1600 Parents, lock the door
Don’t Call It A Cult: The Shocking Story of Keith Raniere and the Women of NXIVM
by Sarah Berman
Toronto: Penguin Random House Canada (Viking), 2021
$24.95 / 9780735237896
Reviewed by Ron Verzuh
Be Afraid for Your Daughters: Parents lock the door, if you can, on predators bearing false promise of enlightenment
What do you do if someone is introduced as “the smartest person in the world?” A. You laugh your head off. B. You dismiss the claim as ludicrous. C. You look for Bill Gates to appear. D. You run for the door as fast as you can. This book gives us the correct answer. It’s D.
Vancouver investigative journalist Sarah Berman, a reporter for VICE, Adbusters and other alternative media, has done the meticulous digging required to expose the scandal surrounding New Yorker Keith Raniere (“the smartest man”) and his network of human potential movement “slaves.”
What was his crime? Basically, he masterminded a scheme mysteriously called NXIVM (pronounced, for what it’s worth, Nexium) to siphon money from the bank accounts of mostly emotionally needy young women. The promise: to make you a better person and remake the world as a better place.
It was the perfect cover. Set up an organization like NXIVM that “was all about teaching people how to be more honest, honorable, forthcoming, and genuine.” As former Raniere accountant and top recruiter Barbara Bouchey said, “nobody ever expected the leadership were all liars.”
Here’s how American actress and Raniere recruit Allison Mack explained the appeal. “I joined NXVIM first to find purpose. I was lost and wanted to find a place, a community in which I could be comfortable. She would later admit to charges of “forced labor and extortion as part of a racketeering conspiracy.”
Despite the attraction to the young and lost, it was all a crock. Raniere had a team of able and devoted women like Mack making sure new recruits kept flowing through the door in hopes of bettering their careers as actors or business entrepreneurs. “By the time of his arrest,” Berman notes, “at least 120 women had been initiated into Raniere’s secret society.” Court testimony shows that he “considered all of them to be his slaves.”
The scam was blown in 2020 when Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison and fined $1.75 million. His accomplices, like Mack, got considerably fewer years. One of them, Clare Bronfman of the Seagram’s liquor fortune, makes this a Canadian story. (Editor’s note: see also Scarred: The True Story of How I Escaped NXIVM by Vancouver actress Sarah Edmondson, reviewed here by Nathaniel G. Moore). Bronfman is now serving almost seven years for her part in the crime and continues to support Raniere while free on $100 million bail supplied by her family.
Why she continues to serve her master, called “Vanguard,” remains a puzzle. Perhaps we should be thinking Jeffery Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell or Charles Manson and Squeaky Fromm. Her younger sister Sara has escaped some of the limelight, but Berman includes her among the duped.
It would be too easy, and unfair, to lay the blame for this mess at the feet of the young women who were sucked in by the false promise of self-realization through Raniere’s complex educational structure. If they are guilty of a crime it is being so naïve as to want a fast-track ticket to become better people, however they defined it. Yes, they kept doling out their money or their time — some eventually accepted sex slavery and even branding — but as Berman shows, this was a sophisticated operation.
Most of them could not have known at first what they had fallen into. They could not know that “much like Scientology, the organization was collecting what Russians would call ‘kompromat’ on students.” Berman explains that “this was used as leverage to encourage deeper participation.” She describes NXIVM as a “slippery” trap, “involving exhaustion, group conformity, conditioning, selection, leveraged secrets, and a whole lot of pseudoscience.”
Berman has the real criminals nailed and she keeps them clearly in her sights as she guides us through the maze of their bizarre deeds to keep NXIVM flush with cash and Raniere supplied with young women. Like all investigative reporting, readers are able to wade through all the factual details that Berman ferrets out in emails, secret reports, recordings, court testimony, diary entries and other documents.
If that proves too much for some, the culture vultures at the streaming network HBO picked up the scandal with a show called The Vow, aired on August 23, 2020. It may go into a second season, but I’m satisfied to rely on Berman’s book, a straightforward unembellished account of a predator and his willing accomplices.
Ron Verzuh is a writer, historian and documentary filmmaker. His forthcoming book Printer’s Devils (Caitlin Press, 2023) tells the 30-year social history of the Trail Creek News, a feisty pioneer newspaper in Trail. His recent book, Smelter Wars: A Rebellious Red Trade Union Fights for its Life in Wartime Western Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2022), is reviewed here by Bryan D. Palmer; an earlier book, Codenamed Project 9: How a Small British Columbia City Helped Create the Atomic Bomb (2018), is reviewed by Mike Sasges. Editor’s note: Ron Verzuh’s work has appeared in The British Columbia Review since it was founded in 2016. He has contributed an essay to The British Columbia Review on trade unionist Harvey Murphy and has recently reviewed books by Wayne Norton, Mark Hume, Michael Gates, Jesse Donaldson & Erika Dyck, Michael Cone, and Bob Williams for The British Columbia Review. Ron lives in Victoria.
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster