Alleged cult leader Keith Raniere reportedly wanted to keep up the appearance of consent amongst his sex "slaves," commanding his top lieutenants to find a way to make Nxivm's notorious branding ceremonies seem voluntary, rather than "coerced."
Raniere stands accused of sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy, child pornography, and a various counts of fraud for his role as "Grand Master" and co-founder of Nxivm, an upstate organization Raniere continues to describe as a women's self-improvement group and a "wonderful humanitarian" effort. Cult experts, however, have described it as an exploitative cult; a sexual pyramid scheme; and an elaborate scam engineered to brainwash women, take their money, and subjugate them in Raniere's service.
At his trial in Brooklyn Federal Court on Wednesday, prosecutors gave the jury another view into the self-appointed "Vanguard's" methods, playing a recording of a meeting he had with Smallville actor and Nxivm ringleader, Allison Mack, who has pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy. In the recording, Raniere mused that inductees into the alleged cult's secret sorority, D.O.S., should be made to lie naked on a table while they received brands on their hips. They would probably need to be held down while an osteopath burned Raniere's initials into their skin, he allegedly continued, but that would set a "sacrificial" tone for the ceremony.
"That's a feeling of submission," he reportedly said. He then clarified that "the person should also ask to be branded," and according to prosecutors, suggested some potential language: "Master, please brand me. It would be an honor and an honor I want to wear for the rest of my life," or something along those lines.
"They should probably say that before they're held down, so it doesn't seem like they're being coerced," he reportedly added, offering Mack a template explanation for the branding. "Pain is how we know how much we love. Although my body may be burned or tortured or whatever, my love is strong," he allegedly went on. "You guys figure it out."
Lauren Salzman, a top Nxivm member and D.O.S. "master," repeated exactly those words when she underwent the branding ritual, testifying this week that "it was the most painful thing" she had ever experienced. But the brand, she explained, was just one of the ways Raniere exerted control over recruits: "Masters" allegedly beat their slaves, covertly monitored their communications, dictated their meager diets, and punished them by forcing them to stand outside in the snow barefoot. Salzman also told the court that Raniere threw disobedient "slaves" in a basement prison: "He said [the dungeon] was for the people most committed to growth," she testified. "They would get locked in a cage." When she pleaded guilty, Salzman herself admitted to holding a woman in a room for two years, threatening her with deportation if she tried to leave.
When the alleged inner-workings of Nxivm first made headlines, the medieval concept of declaring ownership over women with a brand, as if they were cattle, drew widespread attention. "I wept the whole time," former D.O.S. member Sarah Edmondson said of the experience in an interview the NY Times. "I dissociated out of my body." When she eventually tried to file a criminal complaint against Nxivm, Edmondson said police denied her because the whole thing had been "consensual."
"There's a momentum to being committed to a group that you think is good, and there's a certain amount of cognitive dissonance to make your choice a good choice," Edmondson wrote for Vice. By the time she got the brand, Edmondson explained, she had been so effectively isolated from the outside world that she felt she had nowhere else to go, and no choice but to say yes.
"If Lauren had said to me, 'Hey, want to join this group? You're going to have Keith's initials burned into your crotch.' Of course I would have said, 'You're crazy. Get yourself to a psychologist,'" she wrote. "But it didn't happen that way. It happened in very incremental stages, with more and more commitment and more on the line, and more coercion and blackmail. A lot of people say you could just run out. You could leave. I just didn't feel like that was an option at the time."