Sex trafficking. Self-help coaching. Forced labor. Mentorship. Multi-level marketing. Gaslighting. Investigative journalist Sarah Berman explores the shocking practices of NXIVM, a cult run by Keith Raniere and many enablers. Through the accounts of central NXIVM figures, Berman uncovers how dozens of women seeking creative coaching and networking opportunities instead were blackmailed, literally branded, near-starved, and enslaved. Don't Call It a Cult is a riveting account of NXIVM's rise to power, its ability to evade prosecution for decades, and the investigation that finally revealed its dark secrets to the world.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Keith Raniere needed sleep, that much was clear. How much sleep? Well, for decades before his arrest on March 26, 2018, that was a point of debate. Some thought he slept only one or two hours a night. But women close to him knew he was more of a day sleeper, and that day in March, in an upstairs bedroom of a $10,000-a-week vacation rental north of Puerto Vallarta, Raniere was napping.
According to testimony at Raniere’s trial, actors Nicki Clyne and Allison Mack were lounging outside on a patio overlooking an infinity pool when Mexican federal agents in bulletproof vests pulled up the cobblestone driveway. Armed with a warrant from the Eastern District of New York for sex trafficking and forced labour, the officers surrounded the property. Some of them appeared to be wearing masks and holding machine guns.
It was a big deal for Clyne and Mack—celebrities and recent subjects of relentless online gossip—to be staying so close to Raniere. Five months earlier, he had been accused in the New York
Times of masterminding a strange blackmail scheme, and allegations that Raniere had sexually abused young girls were resurfacing online with a vengeance. The US Federal Bureau of Investigations wasn’t quiet about its interest in NXIVM, the secretive self-help company Raniere had founded in
1998. The feds had left business cards with NXIVM associates in the US and Mexico, asking for
Raniere to get in touch. Despite all this, Clyne and Mack had come to Mexico to show their commitment to Raniere, a man they’d often called the most ethical man they’d ever met.
Raniere was technically a fugitive, but his hideout in Mexico resembled an expensive corporate retreat. A team of fixers had been buzzing around him, first in Punta Mita, and now at their current location, the remote beach town Chacala. Neighbours said they went on long walks, ordered expensive butter-infused coffees from a tourist bar, and communicated through prepaid disposable phones.
Mack and Clyne had been invited to participate in a “recommitment ceremony.” The plan was to show loyalty to Raniere in the most vulnerable way possible, which might have included group sex,
had cops not shown up that day. Under her clothes, each actor wore a scar in the shape of Raniere’s initials, burned into her skin with a cauterizing pen more than a year earlier. It symbolized her lifelong commitment to obey Raniere’s every request.
Before getting caught up in NXIVM headlines, Clyne was best known for her role as Cally on the sci-fi hit Battlestar Galactica , while Mack lit up TV screens as Chloe Sullivan, best friend to
Superman in the CW show Smallville . Those roles had become less interesting to the women as they grew more committed to changing the world with Raniere. Through thousands of hours of coursework and mentorship, Clyne and Mack had learned to break out of “self-limiting” thoughts. NXIVM
students compared this process to Keanu Reeves taking the red pill in The Matrix ; no aspect of their lives was exempt from constant study, reflection, and redefinition. Raniere taught that everything was an opportunity for personal growth—even a face-off with federal agents.
But as police moved inside, at least one of Raniere’s disciples was feeling some doubts.
For Lauren Salzman, the daughter of NXIVM’s president and cofounder Nancy Salzman,
Raniere’s arrest punctured the bubble of secrecy and deception that protected his reputation as someone of the highest ethical standards. Salzman was in a bedroom with Raniere when cops came upstairs to take him into custody. As Salzman later recalled at Raniere’s trial, Raniere hid in a walk-in closet, leaving her to face the police.
“They were banging on the door,” she testified. “The whole time, I was thinking they could just shoot through the door.”
As the door rattled in its frame, Salzman asked to see a warrant.
“Open the door and I’ll show it to you,” an agent replied.
Salzman didn’t open the door. The cops kicked it open and pinned Salzman to the ground.
With guns pointed at her, she yelped out Raniere’s name. The man known to acolytes as Vanguard,
Master, and Grandmaster was cuffed on the floor and taken downstairs.
For Salzman, Raniere’s arrest left a small but significant crack in the edifice he had built. “I
chose what I believed we had been training for this entire time, which was to choose love over everything—including the possibility of losing my life,” she later testified. “There was no need to send me to shield him or negotiate with them; he could have just protected all of us and just gone.”
For months Salzman felt guilty for not doing more to protect Raniere. It would take the better part of a year for her to realize the flaw she saw in him that day went much deeper.
“It never occurred to me that I would choose Keith, and Keith would choose Keith,” she said.
Table of Contents
Cast of Characters ix
Prologue: "The Most Ethical Man" 1
Part 1 Theory of Everything 9
1 Secret Sisterhood 11
2 One in Ten Million 23
3 Mothership, New York 31
4 "Money Spilling into Your Wallet" 40
5 When Keith Met Nancy (and Lauren) 46
6 Albany Shrugged 56
7 The Girls 65
8 Us vs. Them 74
9 Sunk Costs 88
Part 2 Some Very Powerful Human Beings 97
10 Mission in Mexico 99
11 The Heist 113
12 What the Bleep 123
13 "Cracked Open" 131
14 An Ethical Breach 139
15 Golden Boy 150
16 His Holiness 157
17 Spy Games 167
18 Room 176
Part 3 A Place of Survival 193
19 The Act 195
20 Slave Number One 209
21 The Call 218
22 The Vow 222
23 "This Is Not the Army" 234
24 "Master, Please Brand Me" 245
25 Reckoning 253
26 "Me Too" 262
27 In Character 269
Epilogue: Vanguard on Trial 275
Appendix: Letter to Raniere 289
What People are Saying About This
“Don’t Call It A Cult is the most detailed, well-reported, and nuanced look at NXIVM’s history, its supporters, and those left destroyed in its wake. If you want to understand NXIVM—and other groups like it—reading Sarah Berman’s account is essential.”
—Scaachi Koul, bestselling author of One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter
“Sarah Berman is absolutely fearless in Don’t Call It a Cult. Her determination to not only tell the difficult, often disturbing story of NXIVM, but tell it right, shines through in every aspect of this gripping book. I simply could not put it down.”
—Alicia Elliott, A Mind Spread Out on the Ground
“Berman has crafted a tour-de-force and powerful homage to first-person reportage. A riveting page-turner, Don’t Call It a Cult is a must-read for anyone who is fascinated by the long term effects of cult culture, abuse, and pseudoscience.”
—Lindsay Wong, author of The Woo-Woo
“Sarah Berman’s reporting on the inner workings of NXIVM and its secret, coercive ‘women’s group’ fully elucidates how scores of incredibly talented, smart young women fell under the spell of a mousy, volleyball-playing con man. Don’t Call It a Cult is an incisive, empathetic page-turner.”
—andrea bennett, author of Like a Boy But Not a Boy
“Don’t Call It A Cult is a thorough and compelling examination of a terrifying organization. Berman understands and brilliantly conveys the complexity of abuse, assault, and the lasting effects of each, and delivers a book that says as much about human nature as it does about NXIVM. Required reading!”
—Anne T. Donahue, author of Nobody Cares
“Don’t Call It a Cult explains Raniere’s dark charisma and why so many people were attracted to NXIVM and stayed on, even as the manipulation, exploitation, and abuse got extreme. A thoughtful, deeply reported take on a sensational story, one that I won’t soon forget.”
—Rachel Monroe, author of Savage Appetites
“Berman lays bare this longest of cons: lost souls and ambitious young people drawn into NXIVM’s vortex of sexual assault, child exploitation, fraud, manipulation, and blackmail. This too-crazy-for-fiction tale is expertly spooled out with journalistic precision and a screenwriter’s sense of scene and story. I couldn’t put it down.”
—Lorimer Shenher, author of That Lonely Section of Hell and This One Looks Like a Boy