I’ve read, watched, researched, written reports and studied cults for years. It’s just one of those things that happens when you go to graduate school at John Jay College. Children of God, Manson Family, Branch Davidians, the People’s Temple, Rajneeshpuram. I’ve absorbed it all. And my overall take is this: groupthink can be a hell of a drug.
Over the last year, we’ve been bombarded with the news of NXIVM, a cult that presented itself as a self-help organization. The arrests and convictions of its top players, along with HBO and Hulu documentaries about the cult, have made it an ongoing topic of discussion. Who knew that people needed to be told to be weary of a company that was advertising that it was owned by the “smartest man in the world”, Keith Raniere. Sure, ok. The smartest man in the world doesn’t get caught and find himself in prison for the rest of his miserable life.
Even though there is a lot of material out there about NXIVM, and the secret sex cult society that formed within it called DOS, I decided to read Sarah Berman’s book Don’t Call It A Cult anyway. It was absolutely worth it. What sets Berman’s book apart is that she was never a member of NXIVM, but she interviews many who were. She does impeccable research that explains the rise of Raniere (who has always been problematic because dude is a massive fraud), and his eventual leadership role in company that pushes pseudo-scientific hypnotic bullshit through the abuse of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). Never mind that the people that were using NLP in NXIVM were in no way qualified to do so. I didn’t know all this until I read this book. Berman also explains how the billionaire Bronfman sisters get involved, along with Nancy Salzman and her daughter Lauren. And then the actors and actresses who seem to all have money to waste on classes that promise to make them into better human beings and artists: ex: Allison Mack, Nicki Clyne. Berman filled in gaps regarding NXIVM’s origins and gives us an idea of how a little Albany based start-up became a criminal enterprise. Before reading this, I had a good idea of what the cult was about. But Berman gives us so much more detail, as painful and upsetting as it is to read.
While Berman states the facts without judgment (A+ journalism), I couldn’t help but feel disgusted by all of the people involved in NXIVM and ESP. And not just Mack, Saltzman, and Raniere. I’m talking about the people who knew this was a cult long before the secret society of DOS was exposed by the New York Times. They knew charging people with the promise of “moving up” through different color sashes was a gimmick. And recruiting more people with the promise of reward was a pyramid scheme. They knew having a weeklong birthday party for Keith Raniere was idol worship. They knew holding twelve hour classes were designed to exhaust people into complacency. And don’t get me started on the classes where the men demeaned the women and the women had to take it or be considered weak. There is a part in the HBO series The Vow where Sarah Edmondson actually says, “ok so what if it’s a cult!” But in Berman’s book, she cautions Berman not to call it a cult (due to legal reasons). Lol, ok let’s not yo-yo. It’s a cult. And you were a participating member.
Speaking of Edmondson, I take issue with the former NXIVM members like her and Mark Vicente who have chased fame their entire lives and are now coming out with books and documentaries about their experience. No. Both of them were high up in NXIVM and made good money off of its grift. Both of them enabled Raniere and protected him. And while spilling the beans was important for Edmondson to do- because it helped to stop this- it’s too little, too late. Exposing it to the NYT and testifying was enough. When you start writing books and doing documentaries as damage control, my spidey senses start tingling. And of course responding to said criticism by saying “how dare you say I’m doing it for fame” is just another manipulative tactic to silence people who see beyond it. No dice. I’m sorry for what you went through, but you knew this organization was garbage from jump. And you knew blackmailing people through collateral was illegal, over the top, and the beginning of the end. That’s why you turned.
And Mark Vicente? He’s referenced in Berman’s book many times. Here’s a person who got out but put his wife through hell first because his power position within NXIVM and friendship with Raniere was more important. After watching The Vow, I couldn’t help but feel like I had just been fucked with by all of them. And maybe it’s because I interview people who lie to me everyday? After doing a little Twitter digging, I see that I’m not alone. Berman references Vicente’s testimony against Raniere, which is quite frankly, the least he could have done.
Which speaks to why Berman’s work here is so important. She sat in the courtroom during Raniere’s trial as a neutral party. She also interviews and gives voice to the women who have been overlooked (such as an actress who lived with Mack who was blindfolded by Raniere, then given oral sex by an unknown person). Berman also documents the testimony of victims who we may never meet. The young girls Raniere raped and forced to have abortions. The poor girl he locked in a room for two years who he used in several ways (in addition to being his sex slave, he used her computer prowess and hacking skills to a spy on perceived enemies). Maybe someday these survivors will speak publicly (like India Oxenburg). When and if they do, their words will carry more weight than the people who had the power to stop this long before humans were being cauterized.
What NXIVM and DOS really boils down to is this: A bunch of wealthy, fake, scarf wearing mean girls competing with one another and a sexually deviant misogynistic monster who capitalized on his freakdom by using the very women who gave him that power. Raniere isn’t the smartest man in the world, but he’s certainly not stupid. But to blame him alone is something no one should and will do, especially in a court of law. And while I use the term “mean girls” when referring to the key players, they are obviously grown women who knew better and still did wrong under the guise of “proving loyalty”. Mack and Saltzman especially tore others down. Both turned into Gollums. And their “precious” was Raniere. And for what? It led to nothing good. Raniere isn’t God. They didn’t become superior beings. No class can teach you to become a better person. That has to come from within. Turns out if you take a walk with Raniere, he’ll only lead you to a prison cell.
If you have an interest in true crime, this is one of the best. Kudos to Sarah Berman. And the way Berman ended the book leads me to believe she’s not done. And until that happens, I’m done reading anything NXIUM. Because I know she’ll be the only one telling the truth.
Rating: 5/5 stars ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️