread through the grapevine in Vancouver. And they were recruiting young people that they’d actually want to hang out with instead of the sort of middle-aged, stuffier demographic that was, you know, NXIVM’s major demographic in Albany, New York, and Seattle.
So, I think it was a huge step for the organization to have these people with lots of fame and influence already and to have this younger demographic of women coming to the fold. So…it was one of the major steps towards like what it became because it was always evolving, you know, for decades before it got to be [a] DOS-blackmail-branding thing. [DOS was Raniere’s secret society.]
GS: How did Keith Raniere avoid being prosecuted for so long?
SB: There’s a lot of variables there too. Certainly, when you have true believers, and they’re saying ”I’m not a victim,” that’s a pretty strong deterrence to looking into potential crimes.
But I think what really kept him protected was his relationship with the Bronfman heiresses, Clare and Sara.
So they come from a family—a billionaire family—and they really truly believed in this group and wanted to change the world by putting lots of resources into NXIVM. And that included getting politically connected. Yeah. Donating to campaigns, letting their private jet be used by upstate Republicans, and even getting NXIVM members in the DA’s office in the Northern District of New York.
So, in all of this time, the Northern District of New York had never gone after NXIVM. It was the Eastern District—so Brooklyn—that eventually did, in 2018, arrest him. So, I think the money and influence helped keep authorities off of Keith Raniere’s back.
And I think as well, just the nature of the case where you have women seemingly complying, you know. There’s lots of appearance of consent in terms of being filmed, you know, saying “Master, please brand me. It would be an honour.” Right? That was built in.
It wasn’t until you sort of unpacked it—in court, you sort of heard how those videos were set up to create the appearance of consent—that it finally could unravel and in quite an epic way.
GS: What do you want readers to take away from your book?
SB: I would like readers to take away that we all do need sort of a group of influence and support. We need to sort of test our ideas against people we trust.
In NXIVM, that sort of system of influence got infiltrated and engineered and sort of put to Rainiere’s goals, whereas if they had a wider circle of friends who raised questions, they might not have gone so deeply into it. And I think this is super applicable to any kind of online radicalization.
You have groups like QAnon and you have just a lot of political splintering and community fragmentation. I think we need to kind of bring communities back together and really start talking to each other face-to-face again. I think this is one of those stories that really shows where fragmented communities go off the rails.