Sarah Berman didn’t entirely know what she was getting herself into when she sat down in 2017 for an interview with Sarah Edmondson, a Vancouver actor who had recently fled the shadowy group known as NXIVM. Based in Albany, New York, with branches in Vancouver and Mexico, NXIVM billed itself as a self-help and empowerment community; in 2020, the group’s founder and leader, Keith Raniere, was sentenced to 120 years in prison for crimes ranging from sex trafficking and exploitation of a child to wire fraud conspiracy.
Berman had become interested in Edmondson’s story as a result of an October 17, 2017 piece in The New York Times, which detailed the actor’s experience being branded with Raniere’s initials. The ritual was part of initiation into a secret NXIVM sorority called Dominus Obsequious Sororium, or DOS for short. The NYT exposé, which alluded to a history of allegations against Raniere and his group, prompted Berman to contact Edmondson to request an interview. That conversation launched Berman, then a senior editor at Vice, on a four-year odyssey digging into the mysterious group and its practices – an odyssey that culminated this spring in the publication of the book Don’t Call It a Cult: The Shocking Story of Keith Raniere and the Women of NXIVM, published by Viking.
“I definitely felt a lot of dread while writing it. It turned my life upside-down a few times,” Berman says of the years spent investigating NXIVM, attending Raniere’s trial, and writing the book. “Once you get to be the go-to person for NXIVM stories, it becomes its own monster.”
Berman’s interest in the subject was not simply prurient; the more she found out about the story, the more she uncovered a network of connections linking her to a number of people who were either involved with NXIVM themselves, or knew of others who were. “I thought I was very well placed,” she says. “I had some social proximity, generationally, and had friends in common with some of the players.” She also felt that her journalistic background covering crime, drugs, and culture allowed her to understand the kind of New Age, “hopey-changey” pitch that Raniere, who styled himself as a healer and pseudo-messiah, was selling and that his victims responded to so enthusiastically.
And respond they did. In addition to Edmondson, Raniere’s adherents included actors Allison Mack (Smallville) and Nicki Clyne (Battlestar Gallactica), as well as Sara and Clare Bronfman, daughters of the late Seagram’s magnate Edgar Bronfman. The Bronfmans provided Raniere with money and a veneer of prestige; Edmondson and Mack ended up as recruiters, finding others to bring into the group. What started as classes intended (for a sizable fee) to increase self-esteem, confidence, and earning potential led eventually to forced labour secured by incriminating “collateral” and, in some cases, sexual exploitation and trafficking.
Berman had experience reporting on “cult-like groups” before she began chasing the NXIVM story. In 2016, she visited Bountiful, the B.C. home of a fundamentalist Mormon sect where members were convicted of polygamy and transporting a child across the U.S. border for sexual purposes. “I thought I had a good read on how coercion and the appearance of consent operated,” she says. Berman was also quick to notice similarities between the Bountiful case and NXIVM, especially with regard to the culture of surveillance and the idea that the leaders of both movements felt an evangelical mandate to save the world. “The parallels seemed almost uncanny to me.”
One reason Berman was so intent on writing her book was to provide the depth and nuance necessary to understand the full extent of Raniere’s manipulation and the fact that his grooming and treatment of the women in NXIVM constituted criminal activity. “If you gloss over it and just see a bullet-point list of the facts, you could potentially be led to the conclusion these women consented,” she says. Indeed, the NYT states that officials in New York did not pursue Edmondson’s 2017 complaint against NXIVM because in their view the victims’ “actions had been consensual.” Berman goes into detail about the branding ceremony in her book, including the women’s ritualistic incantation, “Master, please brand me,” in part to illustrate the ways in which the victims were deprived of the freedom of choice necessary for consent to be given. “Because there was so much ambiguity, so much secrecy and coercion and blackmail, you really have to spell out all the steps along the way,” she says.
Raniere didn’t begin with NXIVM and the branding of women. His first business venture was a multi-level marketing project called Consumers’ Buyline, which authorities investigated as a pyramid scheme. Out-of-court settlements forced Consumers’ Buyline out of business in 1996, but even in these early, relatively benign stages, Raniere’s penchant for exploitation of women was already asserting itself.
“Right from the get-go, there is complete misdirection and manipulation already happening,” Berman says. She mentions Gina Hutchinson, who met Raniere in 1983 through a local theatre club in a suburb outside of Albany. At the time, Hutchinson was fourteen and Raniere was twenty-three. In her book, Berman describes how Raniere groomed Hutchinson by playing to her interests in Eastern religion, philosophy, and martial arts, becoming a mentor before entering into a sexual relationship with the underage girl. Hutchinson died by suicide in 2002. “Those things were still happening [before NXIVM],” Berman says. “He was still getting people completely committed and enforcing that in some pretty intense ways.”
One of the most intense of these methods involved Daniela, whose real name is protected by a court order. The Mexican teen was in the U.S. illegally when she began a sexual relationship with Raniere shortly following her eighteenth birthday. After attempting to stand up to Raniere, Daniela was confined in a room where she remained for two years between 2010 and 2012. Berman sees this as emblematic of Raniere’s methods with his victims. “She [Daniela] flips out and tries to assert herself and what happens? More control, more punishment.” Berman refers to Robert Jay Lifton, a psychologist and author who studied the effects of re-education programs on American prisoners of war in Korea. In 1961, Lifton published a book called Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, which reflects many of the compliance techniques employed in NXIVM. “It’s military-grade stuff,” Berman says.
These psychological control methods were combined in Raniere with a messianic streak and the pretense of unparalleled intellect; despite graduating with a 2.26 grade point average, Raniere pushed the narrative that he maintained a one-in-ten-million IQ based on a take-home test score from 1988. “What he was presenting to women sounded amazing to them,” Berman says. “It made him sound like the most insightful person on the planet.” That, or the self-mythologizing leader of a cult.
Though Berman’s title, which she admits is intentionally cheeky, is quick to warn readers off this reductive assumption. The title of Berman’s book tilts at difficulties Edmondson articulated about the nature of NXIVM and its adherents. “The trouble comes when you realize all these different experts have completely different definitions and people’s understandings of what that word means are totally different,” Berman says. “It comes from NXIVM being so many other things in addition to a cult. It’s a sex trafficking ring, it’s a pyramid scheme – you can call it so many things. You don’t need to call it a cult. And in fact, the prosecutors [in Raniere’s criminal trial] didn’t bother with that terminology.”
When he was finally brought to trial, Raniere faced eleven counts of racketeering-related crimes and five other charges, including forced labour conspiracy, sex trafficking, and attempted sex trafficking. When the verdicts came back – guilty on all counts – Berman noted excitement, tears, and relief among those gathered in the courtroom. Despite the groundswell of calls for social justice in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations and the #MeToo movement, there remained the suspicion that some lesser charges in the Reniere case might get thrown out or that the jury might be less willing to see him as a predator as opposed to a mere player. “There was no certainty that would be the outcome,” she says. “It was always up in the air.”
Berman ends her book with the text of a letter she sent to Raniere while he was incarcerated in Brooklyn awaiting sentencing. The questions focus on Raniere’s own assessment of himself, questions that other people were not in a position to answer. If there is one lingering unknown for Berman after her years following this case, it is the extent to which Raniere understands the wrongs he perpetrated, or whether he persists in seeing himself as a kind of New Age saviour. “If he ever does decide to respond I absolutely will make efforts to publish whatever shines more light on this man and his actions,” she says. “I’m not holding my breath.”