Keith Raniere was the head of NXIVM, an organization that promised self-improvement, but devolved into a cult of criminality and coercion.
Who Is Keith Raniere?
Of the approximately 17,000 people who took classes and seminars with self-help organization NXIVM, a smaller cadre of followers became enthralled by its leader, Keith Raniere. Some went into debt to continue taking NXIVM’s classes, while others moved to live near Raniere in upstate New York. Investigations of Raniere, such as a 2003 Forbes cover story and a 2012 exposé in The Albany Times-Union, reported that he was manipulating and injuring NXIVM members, including allegations of sexual abuse. A 2017 New York Times story revealed that within NXIVM a group of female “sex slaves” were being branded near their pelvic bones with Raniere’s initials. Raniere was arrested in 2018 and tried in 2019 on federal charges that included racketeering, sex trafficking, extortion and forced labor. He was convicted and in 2020 was sentenced to 120 years in prison.
Raniere was born in Brooklyn, New York, on August 26, 1960. Raniere was raised in Suffern, New York. He described himself as a childhood genius who was speaking in full sentences at 1, reading at 2 and a proficient pianist by the time he was 12.
Raniere’s father worked in advertising and his mother was a ballroom dance instructor. His parents divorced when he was 8. While still in school, Raniere became a caretaker for his mother, who suffered from heart problems. She passed away when he was 18.
Raniere attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. He graduated in 1982 with three majors: biology, math and physics. When Raniere was brought up on charges, prosecutors shared the fact that, despite Raniere’s self-proclaimed genius, his grade point average was just 2.26.
Life Before NXIVM
After college, Raniere became an Amway salesman. He then took his knowledge of multilevel marketing and created Consumers‘ Buyline, which had participants acquire memberships to be able to purchase discounted groceries and additional items. Current members also earned commissions by recruiting new members.
Consumers‘ Buyline grew to 250,000 members across several states and about $33 million in annual revenue. However, it ended up under investigation by multiple state attorneys general as a potential pyramid scheme. In 1996, Raniere signed a consent order in New York. He agreed to pay a fine of $40,000 and accepted a permanent ban on participating in any “chain distribution scheme.” By 1997, Consumers‘ Buyline had closed.
In the 1990s, Raniere was also involved with National Health Network, a multilevel organization selling vitamins.
Leader of NXIVM
NXIVM was founded as Executive Success Programs in 1998. The organization offered personal development and emotional management seminars intended to help attendees better achieve self-fulfillment. From its first location near Albany, New York, NXIVM grew to have educational centers in New York City, Vancouver and Mexico.
Raniere designed NXIVM’s classes, drawing in part from Ayn Rand’s philosophies (she was a favorite author). His teachings encouraged students to follow their own self-interested goals while steering clear of “parasites” who could send them off track. Taking NXIVM seminars, which cost thousands of dollars and had names like Explorations of Meaning (related to memory), Human Pain and Mobius (about self-healing), required a nondisclosure agreement.
The structure of NXIVM classes meant that students offered up personal details, which could later make them vulnerable to manipulation. Students earned different colored sashes as they ascended through the ranks and recruited new members. As NXIVM’s leader, Raniere was called “Vanguard.” His white sash was longer than anyone else’s, and students were expected to bow to him. NXIVM held a yearly gathering, called “Vanguard Week,” to celebrate Raniere’s birthday.
Raniere’s dictates within NXIVM could be misogynistic, controlling and odd. He started a women‘s group called Jness, which taught that men were naturally promiscuous, whereas women were monogamous. He believed children could become multilingual by having teachers or caretakers each speak to them in a different language. To attract younger members to NXIVM, Raniere set up an a cappella singing group. His supposedly bias-free news organization was the only one members were supposed to read. Raniere also had dreams of founding his own country and controlling his own currency.
Though Raniere was intimately involved in NXIVM, he held no official role. The organization was owned by Nancy Salzman, who was referred to as “Prefect.” She was Raniere’s first student. Raniere usually slept late, then filled his days with long walks (sometimes accompanied by female adherents) and nightly games of volleyball, his preferred sport. Among Raniere’s followers were several famous names: Emiliano Salinas, the son of a former Mexican president; heiresses Sara and Clare Bronfman, who provided NXIVM and Raniere with enormous sums; actress Allison Mack, star of the television show Smallville; and India Oxenberg, daughter of actress Catherine Oxenberg.
DOS, which supposedly stood for the Latin phrase “Dominus Obsequious Sororium,” meaning “Lord/Master of the Obedient Female Companions,” was a subgroup created by NXIVM followers. It was also known as the sorority or The Vow. The group was supposed to be a sisterhood of “masters” and “slaves” that would somehow build feminist empowerment through subjugation. Raniere was the Master, or Grandmaster, of this group; Mack was one of his personal “slaves.”
Women who were “slaves” were supposed to recruit their own followers, to whom they would become “masters.” The new “slaves” would in turn find their own recruits. Many of the women who were drafted had no idea Raniere was involved, instead believing the group was women-only. After joining DOS, initiates were branded with a cauterizing pen. Most thought the brand was a symbol representing the elements, but it in fact contained Raniere’s initials. Raniere was aware of this, once writing in a text message, “Not initially intended as my initials but they rearranged it slightly for tribute.”
To be a part of DOS, a woman was required to offer up “collateral” that would be released if she talked about the group. This might consist of nude photos, a (false) confession of abuse or the deed to a house. Some women were told to sleep with Raniere and did so because they worried that otherwise their collateral would be made public.
Arrest, Trial and Sentencing
In March 2018, Raniere, while trying to hide in a closet, was arrested by Mexican police at a luxury villa in Puerto Vallarta. He went on trial the next year for charges of racketeering conspiracy, identity theft, extortion, forced labor, money laundering, wire fraud and sex trafficking. He was found guilty of all seven counts in June 2019. On October 27, 2020, Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison.
Even during his trial and sentencing, some of Raniere’s devotees remained dedicated to him. They wrote letters to the court to support him and heeded his instructions to create a podcast.
Raniere pressured many of his female followers to follow near-starvation diets; some became so thin they stopped menstruating (he was attracted to very thin women). He punished women who didn’t heed his orders to be monogamous with him and manipulated some by telling them that by disappointing him they had drained his energy.
Allegations of Raniere’s sex crimes against underage girls appeared in an investigative series published by The Albany Times-Union in 2012. Two witnesses recounted that Raniere had taken their virginity when they were minors. Another said she had spotted Raniere entering her underage sister’s bedroom. During Raniere’s 2019 trial, a woman known as “Daniela” said she had been groomed by Raniere while a minor; she also spent two years confined to her room after expressing interest in another man.
Raniere went to war with those he considered his enemies, which included former NXIVM members and critics. Lawsuits were often supported by Bronfman funds. Raniere sued Rick Ross, an expert in cults, for sharing NXIVM materials online (in 2016, following a decade and a half of litigation, the suit was dismissed). A former girlfriend, Toni Natalie, said he hounded her into bankruptcy. Raniere also used hacking and private investigators to spy on his opponents.
The polyamorous Raniere fathered children with two women. He was devastated and unmoored by the death of longtime girlfriend Pamela Cafritz in November 2016.
In 2020, The Vow and Seduced examined Raniere’s life and crimes. There was also a two-hour special in 2019 called The Lost Women of NXIVM.