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Women Wanted a Better Life. They Ended Up in a Dangerous Cult

In her first book, Sarah Berman untangles a long web of manipulation and abuse woven by NXIVM founder Keith Raniere.

Michelle Cyca 14 Apr

Michelle Cyca is a writer, editor and book enthusiast living on unceded territories of the Musqueam Band, and the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. Her writing has appeared in the Vancouver Sun, Chatelaine, SAD Mag and more. Find here on Twitter @michellecyca.

In late 2017, Vice reporter Sarah Berman spoke to Vancouver actor Sarah Edmondson for the first time. Edmondson had recently fled NXIVM — a secretive cult wrapped in the guise of a new-agey self-help movement — after she was branded with the leader’s initials in a ritual that formalized master-slave relationships between high-ranking NXIVM members under the direction of its shadowy founder, Keith Raniere.

The story only got weirder and more twisted from there.

Tugging on the thread of Edmondson’s harrowing experience, Berman quickly unravelled decades of manipulation, abuse and sexual exploitation directed by Raniere and facilitated by his wealthy and powerful supporters.

The insidious, sprawling enterprise became the subject of Berman’s fascinating book, Don’t Call It a Cult: The Shocking Story of Keith Raniere and the Women of NXIVM, which will be released next Tuesday.

A few months after Berman and Edmondson’s first interview, Raniere was arrested in Mexico, and subsequently so were several of his closest followers, including Vancouver actors Allison Mack and Nicki Clyne.

A bizarre, highly-publicized trial followed that ended with Raniere sentenced to 120 years in prison last October.

Berman reported on all of it, tracing the connections and relationships between NXIVM members and trying to understand how they found themselves doing unthinkable things in service of Raniere’s vision and desires.

Don’t Call It a Cult is a deeply researched and empathetic examination of the vulnerabilities and motivations that lead people to believe what they desperately want to be true, and the social dynamics that push them to cross unthinkable lines.

I spoke to Berman, a longtime Tyee contributor and former editor, about the psychology of cults and how ordinary people could end up in one. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

The Tyee: You started reporting on NXIVM in 2017. Did you have any idea how big this story was going to be?

Sarah Berman: Not totally. It was just a couple weeks after the New York Times had done a fairly large story about it, but I had no idea, first of all, that I had personal connections — through Facebook and networking and whatnot — to this group, which spanned back many years.

And I didn’t realize how much backlash there was by NXIVM against people who left. That caught me off guard. In that first interview Sarah Edmondson was anxious even about using the word “cult,” for example.

But I definitely started to get a sense, over the months, that this was really widespread here in Vancouver. Friends of friends had done the courses, had gotten pretty deep in it, and had even moved to Albany, N.Y. where NXIVM was headquartered. I was really brain-scrambled by that, and I wanted to understand why — why did all these people have connections to something really dark?

It was kind of exciting — maybe that’s a terrible word to use — but it was a weird thrill to hear about this crazy story and learn that it had roots in Vancouver. Did you feel that at all?

Yeah, it was almost too close for comfort. It did feel like, you know, this could have easily been my best friend or someone being pulled in.

That was part of what made me unable to move on from the story. I didn’t want to judge, I didn’t want to jump to conclusions about what these women were thinking. I wanted to try and explore it from the inside, and understand what it looked like for them, and get that local, on-the-ground perspective.

When did you realize that you wanted to write a book?

Publishers started reaching out in the spring of 2018. So that was a strong hint that this could be a book. I wasn’t sold on that idea right away, although I was amassing a ton of interviews.

It was actually kind of a roller coaster because I finally decided, OK, I’m going to write a proposal, I have all this material — and then Raniere got arrested and a lot of folks lawyered up and got really quiet on me. That was a little unsettling, to not have as much information flowing right after I set out on this scary first book! But it did work out in the end.

How difficult was it to get interviews with people involved in NXIVM? It seems like for Sarah Edmondson there was a kind of relief in talking about this, but for other people there must have been so much secrecy and shame.

That was one of the main challenges. I think what was motivating people like Sarah Edmondson was her belief that this group needed to be stopped. There didn’t seem to be a clear end point, and they wanted so much attention on it that authorities would have to act.

But for a lot of people — I mean, this is just so personal. It’s people’s trauma. And so of course there was a lot of sensitivity and a lot of distrust, and you get into a conspiratorial mindset. That happened to me too, while writing this book, and I wrote about it a little bit near the end — you really do feel like someone is out to get you.

This was such a complex story to report that you included a Cast of Characters at the beginning of the book. Was it challenging to plan the structure of how these different stories would fit together when you’re following 30 or more people?

I started that list early on and it was originally much larger. I did try to simplify it, to take out some people and limit it just to the stories that mattered most or were most illustrative of certain elements. But I included it so that if people forgot a name or something as they were reading, they could refer back as a reference.

With a group like this, where recruitment is the main goal and there are constantly new people coming in, it’s not easy to put a thread through that. But I knew I wanted to go back to Raniere’s early days, his background. It was shocking how much of the same dynamic had existed really deep in his history. So 20 years before NXIVM even existed, you could see the same kind of elements.

And I knew I wanted to show how it worked as a system — how you had people who had earned his trust conspiring to influence others. Toni Natalie [one of Raniere’s ex-girlfriends] called it the “wolf pack” approach. You had these women acting as enforcers, going around making sure that everyone was in line. And if they weren’t in line, they were corrected or given some kind of ultimatum. I wanted to make sure the book showed that the people who got closest to him often suffered the most.

Then the DOS element [Dominus Obsequious Sororium, the sex-slavery group within NXIVM that branded Edmondson] — that was what made the story blow up, so I wanted to include that but ensure it was treated with respect.

So it’s split into those three parts. I wanted to show that it wasn’t women choosing this particular lifestyle — it was women choosing a better life, a community, trying to make themselves better, and then this system and influence came to be imposed on them over time.

Obviously Raniere had learned a lot about how to manipulate people, but what made him so effective was the “wolf pack” that Toni Natalie describes — there were enforcers who rationalized or softened his behaviour to others. This group of women really enabled him and made all the terrible things he did possible. Lauren Salzman’s story in particular was so tragic to me. She did a lot of monstrous things, but you really see how she was quite trapped.

Salzman, a DOS “master,” was truly conditioned, I think more than anyone. She had so much at stake with her mom being the president of the company. [NXIVM claimed to be a multi-level marketing company.]

NXIVM gave her an ultimatum and made her cut off her dad, so there was this family separation instituted by them. She’d already put herself on their team at great cost, so she truly did have a false choice when it came to continuing to participate or not.

It definitely seems like a frog-in-boiling-water situation, where for people in the outer orbit, NXIVM seems pretty harmless, but the deeper you go into it the more extreme it becomes.

Yeah, there’s a lot at the end that you just can’t understand, unless you understand you’ve been the frog in that water from the beginning. So even though I have Sarah Edmondson describing the branding ceremony at the beginning of the book, I don’t reveal all the context until later, because it just wouldn’t make sense to the reader at that point.

Many of your sources talked about how they were drawn to NXIVM’s mission to change the world and make it a better place. And yet for many of the women, serving that mission seemed to just mean starvation and self-punishment. Why do you think so many people were willing to believe that they were changing the world when all their activities were focused on their individual behaviour?

It made no sense to me at the beginning, and there were so many times I asked Sarah, “How did it change the world? How was it going to do that?” But then I started noticing how everything these days is marketed as making the world better, bringing people together for change.

And also, first of all people were revealing all of their vulnerabilities. So if someone has guilt over how they have come from a place of privilege, that can be used as a lever. Clare Bronfman [the Seagram liquor heiress who provided NXIVM with more than $150 million of her inheritance] always said she felt guilty about how rich she was, so here comes this perfect simplified message: all you need to do is put your money toward the most important thing in the world.

So it’s very black and white, but people are drawn to simple answers. We all want to connect, we all want community, and there’s something appealing about the “just do this one thing” messaging.

There are a couple of women in the story, like Barbara Bouchey, also an ex-girlfriend of Raniere, and Toni Natalie, who manage to break away from NXIVM. And there are others, like teenage sisters Camila and Daniela, who manage to hang onto their sense of reality despite so much abuse and manipulation. What do you think was the difference between the women who managed to snap out of it and the ones who just kept getting in deeper?

I think it varies so much, and those individual variables make it hard to offer a sweeping generalization. I mean, Barbara Bouchey is so headstrong and persuasive, and it seems incredible to people who know her that she would go along with such manipulation for so long.

But then on the other hand, a lot of the people who stayed really had a threat keeping them there. They may not have thought of it that way, but for anyone in NXIVM there is a trove of damaging information about them and an implicit risk associated with leaving. To even think about going, they have to imagine losing all hope and purpose, destroying their important relationships, being humiliated in some way, even losing their chance of a spiritual afterlife. So it was really different for everyone.

Everyone in this story had a pretty harrowing journey, but was it especially difficult to report on Daniela’s experience? I had such a hard time reading that and imagining how her parents could agree to essentially lock her in a solitary prison for years. [Daniela, a minor when Raniere began grooming her for a sexual relationship, was imprisoned and isolated in a bedroom for two years after Raniere grew jealous of her crush on another NXIVM member.]

It truly is hard to believe. I mean, her testimony was definitely one of the most mind-blowing parts of the trial. It’s interesting that she hasn’t so much factored into the podcasts and documentaries. Her story is one that I think deserves more recognition and respect. But you do need to think about privacy and healing.

I’ve been reading Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts, about the murder trial of the man accused of killing her aunt, and she writes about how every artifact, every photo shown in a trial is completely personal to someone. And that’s what I felt with Daniela. She was revisiting and reliving some really intense stuff up there, and all anyone could do is listen and try to understand the best they can.

It’s evident when reading your book that aside from Keith Raniere, NXIVM is female dominated. There’s really only one high-ranking male member, Mark Vicente, and the rest are women. Why do you think that was?

The people who joined were community builders, they wanted close friendships, they wanted to talk about their feelings and their struggles. And I think men, due to whatever societal forces, they don’t always come to that as a need.

But I do think it was also from deliberately reaching out to women. There was a top-line mission, when you look at what NXIVM was actually created for, which was procuring women. The people who were in the inner circle were drawing women in and bringing them on the path to Keith Raniere.

This is an intense story from start to finish, but what was the wildest thing you heard while working on this book?

The thing that affected me the most physically, like really hit me in my stomach, was when the texts between Raniere and Camila were read in court. This was Raniere’s most closely-guarded secret: he had this woman from Mexico who was undocumented, he had sexually exploited her from the age of 15, and he kept her in this secret apartment so even her friends and family didn’t know where she lived. And the way he spoke to her, the way he treated her privately — I couldn’t shake it for many, many months.

When NXIVM members were being sentenced or testifying, did you feel like they were really recognizing the harms they had done? What were your thoughts, after seeing how committed they were for so long and then they have these epiphanies about the terrible acts they’d committed?

I don’t think everyone necessarily had that epiphany. Clare Bronfman still to this day is loyal, despite pleading guilty and recognizing that her actions were wrong, in a scripted kind of way, at her sentencing.

It’s hard to say what level of understanding all of them are at, because the only one we really heard from in detail was Lauren Salzman, through her testimony. And in that case it does seem very genuine. It’s based on her doing a lot of thinking on her own, which is fascinating because she’s never had space to do that as an adult. She’s always been coached and reframed. I do think there is this crisis you would have to come to, after losing all these voices around you who are telling you what to do.

Did you come away from writing this book feeling like anyone could end up joining a cult if it spoke to their needs and values the right way?

If you’re in a time of transition, and if you have people in your orbit who are doing this thing, absolutely it’s a very seductive pull.

In the past I’ve been sort of seduced by various alternative lifestyles and cultures, and I’ve always gotten in and out of those with nothing particularly cult-like. So younger me could maybe. But now, after having done all this research, I have such a sixth sense for black-and-white thinking, anytime anyone starts talking that way I sort of go quiet.

What would you say to someone who is getting involved with something that sounds cult-y? Is there a way to help them before it’s too late?

That’s a good question. Well, one thing that shuts it down is calling it a cult. Like, if you say, “You gotta get out of that cult,” that’s not going to advance your argument very well. You need to be willing to talk about it. Ask questions and try to understand what’s going on. Attending an event to see what it’s like can help, and then you can try to foster self-reflection about it.

That would be my hypothetical approach: trying to keep the lines of communication open and in good faith, and not being dismissive. Just trying to be a good friend to that person. That’s what people need, just a few friends who listen and care and maybe raise a few questions once in a while. Unfortunately, so many people are so isolated, they don’t have that.

Do you think you’ll write another book?

I am thinking about it. I’m also just more interested in long-form generally. I have a podcast idea in the works that I’ll be working on for the next six months or so, which is also about a trial.

I really appreciate the ability to go deep. I was doing daily content generation for a long time, and it just feels like the right move to do longer-form storytelling now.  [Tyee]

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