When she first attended classes run by the self-help group Nxivm, Sylvie noticed multiple pictures on display of the group’s leader, Keith Raniere, known as Vanguard.
People in the classes, held in Albany, appeared to venerate Mr. Raniere, Sylvie testified during his racketeering and sex trafficking trial. She said class participants clapped, bowed, huddled, recited a “mission statement” and then said in unison “Thank you, Vanguard!”
The experience left her thinking she would never take another class, Sylvie said. Yet she did, eventually joining a clandestine subgroup within Nxivm in which she was called a “slave” and required to blindly obey a “master.” She even allowed Mr. Raniere to perform oral sex on her, believing she could not refuse.
For six weeks, the question of how Mr. Raniere persuaded so many seemingly perceptive people to let him control their lives has hung over his federal racketeering trial in Brooklyn.
Six former Nxivm members have taken the stand, providing a window into how the group indoctrinated people, undermined their moral beliefs and convinced them to blindly follow Mr. Raniere’s edicts, even when that meant breaking the law or tolerating unwelcome sexual contact.
Over the years, Nxivm’s curriculum’s provided the philosophical framework for a group in which members were taught to substitute Mr. Raniere’s principles for their own and see deviation from his teachings as heresy. The community was an echo chamber, witnesses said, and dissenters were subject to recrimination.
At the root of Nxivm teachings, witnesses said, was the notion that people had to learn to override their instincts, behave rationally and reject social conventions that turned them into “robots.”
Richard Ross, who runs the Cult Education Institute in Trenton, testified that he was hired by the parents of Nxivm members to extricate them from the group. “It became clear to me that this was a personality-driven group defined by a leader, eerily reminiscent of Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard,” he said.
Besides Sylvie, the jury has heard from three other witnesses: Daniela, “J” and Nicole, whose full names were withhold because they were considered victims.
Two former high-ranking Nxivm leaders, Lauren Salzman and Mark Vicente, also testified. Ms. Salzman, whose mother founded Nxivm with Mr. Raniere, was indicted along with him but pleaded guilty in March.
Dr. Janja Lalich, a sociologist at California State University, Chico, and an author of books on cults, said Nxivm shares characteristics with many of these types of groups.
Cults often display a zealous commitment to a special and unaccountable leader, discourage dissent and control members through shame, guilt and peer pressure, she said.
“The more that they have absorbed and internalized the belief system the harder it is to question it,” she said of cult members. “Your personal sense of self has been replaced by your cult self and when you’ve become enveloped in a sphere of influence all the aberrant behavior becomes normalized.”
Mr. Raniere, 58, co-founded Nxivm (pronounced NEX-ee-um) in the 1990s as a self-help organization based near Albany. Members regarded him as the most ethical man in the world and someone who could help them lead more fulfilling lives.
Prosecutors have said that he exploited his followers, who paid thousands of dollars for courses. Among other things, Mr. Raniere is accused of founding the secret subgroup, called D.O.S., which included women who were branded with his initials and assigned to have sex with him.
He is now facing conspiracy, racketeering, identity theft, extortion, forced labor, money laundering, wire fraud and sex trafficking charges.
His lawyers have said that Mr. Raniere’s teachings benefited untold people and his sexual relationships were consensual. While some may question his methods, they said, Mr. Raniere acted in good faith.
During the trial, several witnesses described Mr. Raniere’s exalted standing among his followers.
“People would talk about how he could affect weather, how he would affect technology,” said Mr. Vicente, a filmmaker from Los Angeles. “By the time you saw him, it was a little bit like you were seeing, you know, some kind of god.”
Ms. Salzman, who was among as many as 20 women said to have had a sexual relationship with Mr. Raniere, testified that some Nxivm programs were “creating a community of people and kind of even an army of people to insulate and protect Keith and his views and legitimize and advocate for the lifestyle that he wanted.”
According to the testimony, Nxivm leaders sought to learn what people most wanted or feared, then presented courses as a solution.
Mr. Vicente said that some upper-level courses were aimed at changing students’ “programming,” likening the process to hacking a computer. The courses eroded people’s “instinctual” sense of ethics, he said.
“It in essence played with our moral compass,” he said.
The courses served as a recruiting ground and a means of evaluating how susceptible people were to Mr. Raniere’s philosophy, said Daniel Shaw, a psychoanalyst and the author of a book that explores the relationship between cult leaders and their followers.
Mr. Shaw, who said he had spoken with 20 or more former Nxivm members over the years, said the teachings were intended to improve people’s lives, but they were also designed to test the limits of how far they might go to advance Mr. Raniere’s goals.
A Nxivm program called Jness taught that women are fundamentally self-absorbed, narcissistic and manipulative, Sylvie said, leading her to “hate the fact that I was a woman.”
Sylvie, who joined the group at age 18, believed that additional classes could “fix” her. She testified that D.O.S. was presented as something that would “help me be the person that I’ve always wanted to be.” Nobody told her that Mr. Raniere was involved.
To join she gave explicit photographs of herself to a senior D.O.S. member, Monica Duran. Sylvie said she was told that providing “collateral” was meant to show dedication.
In reality, she said, the fear of its dissemination made her feel she could not refuse orders from her master, Ms. Duran, including one that led her to a bedroom where Mr. Raniere performed oral sex on her.
“It just felt like in a whole different realm of darkness,” she said. “It was nothing like what I expected in the conversation with Monica in the Jness room about me becoming a better person.”
Some ex-Nxivm members said that they remained in the group despite reservations partly because they did not want to doubt people and programs they had trusted.
An actress from California named Nicole said she joined D.O.S. at the invitation of Allison Mack, known for her role on the television series “Smallville,” whom she looked upon as a mentor. Ms. Mack assuaged any fears she had.
“I was already stuck,” Nicole testified. “I wanted to believe her.”
Another witness, identified as “J,” testified that her D.O.S. collateral included an account of being sexually molested when she was 12. Ms. Mack later told her that fulfilling an assignment to “seduce” Mr. Raniere would help heal the trauma from that incident, “J” said.
“My understanding now is that I was being groomed to be part of his harem,” she testified, adding that she fled and did not carry out the assignment.
Nxivm members were also conditioned to believe in Mr. Raniere’s moral superiority. People who displeased him were often accused of “ethical breaches,” witnesses said, and were expected to repair them through “penance.” Those who did not could be shunned.
Daniela, whose parents moved to New York State from Mexico to join Nxivm, testified that Mr. Raniere began a sexual relationship with her and with her younger sister when both were teenagers. He became enraged, Daniela said, when she told him she was attracted to another man. But Mr. Raniere told others that Daniela was being punished for acting overly “prideful.”
“I felt that I was bad, that I had done something wrong, that really I had something that I needed to fix,” Daniela testified.
Finally, Mr. Raniere directed that she be confined to a room until she had mended her breach.
She remained in the room for nearly two years until her father and a senior Nxivm member drove her to the Mexican border.
“I think that we were being incredibly abusive,” Ms. Salzman testified. “Nothing she could do was the right thing, and she got no help and was just cast out of the family.”
Per: New York Times