On Wednesday morning the New York Times Magazine published a massive report on Nxivm, the “self-improvement company”/thinly veiled pyramid scheme/cult lead by Keith Raniere. The piece includes interviews with Raniere, Nxivm’s co-founder, therapist Nancy Salzman, Raniere’s right-hand woman, Smallville actress Allison Mack, among others, conducted last fall—before Raniere and Mack were arrested on charges of sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy, and forced labor conspiracy. (That was in April. In May, Mack was released on house arrest and $5 million bail. Raniere is currently in a federal jail in Brooklyn after being denied bail—he was deemed too much of a flight risk.)
The level of access the NYT was granted on Nxivm is, so far, unprecedented—no media entity had interviewed Nxivm’s top players in 14 years, so much of the information gleaned is new, crazy shit.
Most revelatory are the quotes from women involved in DOS, shorthand for the Latin phrase Dominus Obsequious Sororium, or “lord over the obedient female companions,” what Raniere described to the Times as a “sorority.” We know, now, that DOS was a secretive wing of Nxivm that acted as a sex “slave” cult, and that Mack acted as Raniere’s number two—where women recruiters were referred to as “masters,” and Mack described them as the “representation of your conscience, your higher self, your most ideal.” (In Mack’s case, Raniere was not only the leader of the cult, the “Vanguard,” but also her “master.”)
As a process of initiation, women were branded with a symbol near their pelvic bone with what most assumed reflected the four elements, or seven chakras, or Greek letters “alpha,” and “mu”—in reality, it was a hybrid of Raniere and Mack’s initials, a mark of ownership. Especially harrowing is the fact that the branding was Mack’s suggestion. Victims were given surgical masks to help cloak the scent of their burning flesh. Mack told the Times:
“I was like: ‘Y’all, a tattoo? People get drunk and tattooed on their ankle ‘BFF,’ or a tramp stamp. I have two tattoos and they mean nothing.’”
She broke down the operations behind DOS, too:
Masters would help slaves count calories to save them from the trap of emotional eating, according to other women in the group. Masters would dictate an act of “self-denial,” like cold showers or rousing yourself from bed at 4 a.m. and standing stock still for a time. Slaves were told to do “acts of care” for masters, perhaps bringing them coffee. Slaves might be told to abstain from orgasms, ostensibly to heal their negative sexual patterns. Mack said that this was “about devotion” and “like any spiritual practice or religion.” I thought about free will — did she believe in that? She said, “You’re dedicating your life one way or another.”
That notion of misguided empowerment, specifically, women’s empowerment—skewed ideas of control largely inspired by Ayn Rand, one of the most influential authors on Raniere’s prevailing philosophical practices—made Nxivm especially attractive to wealthy women. They were targeted as the ideal recruits, described as “potent” within Nxivm for their “emotionally disciplined, self-controlled, attractive, physically fit and slender” identities. Wealthy white women with platforms and clout were especially sought out, too, in an effort to grow the exclusive DOS network:
Mack recruited other women and even tweeted at famous women like Emma Watson, inviting them to learn more about her techniques of female empowerment. Many women told me they improved from this scheme, and Mack agreed. “I found my spine, and I just kept solidifying my spine every time I would do something hard,” Mack said passionately. DOS was “about women coming together and pledging to one another a full-time commitment to become our most powerful and embodied selves by pushing on our greatest fears, by exposing our greatest vulnerabilities, by knowing that we would stand with each other no matter what, by holding our word, by overcoming pain.”
When the cauterized brand was introduced, it was a scary experience, like any real rite of passage, but some of them kidded around through it. Even if they cried when they were getting the brand; even if they wore surgical masks to help them with breathing in the smell of burning flesh; even if the brand was much larger than they were told it would be and looked like an ancient hieroglyph; even if they were in a state of sheer terror, they were still able to transcend the fear and cry out to one another: “Badass warrior bitches! Let’s get strong together.”
According to the report, an estimated 150 women joined DOS.
The reasons for Mack’s involvement with Raniere and Nxivm are also made clear in the article: The Smallville actress asked him to “make her a great actress again,” and, like all members of DOS, was requested to give Raniere “collateral” to prove her loyalty. These were explicitly blackmail-worthy materials that would completely ruin her if made public. Mack gave Raniere “a contract declaring that if she broke her commitment, her home would be transferred into his name and future children birthed by her would be his, as well as a letter addressed to social services claiming abuse of her nephews.” (Raniere made it a point to tell the Times that no woman has had her collateral published, but, as the journalist notes, “this isn’t an impressive point, given how legally problematic that would be.”)
Mack and Rainere currently await trial, each on a charge of sex trafficking which brings a minimum sentence of 15 years.
Read the full New York Times Magazine article here.
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