How Keith Raniere recruited dozens of young women into the NXIVM sex slave cult.
Camila became a sex slave as a young girl shortly after moving to New York with her family from Mexico. However, it wasn’t until years later, at the age of 25, that she knew she wasn’t alone.
Keith Raniere, the founder of self-help company Nxivm (pronounced “Nexium”) in Albany, New York, made the revelation. Camila — her last name is withheld due to a court order — became interested with the group at the age of 13 when her parents enrolled her in Nxivm’s life-coaching program. Her initial discussion with Raniere centered on her eighth-grade spelling bee results.
She moved to Albany with her older sisters, Daniela and Marianna, a few years later. Without her parents’ knowledge — they were devoted members and occasional coaches for Nxivm and had complete confidence in Raniere — Raniere put Camila in “a Clifton Park apartment outfitted with dark velvet curtains blocking out every view inside,” writes investigative journalist Sarah Berman in her new book, “Don’t Call It a Cult: The Shocking Story of Keith Raniere and the Women of Nxivm” (Steerforth).
Raniere referred to it as “our house” in text messages to Camila, and he visited her often without the presence of another adult. “Even Camila’s closest friends and family members were unaware of her residence,” Berman writes.
According to Camila’s testimony in court, Raniere photographed her nude and raped her in September 2005, when she was just 15 years old. However, it would be another decade before she discovered the full extent of Raniere’s insidious schemes.
On October 9, 2015, Raniere informed her via text message about a hidden Nxivm subgroup he was forming: DOS, or Dominus Obsequious Sororium — a fictitious Latin term loosely translating to “lord over the slave people.” He referred to it as a “badass bitch boot camp,” Berman writes. “Some women have referred to it as an elite talent agency… similar to the Freemasons, except for women seeking to develop character and make a difference in the world.”
The fact, however, was that it was a twisted sex cult, with “first-line” masters and sex slaves serving Raniere, also known as Vanguard or Grandmaster to his acolytes. “Both masters and slaves were female,” Berman writes. “Raniere had complete influence over their lives, from what they ate and wore to when they cut their hair.”
Raniere texted Camila that each slave would be “branded with my monogram and a number.” “Your telephone number has been reserved. It is the only. It is now a clandestinely expanding organization.”
Camila was dissatisfied with Raniere’s intentions to mark her.
“Branded in the manner of cattle?” she inquired. “Would you like to set fire to me?”
“Are you sure you don’t want to die for me?” Raniere, who is now 60 years old, replied.
The branding ceremony was an apocalyptic experience. Sarah Edmondson, 43, a Canadian aspiring actress who was one of the first former participants to speak out about Nxivm, told the author about being inducted into DOS with four other women who took turns keeping each other down nude as a doctor carved Raniere’s initials and a mysterious symbol near their pelvises — without anesthetic.
“We were weeping, trembling, and clutching each other,” she explained to Berman. “It was heinous. It was akin to a bad horror film. We also wore surgical masks due to the heavy odor of [burning] flesh.”
When Nxivm was created in 1998, sex slaves and branding were not on the agenda. Initially, Berman reports, it was marketed as a self-help program for “dreamers with deep pockets.”
With over 16,000 supporters in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, including celebrities such as Nicki Clyne (from the television series “Battlestar Galactica”) and Seagram’s heiress Clare Bronfman, they were drawn to Raniere’s message of personal responsibility for one’s own emotions.
Raniere was raised in Suffern, New York, as an only child with adoring parents and a “near-constant desire for recognition.” He earned a 2.26 grade point average while attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and worked for Amway before launching several marketing companies in the 1990s that failed, including Consumer Buyline Inc (which marketed discounted household products) and National Health Network (a multilevel seller of vitamins). In late 1997, he met Nancy Salzman, a nurse and hypnotherapist who was fascinated by Raniere’s self-help methodologies, which he said he discovered at the age of 14. They collaborated to form Nxivm.
“Students examined how they caused their own pain and how they could instead use perceived harm as a teaching opportunity,” Berman writes.
Nxivm — the name is supposedly a nod to the Roman idea of debt slavery — was created for millionaires and aspiring millionaires, and the company quickly expanded into cities such as Los Angeles, Seattle, Toronto, London, and Vancouver, providing boutique executive coaching. Federal prosecutors estimate that Nxivm established well over a hundred subsidiary entities, ranging from yoga schools to science foundations to day cares, all of which were organized in a pyramid-like hierarchy and united by a “frenzied conviction that, with the right attitude and strategy, everything was possible,” Berman writes.
Though women dominated at Nxivm, men entered as well, enrolling in a program called Society of Protectors. Berman writes that the project is “aimed at elucidating and harnessing inherent ‘female’ and’male’ forms of being.” A “masculine” way of toughening up fellow members by bullying, name-calling, body shaming, and other forms of violence.
According to Edmondson, new students are recruited mostly through social settings, often through friends of friends. Nxivm dubbed it “relationship building,” a method that participants extensively practiced and learned. From the outside, the corporation did not seem to be frightening or cult-like. In the worst-case scenario, it came across as corny.
Berman describes the experience as “similar to a smiley, slightly kooky summer camp for adults.” “Every aspect of this party seemed to be as wholesome as a Thanksgiving meal.” Women entered because “they desired to assist others and make a difference in their lives,” she writes.
Additionally, Raniere, like all good cult leaders, possessed charisma and charm.
“The way true believers spoke of him, it seemed as though he had mystical abilities,” Berman writes. “They lauded his contributions to science and his dedication to human potential development.”
However, he desired to harness more than potential.
Nicole, an actress recruited into Nxivm in 2013 whose last name is covered by court order, was initially enthusiastic about the organization, especially after Allison Mack, an acting friend with roles on television shows such as “Smallville” and “Wilfred,” persuaded her to join. However, what seemed to be an opportunity for growth and networking quickly turned dark when she was questioned for “collateral” to ensure her pledge of secrecy was maintained.
“Mack advised Nicole that she would need to write a letter that would be detrimental to her family if it became public,” Berman writes. “Mack had written a letter alleging that her father molested her as a child, and she encouraged Nicole to do the same.”
Nicole penned the letter and then “produced a solo sex tape that Mack vowed to hold in an underground vault out of sight,” Berman writes. Each slave was forced to record themselves in sexually explicit circumstances.
Collateral was not the only stipulation for entry into DOS. Nicole was told to text Raniere “Good morning, Master” upon waking and “Good night, Master” before going to bed.
The term “slave” was not universally accepted. When Edmondson objected to the language, her friend and fellow Nxivm member Lauren Salzman reassured her that “lord” and “slave” were simply slang for “guru” and “disciple,” or “coach” and “athlete.”
However, the ugliness of truth quickly demonstrated otherwise. Nicole met Raniere for the first time in April 2016, when she was taken to a house and ordered to undress. He then sat her down on a table, blindfolded her, and bound her wrists and feet. He started questioning her about her sexual life when “an anonymous individual performed oral sex on her,” Berman writes.
“I’m attempting to make sense of what’s happening,” Nicole remembered. “There is another person in the building. Now that there are two people in the building, Is there a total of three people in the room? For instance, how many people are currently seated in this room?”
The hierarchy consisted of hundreds of masters and sex slaves, many of whom were female, who eventually served Raniere’s sexual desires. As he frequently reminded his army of masters and slaves through text messages, he could order sex at any time from any of them, but that was not the “intent” of DOS. The objective was complete devotion to him. And failing to finally surrender to him might have dire consequences.
Raniere once suggested to Camila that it would be beneficial for her to “own a f–k toy slave for me, that you could train and use as a tool to please me.” Camila refused, stating that she was not “enchanted by ownership.”
Later, when Camila began dating a younger Nxivm participant, Raniere disciplined her with a “program” for women he considered guilty of betrayal that included self-flagellation and calorie restriction.
Raniere wanted his slaves to be as thin as possible — Camila was compelled to weigh 100 pounds or less and was required to report her weight to him daily. “You need to cut down on your eating,” Raniere once texted her. “When I am with you, the additional weight physically hurts my heart.”
Numerous members went to great lengths to comply with Raniere’s weight requirements. Mack chose a diet consisting primarily of squash, a low-calorie vegetable masquerading as pasta. Berman writes, “She consumed so much of it that her palms once turned orange.”
Raniere desired complete power over his slaves, from their pubic hair — as Nxivm member Lauren Salzman testified, “His preference was for it to be normal… not groomed” — to their willingness to be disciplined for even the smallest transgressions. Salzman disclosed that Raniere was amassing equipment for a BDSM dungeon and that “increasingly women were being paddled for their shortcomings,” Berman reports.
Salzman claimed the humiliating punishment, which was typically filmed, included a “steel puppy cage” that Raniere said was “for the most dedicated to development.” Though she desired to challenge herself, she was concerned that Raniere was selecting tasks that would result in the greatest amount of brutality and degradation.
As FBI agents began interviewing Nxivm associates in late 2017, a New York Times expose prompted a federal investigation, and Raniere fled to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. He was arrested on March 26, 2018, following the agreement of several members to testify against him.
Camila was one of them, who initially declined to meet with prosecutors on the advice of Raniere’s lawyers. Daniela persuaded her to come forward, despite the fact that her father, Hector, and oldest sister, Marianna, remain ardent supporters of Raniere. (Hector wrote a letter to the court praising Raniere’s “honesty, wholeness, brilliant intellect, constant willingness to assist, cheerfulness, and love of humanity.”)
“[Raniere] concealed his violence behind respectable ideals and concepts, but there is nothing noble about child abuse,” Camila, now in her 30s, testified in court. “I never had the opportunity to live as a typical adolescent. I had never been on a date until I was 29 years old. I’ve lost so much of my own life that it’s difficult to comprehend what I’ve missed.”
Raniere was sentenced last October to 120 years in prison on federal sex trafficking, racketeering, and possession of child pornography charges. While many of his most ardent supporters have remained steadfast in their support — Bronfman established a $14.3 million fund to cover the defendants’ legal fees — the majority have come to recognize how much they have been victimized.
“It took three years and a significant amount of distance from your manipulation for me to understand that the guilt that has been weighing heavily on my shoulders is not mine to bear,” Nicole said during her court testimony, addressing Raniere directly. “This is yours.”