I may be giving you the wrong idea by calling this book a true crime. Don’t Call it a Cult by Sarah Berman isn’t about a murder, but it most definitely details the committing of a crime, numerous crimes, hundreds of little acts that constitute breaking the law. It explains the development of NXIVM, an organization that duped hundreds of people, mostly women, into giving away their money, autonomy, and trust to a man who now sits in jail, Keith Raniere. Despite what the title suggests, it is of course a cult, and although the members weren’t instructed to kill themselves or others, they were expected to detonate the rest of their lives and pledge allegiance to this man. Even more surprising was the fact that famous people with successful careers bought into this pyramid marketing scheme, so not only was Keith manipulative, he was extremely well-funded. If you’re anything like me, you heard about this group through the news, along with a few salacious details, but this book is a deep-dive into how women were caught in the snares of this twisted web and why it was so successful for so long.
Keith Raniere is an incredibly convincing person. Somehow, he convinced large swaths of people that he is one of the smartest men alive, a talented piano player that could easily go professional, a strategic investor that can manipulate the stock market to make millions of dollars, a corporate leader that can teach others how to run a successful business, and a really cool guy that’s awesome at volleyball. Oh I can’t miss this part; he told one of his followers and sexual partners that he “required sex constantly, or else spiritual energy might consume him to the point of death” (p. 59). So how did he get away with such ridiculous claims for decades?
Journalist Sarah Berman conducts countless interviews and devotes years of research to write this explanation of how Raniere built such an unbelievable empire of followers, eventually turning a small group of women into his own personal sex slaves. It basically starts as a leadership course that pays out a percentage of its fees to ‘coaches’ who enroll other people: a typical pyramid scheme. But through manipulation, coercion, and blackmail, an organization is created that relies on people’s initial adoration and eventual fear, scaring them into keeping secrets and ignoring their increasing discomfort. What sets this cult apart from others is that Raniere befriends some extremely wealthy people including the Bronfman sisters, heirs to the Seagram fortune. Lost and directionless, they fall under Raniere’s spell and his claims of ‘making a better world’, funding hundreds of court cases meant to silence their critics. Eventually his defectors bravely approach law enforcement which leads to an FBI-led investigation, and eventual charges. The book ends with short descriptions of the sentencing and judgements of Raniere and his upper-level executives of NXIVM, women who enforced his rules. Many people went to jail and/or fined for their participation, but it’s clear that even those who helped carry out Raniere’s wishes are traumatized by what happened to them, and what they enabled.
It’s hard to provide a concise timeline for the development of an organization like NXIVM. Many of the people involved would not have been possible to contact, as some are in jail right now, and I suspect many more are simply unwilling to talk. It’s an embarrassing thing to publicly admit you’d been duped by someone, so there are certain people that offer lots of first-person accounts in this book, while there are others we only learn about through hearsay or other people’s recollections. We never hear from Raniere directly, although there are numerous quotes of his sprinkled throughout other people’s narratives. This should come as no surprise because he was literally worshipped, and in some cases, his initials were branded onto some women’s bodies, so his words are easily recalled by many.
Unfortunately we don’t get a lot of direct experiences from the author herself about the process of writing this book. Towards the end she confesses that she became a bit paranoid after a few occasions seemed to push the boundaries of mere coincidences. By then she had learned of NXIVM’s reputation for destroying its critics’ lives, and because she was a journalist making public inquiries about this cult and its followers, she was essentially painting a target on her own back. Luckily nothing came of it, and now that Raniere is behind bars for the next 120 years she (hopefully) doesn’t have any others to worry about, but the atmosphere of mistrust is something that permeates the entire book, and the power of suggestion becomes awfully powerful in the wrong hands.
I personally love when non-fiction books include pictures, you get a first-hand view of all the players, and in this case, you get to see pictures of this persuasive, supposedly-gifted man in the flesh. Sadly, these pictures depict a fairly average-looking man who somehow had the power to convince one woman (who was Jewish!) that she was the reincarnation of Hitler, and she could help repair her soul by joining his spiritual mission. It wasn’t only their minds he had control over; the physical demands were incredibly stringent; many of them were on extreme diets to become as thin as possible, and he monitored their weight daily, questioning them if they weren’t maintaining the goal weight he had set for them. It wasn’t just Raniere that maintained this poisonous culture; the higher some women moved up in the organization, the more power they were given over other members. It turned into women forcing other women to have abortions when they became impregnated by Raniere, tying each other up so he could sexually assault them, and demanding collateral from each other that would be released to the public if they ever tried to leave.
At times, I found myself blaming some of the women directly-how could they not have seen what was happening? It’s easy to blame the victim, and many people still do, but this book is an exploration of how easily we can shift our train of thought, and giving anyone outside of our own selves the power to control our lives is a dangerous one. Berman mainly gives us the facts as she knows it, like any good journalist, but I can’t help but feel this book is a warning to those in constant search of enlightenment. If someone/something/some group urges you to alienate yourself from your friends and families, that’s a pretty good sign their intentions are not in your own best interests.
Woooooooowwwwww…. that’s totally bonkers.
There are certain religions that try to get people who are in difficult situations — poverty, domestic abuse, a single parent — to come to their place of worship. I think it’s those people who don’t know where to turn to make sense of life who can easily be persuaded to get involved in a group that makes no sense. However, I don’t get a good feeling for who the victims of this cult are. Were they similar in their backgrounds, education, something? If not, then I’m not sure what’s up with people.
It’s hard to say with this cult, becasue many of the women were powerful in their own right, accountants, lawyers, good-looking, well-to-do, it must have been an emotional connection they were lacking. Which perhaps explains their willingness to all sleep with the leader…yuck
My mom and I got into a conversation about your book review this weekend and what kinds of women would get drawn into a cult. Then, we were surfing the internet because I couldn’t think of the name of the guy who had all the wives and was also sleeping with his own daughters and they were in the desert. Sooooo many cults out there, but none sounded right! Then, I found him: the guy from Under The Banner of Heaven.
I’ve heard a little about this cult – I think one woman who was a victim wrote a book about her experiences? I know what you mean when you say it’s easy to fall into victim-blaming, or wondering how this totally average guy could seduce so many people. It’s sad that cults prey on those looking for connection and care and seem to provide it for a while.
The whole premise of this cult seems so odd, yet, it was incredibly popular, so I can’t really blame the people either. It took them awhile to realize they were being duped, but at least some women blew the whistle before it was too late
Does this book talk at all about the other side of this structure, the organization designed to “improve” men? NXIVM appears to be openly misogynistic, while the same “methods” existed in the men’s “community” too. I can’t remember what it was called and I don’t know how/whether that was scrutinized after the women came forward for this case, that’s been in the news, but I think it’s important to note that it wasn’t created for women but enlarged to include them.
Which obviously many celebrated as being inclusionary. And the executive in this group was all female. A lot of the pain took place outside the leader’s arena, with many members never meeting or spending any time with him. Somehow it’s easier to accept that a man could do this, but we squirm at the idea that women profited from and celebrated this too. I believe he was the sole leader of the men’s group, but NXIVM was cofounded with a woman (a nurse, I think)?
Now these women (and not only execs) have to deal with whatever trauma they personally suffered, but also find a way to accept responsibility for having shifted that balance, for physical branding (!!) other women, for demeaning and humiliating them as well. Scary stuff.
It talks a bit about the men’s side, but it was really a development course for both genders. Women in particular seemed to be most at risk because they were expected to be physically available to Raniere, and he manipulated them the most. Whereas the men that were higher up in the organization claimed ignorance for a long time, while the women seemed mostly aware of what was going on. The dangerous sex slave offshoot of the program only included women, which is I believe where most of the charges were laid.
I only vaguely remember hearing about this. This kind of stuff is so hard to get my head around – how can a person be so convincing?! What goes on inside everyone’s heads?? So scary.
I think that’s what so scary about it actually, because it’s so hard to understand from ‘the outside’