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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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
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.