Inside NXIVM: Emotional and financial harm

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New York (February 12, 2020) – 80 victims filed a lawsuit against the leadership of the NXIVM cult and accused the 19 defendants of fraud, identity theft, racketeering, forced labor, sex trafficking, and negligence for engaging in unauthorized practice of psychoanalysis, and mental health counseling. Among the plaintiffs are 41 Canadian women and men who were victims of the coercive community. The 189-page complaint described their alleged emotional and financial harm during their time with the cult.

80 victims, including 41 Canadians, filed a lawsuit against the leadership of the NXIVM cult in a New York court. The complaint alleges that the cult-like self-empowerment group ‘functioned as both a Ponzi scheme and a coercive community’ and abused its followers. The facts described in this article are based on the 189-page complaint, in which the alleged emotional and financial harm of some of the mostly anonymous claimants is described in detail.


In 1998, Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman, both defendants in the lawsuit, jointly founded NXIVM (pronounced /NEX-ee-um/). Salzman was a nurse and at that time running a motivational program and Raniere had a background in multi-level marketing. In connection with the business he made with his previous company Consumers Buyline, Inc. (CBI), he was banned from ever running another chain distribution scheme in the State of New York.

They created a program called ‘Rational Inquiry’ (RI), which was a synthesis of psychotherapy and the teachings, methods, and practices of the human potential movement groups, promising a successful career and self-fulfillment. This program was the heart of the purported self-help organization headquartered in Albany, New York. Soon they were operating more centers in the U.S, Mexico, and Canada.

Raniere and Salzman fraudulently promoted their method as being a scientifically proven and patent-pending self-empowerment program. Believing NXIVM’s fraudulent marketing, participants paid thousands of dollars to attend classes based on their method. According to the complaint, sixteen thousand people took NXIVM’s courses. In doing so, a multitude of people was bilked out of substantial sums of money in the process – leading in many cases, to financial devastation, impoverishment, and bankruptcy.

Read more: 80 victims file lawsuit against NXIVM cult leadership

In 2015, Raniere and some of the female defendants added a secret society within NXIVM called ‘DOS’ or ‘The Vow,’ with levels of women ‘slaves’ headed by ‘masters’. The slaves had to serve the female masters and were constantly under the influence of a highly abusive environment. The ultimate objective of DOS was to recruit and groom women for sexual slavery under Raniere which formed the organization to sex slavery inside a purported self-empowerment cult. Overall, the goal of NXIVM was to promote Raniere by exalting his teachings and ideology and to recruit new members, including sexual partners for himself.

Emotional and financial harm

The kinds of crimes the 80 victims were allegedly exposed to are described in detail in the complaint in 189 pages. Of the 80 plaintiffs, only three are named in the court document. The remaining 77 claimants stayed anonymous. 28 Canadian women and 13 Canadian men are among the plaintiffs.

As a member of NXIVM, the people were exposed to damaging psychological experiments and coercion using manipulation and abuse of power while conducting unlicensed psychotherapy in order to emotionally and financially harm the members.

The RI method presupposed that most people suffered from mental, nervous, emotional, and behavioral dysfunctions or disorders resulting from what Raniere called ‘dis-integration’. The complaint describes RI is as ‘a pseudo-scientific hodgepodge of psychotherapeutic methods which, when practiced by unlicensed and unqualified lay-people, subjected its participants to an unreasonable risk of serious psychological injury and emotional distress.’ While conducting the RI courses members were reframed as a result of cognitive behavioral therapy, which made them internalize that he or she was broken due to his or her own failings and that all of his or her problems were self-generated.

‘The longer someone was immersed in this system, the more likely it became that they would suffer moderate to severe psychological and emotional injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder and complex post-traumatic stress disorder,’ explained the court document.

Read more: The debtor’s jail in fraud recovery through the criminal process

Even worse were the pseudo-scientific medical experiments including the ‘Tourette’s Study’, the ‘OCD Study,’ and the ‘Humane Fright Experiments.’ Jane Doe 19 was assigned to the Humane Fright Experiment and was played a series of disturbing and graphically violent scenes from commercials, short films and movie clips such as actual dismemberment of five women and movie scenes showing a gang rape and hate crimes while connected to an EEG and being recorded. Following the study, she was unable to sleep for 12 days.

Jane Doe 20, who suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), was told that the NXIVM system could cure her disorder. After they started the treatment, she was subjected to nightly 4-hour long individual psychotherapy and periodic questioning as well as extreme verbal abuse. She was also instructed to cease taking medications prescribed by a previous doctor. As a consequence, she began to suffer severe physical and psychological problems. The defendants Nancy Salzman and Dr. Porter insisted her problems were a result of her failure to fully commit to NXIVM’s system. When Jane Doe 20 realized that she was in a serious psychiatric crisis, which included having persistent suicidal thoughts, she fled back to Canada, went into hiding, and delayed seeking medical treatment out of fear of exposure.

Secret societies and groups

In addition to the purportedly personal improvement programs, NXIVM offered specialized programs and groups, targeted at specific subgroups of NXIVM’s membership, through a variety of NXIVM-affiliated companies. One of those programs was ‘Jness’, a curriculum to lower women’s self-esteem, creating distrust in relationships, and legitimizing polygamy and abusive conduct by men.

Another example is the Society of Protectors (SOP) – a boot camp that was supposed to build character by taking responsibility and confronting adversity while promoting men and masculinity. SOP taught that masculinity, power, and aggression were positive traits. The program for men required members to submit to abusive tactics to supposedly teach them to work harder to become more ‘noble.’ This involved doing penances, disciplines, and readiness drills that would build character. In fact, the exercises broke participants down and distorted their perceptions of healthy masculinity.

Among Raniere’s crimes was sexual exploitation of a child, possession of child pornography, as well as sex trafficking. He lured women with the so-called ‘DOS’ program and the ‘One Asian’ group. The ‘One Asian’ group was only accessible for women of East Asian heritage, which were potentially suitable sexual partners for Raniere. Both programs were a means for the leadership to select and groom women to become sex slaves for Raniere.

The ‘DOS’ program was presented as an elite all-female sorority that ultimately taught that women have certain ‘weaknesses’ or tendencies, such as being over-emotional or reveling in victimhood, that interfered with their professional advancement and personal satisfaction. While being in a ‘slave’-‘master’-relationship, members were often intentionally deprived of sleep and food and forced to have sex with Raniere and had to participate in 24/7 readiness drills, send private messages to their masters each morning and night, and provide services to their masters.

As part of their slave-role, the victims suffered emotional abuse as a result of being intimidated and harassed. They had to perform uncompensated labor for the benefit of the defendants. Jane Doe 8 was even directed to wear a chain as a symbol of slavery.

Another pattern of exploitation was the abuse of non-U.S. nationals. ‘Defendants repeatedly took advantage of the vulnerabilities of foreign nationals, whose entry into and immigration status while in the U.S. was conditioned upon their strict adherence to the terms of the visas granting them entry.’

In the process of grooming women for Raniere, the leadership would manipulate foreign nationals into positions where their immigration status was compromised, they were completely broke, and thus completely dependent on the accused leaders of the cult. Some were even pressured to enter into fraudulent marriages.

Branding on plaintiffs. Photo: Complaint Civil Action NO. 20-CV-485

Furthermore, members of ‘DOS’ were branded in the pubic region with the initials of group leader Keith Raniere as part of an initiation ceremony. The branding took place without the specific consent of the women, additionally, they were told that the brand was a symbol of the five elements.

Collateral and extortion

Raniere and the so-called ‘First Line Masters’ maintained command and control over his ‘DOS’ members by collecting ‘collateral’ from them as a demonstration of good faith, such as sexually explicit photos and letters making accusations against their loved ones that would be embarrassing if disclosed. Some of the statements were fabricated such as in the case of Jane Doe 8, who was directed to provide additional collateral in the form of letters describing a false sexual attack by an actor. Her ‘master’ directed her to sign these letters and place them in envelopes addressed to casting directors.

When victims tried to leave ‘DOS’ or NXIVM all together, they were exposed to pressure and extortion using the collaterals. As a consequence, even the members that left successfully the cult kept silent out of fear. The defendants made sure that the renegades remained under their control by threatening them with criminal prosecutions and civil legal actions and causing authorities to open investigations on victims by false pretense in order to silence and intimidate them. These abuses of the legal system left the victims paralyzed by the dual fears of the release of her collateral and NXIVM’s abusive litigation tactics. This system of terror was stretched to its limits in or around May 2017, when several high-ranking members of the NXIVM community defected and spoke out.

‘NXIVM’s so-called self-help programs did anything but help the women they professed to empower,” stated FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge Sweeney in a press release following Raniere’s conviction. ‘What’s been proven today is that Keith Raniere preyed on the vulnerabilities of his many female victims, sold them lies and other falsehoods, and committed horrifying acts of coercion. This guilty verdict is a welcome end to a case that highlighted the many avenues of criminal activity pursued by a man whose intentions were deplorable beyond belief.’

According to the complaint, the plaintiffs were emotionally and financially harmed as a result of the defendants’ scheme, criminal acts, and misrepresentations and omissions.

The civil lawsuit against the NXIVM cult leadership

In the course of their racketeering enterprise, Raniere and his co-conspirators committed multiple crimes, including sex trafficking, forced labor, computer hacking, fraud, and identity theft. On January 28, 80 victims filed a lawsuit against the leadership of the NXIVM cult in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. The complaint alleges that the cult-like self-empowerment group NXIVM ‘functioned as both a Ponzi scheme and a coercive community’ and abused its followers. 19 defendants including the cult founder Keith Raniere, TV actress Allison Mack and the two Seagram heiresses, Clare and Sara Bronfman are accused in the complaint of fraud, identity theft, racketeering, forced labor, sex trafficking, and negligence for engaging in unauthorized practice of psychoanalysis, and mental health counseling. The plaintiffs in this civil case are seeking both compensatory and punitive damages.