At the heart of self-help course turned cult NXIVM is Keith Raniere, the mastermind who managed to take millions from rapt heiresses and transform a Smallville actress into his alleged sex trafficking second-in-command. These feats all point to an incredibly charismatic man, the kind of person you would follow off a cliff or to federal court. It’s hard to imagine Raniere, a 57-year-old con artist who had already been accused of operating a pyramid scheme when he founded NXIVM in 1998, inspiring that sort of allegiance.
In videos like the much-circulated “Keith Raniere Conversations” clip with Allison Mack, the NXIVM leader comes across as less than impressive, spouting pearls of “wisdom” like “authenticity is being as you are.” But countless testimonials from current and former NXIVM members insist that Raniere did have something to offer; on her personal website, Mack credited his teachings with helping her to develop “a deep connection to the nature of humanity as it relates to acting as an art form, and a tool for personal evolution.”
Seagram’s heiress Clare Bronfman, who has been a dedicated NXIVM member and financial backer of Raniere’s, wrote in a 2017 note about Keith’s “kindness even in the hardest times.” She continued, “I have seen world leaders, business leaders, doctors and others seek his counsel on some of the hardest topics and I am inspired by the humility and compassion with which he approaches them all. I know him to be a man dedicated to the betterment of the lives of others, and most importantly for me, he is a dear friend who has and continues to help me through the difficult decisions and painful moments in my life.”
The first episode of A&E’s new series Cults and Extreme Belief is dedicated to NXIVM. In this exclusive clip from the premiere next Monday, host Elizabeth Vargas attempts to demystify Keith Raniere’s appeal. She asks Sarah Edmondson, an ex-NXIVM member and DOS “slave,” if “there’s something that’s not communicating or translating across through the TV screen” when it comes to the cult leader’s assumed charisma.
Edmondson, who’s spoken out about her DOS branding and experience within the secret NXIVM sorority in the past, emphasizes that the man she met had none of the stigma of a cult leader or criminal. “I didn’t have any of that in my head. I had him in this other, elevated status.”
Edmondson explains how the entire structure of NXIVM was designed to reinforce this pedestal. “Every day we’re going ‘thank you Vanguard,’ and like this curriculum is so amazing, and it’s all 'cause of Keith. So you have a lot of people saying thank you and revering him before you even meet him. By the time you meet him, he’s good at getting in rapport and connecting eye-to-eye.” Asked to elaborate on how Raniere interacted with members, Edmondson replies, “You’re not going to like this answer—he kisses everyone on the lips.”
“I want to say something was off, but it was countered by all the good things in NXIVM and I couldn’t quite reconcile it,” Edmondson concludes. “In retrospect, Keith doesn’t care about humanity and ethics. We were all pawns for him in his little chess game. Especially women.”