From Trump to the Nxivm cult, countless human beings have been sucked into the vortex of charisma, too often with tragic consequences.

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They’re all of one twisted mind.

Donald Trump. Scientology. People’s Temple. Branch Davidians. Heaven’s Gate. NXIVM. Every personality cult that ever existed.

They all weaponize charisma, weaponize it ruthlessly against innocent people’s often fragile, vulnerable, gullible psyches. Without remorse.

‘The Vow’: A disquieting plunge into the abyss

I reacquainted myself with the dangerous, routinely tragic cult phenomenon while watching a chilling 2022 docuseries, titled “The Vow,” about the fraudulent, gaslighting, misogynist “self-help”/sex-slave cult NXIVM. It’s now streaming on HBO Max and Amazon Prime.

New York-based NXIVM’s sordid history reminds me that we’re all constantly at grave risk of falling prey to the alluring but often deadly deceptions of charlatans.

Although fear and severe psychological damage were the most common consequences of NXIVM (NEX-ee-um) membership, four female members and former members—all of whom had had intimate relations with child-like founder Keith Raniere (rah-NEAR-ee), aka “Vanguard,” now 61—died under “suspicious circumstances” over a period of 14 years, according to a 2019 film, “The Lost Women of NXIVM.”

The deaths of two— Kristin Snyder and Gina Hutchinson—were officially ruled suicides, by drowning and gunshot, respectively, but in prior months the women “had become irritating” for Raniere, Frank Parlato, a former NXIVM insider who directed “Lost Women,” told the New York Post in 2019. Hutchinson, who died at 33, had been telling friends beforehand that Raniere had first bedded her when she was 14, and Snyder had begun telling NXIVM members in Alaska that she was carrying Raniere’s baby.

Meanwhile, Raniere characterized himself among cult members as celibate, making the two women’s claims a dire threat to the leader’s personal integrity and the survival of his organization, Parloto alleges.

Two other women— Barbara Jeske and Pamela Cafritz—died of cancer in 2014 and 2016, respectively, while living with Raniere at his Half Moon, NY home.

Cult leader Raniere manipulated devotees into girlish thinness

The cult leader, who reportedly preferred skinny women as sexual partners, commonly coerced NXIVM acolytes he fancied into extreme, low-calorie diets through NXIVM surrogates to achieve unnaturally girlish physiques.

India Oxenberg, in a 2020 memoir audiobook “Still Learning,” claims that during her seven years in NXIVM starting at age 19, she spent two within the cult’s “secret sex-slave sorority” called DOS (acronym for Dominus Obsequious Sororium, a Latin phrase that roughly translates to “master over slave women.”). Raniere characterized DOS as a “sorority” for women’s empowerment.

However, in DOS, Oxenberg, the daughter of former “Dynasty” television soap-opera star Catherine Oxenberg, experienced the opposite of empowerment. She served as a lifetime “slave” to her DOS “master,” Allison Mack, herself a former star of the “Superman”-themed TV series “Smallville.” She was required to ask permission for every action and food intake, and made to labor gratis for Mack, including cleaning her house.

During her DOS years, Oxenberg was ritually seared beside her pubic bone with an obscure brand (after stripping naked)—as were other members—an abstract symbol that depicted Raniere’s (and possibly Mack’s) initials. Oxenberg was also forced into a strictly monitored daily starvation diet of 500-800 calories, and she and other DOS “slaves” were manipulated into seducing Raniere for sex (he reportedly preferred to be approached rather than “putting himself on the line.”), according to a 2018 New York Times piece.

READ: Actress Allison Mack Procured Sex Slaves for Cult Leader, Prosecutors Say

NXIVM women seduced by female empowerment ethos

Although members generally raved about the effectiveness of Raniere’s NXIVM empowerment and joy-enhancing programs in their lives (even after his downfall), most were largely unaware of the cult’s dark underbelly and its founder’s bizarre proclivities and predominantly sexual manipulative atrocities, such as keeping one young Mexican acolyte isolated in a darkened room for two years ostensibly for penance because he was jealous she had engaged in a sexual relationship with another cult member.

Raniere, like other infamous past cult leaders, seemed to have an inexplicable, otherworldly hold on his followers’ imaginations and emotions. Although many of his self-help bromides seemed innocent and even hackneyed, they obscured a darker subterranean lair. His prescription for finding your best, most powerful self was deeply entrancing to people who chose to follow him. In “The Vow,” he is filmed saying,

We all have some heroes some people that we enjoy. Some people have great characters. Some people have great compassion. Some people have great charisma. Some people, they have a quality that they are deeply soulful. Imagine if there were those traits that you might want for yourself. ESP Nexium is a methodology that allows people to optimize their experience and behavior.

But the methodology also optimized members’ slavish devotion to Raniere and his powerful control over their minds, choices and perceptions as he indoctrinated them to please his fancies.

YouTube video

A cult for elite, wealthy supplicants

And learning the methodology wasn’t cheap. Courses ranged from about $1,200 for a three-day “intensive” class to $7,500 for a full-bore 16-day indoctrination. Members took intensive and longer courses more than once.

Once embedded in the cult, members, similar to other cults, like Scientology, were made to work like dogs over punishing, unhealthy hours for paltry or no pay. The work was mainly to recruit new members to the group who would pay for overpriced courses.

A New York Times review of “The Vow” explained,

Ultimately, “The Vow” is an impressive and even transfixing achievement. It uses the viewer’s curiosity about branding and sex cults to tell a valuable and engrossing tale about gullibility, trust and the human desire to put one’s faith in a leader who promises the real Answer. You know, the one that powerful forces are keeping secret from you.

But there is no secret, of course, and as is so often the case, the man behind the curtain is a petty, angry, manipulative mess.

One of the most disturbing—and morally and practically instructive—revelations in the documentary is how NXIVM’s invariably kind, smart, and seemingly rational members, even after they realized the cult’s essential fraud and fled the group (with wrenching psychic difficulty because of their deep attachment to it and to Raniere), still mightily second-guessed their decision.

“I [still] wanted to believe that he was good,” a former NXIVM adherent called Jane (a pseudonym) tells the filmmakers in “The Vow.”

Even after Raniere was arrested and imprisoned for a litany of crimes related to the cult—even after he was later convicted and sentenced to life in prison—many members refused to accept his guilt. They protested outside the prison, fervently believing that the government was willfully ignoring his innocence.

It reminds me of Trump’s undeniable, even massive loss in the 2020 presidential election, and how his supporters, then and still, insisted on believing the unbelievable and in the imagined greatness of their dear leader. And it reminds me of every other cult, including doomsday groups, whose adherents’ devotion to their leaders remains rock-solid even after the lie is fully apparent or the specific “End Times” day comes and goes but life continues unaltered.

But the female empowerment ethos self-styled philosopher and ethicist Raniere peddled proved extremely alluring to women. As Vanessa Grigoriadis wrote in a 2018 New York Times Magazine essay, “Inside NXIVM, the ‘Sex Cult’ That Preached Empowerment”:

[Raniere] … seemed to have a unique, pulsating idea that resonated with women, particularly wealthy ones. This was an intersection of theories about femininity, victimhood, money and ethics, much of it influenced by Ayn Rand, one of Raniere’s favorite authors. The ultimate NXIVM member was “potent,” in Nxian lingo—not only rich but emotionally disciplined, self-controlled, attractive, physically fit and slender—or, in the word most members themselves preferred, “badass.”

In the end, many lives were severely damaged or ruined, some lost, among NXIVM’s estimated 17,000 members in the US and abroad, as believers chased dreams down pointless rabbit holes.

As in fundamentalist religions. The difference is that most believers in, say evangelical Christianity, chronically fail to see the lies that they have been fed usually since childhood—and their devotion to unlocatable deities continues unabated.

Fortunately, NXIVM collapsed with its leaders.

At the end, everyone was convicted

In 2021, Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison for his illegal NXIVM activities, including federal sex trafficking, racketeering, possession of child pornography, and running pyramid schemes.

His top aides were also convicted and sentenced:

  • NXIVM co-founder Nancy Salzman was sentenced to three years in prison in 2019 for identity theft and altering records to influence the outcome of a lawsuit against the cult. Her daughter, Lauren, was convicted of lesser offenses but avoided jail time.
  • DOS director Alison Mack was sentenced to three years in prison and a $20,000 fine for identity theft and altering records to influence the outcome of a lawsuit against NXIVM.
  • NXIVM financier and board member Clare Bronfman was sentenced to nearly seven years in prison for identity theft and immigration offenses. Bronfman is the youngest daughter of Edgar Bronfman, the former chairman of Seagram Company.
  • NXIVM’s bookkeeper, Kathy Russell, pleaded guilty to one count of visa fraud but avoided a prison term.

The essential takeaway from the NXIVM debacle and the tragedy that seems to befall all cults is that your best weapon from the get-go is always ruthless common sense.

Always remember: If it’s too good to be true or too bad to be right, it almost certainly is.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...