Testimonies in the ongoing trial of Keith Raniere—the alleged ringleader of the Albany-based self-help group turned alleged sex cult Nxivm— in a Brooklyn federal court have been increasingly revealing disturbing information about the organization's gnarled inner workings.
On the stand, ex-Nxivm members have been testifying about how Raniere (whom they called "Vanguard" or "Grandmaster") allegedly used abusive tactics to maintain a toxic culture of simultaneous reverence and fear within the organization's hierarchical ranks. This allegedly included gathering collateral on its members, punishing them for speaking out or questioning teachings, and branding women with his initials, forcing them to practically starve themselves, and having an all-male society tasked with humiliating them.
On Monday, Mark Vicente, formerly a top member within Nxivm's ranks, testified about how Raniere pushed women in the organization to practically starve themselves by only eating the likes of cucumber. Vicente noted that a group of women had gathered around Allison Mack—the former Smallville actress who's been among several inner-circle, ex-Nxivm members pleading guilty to likes of racketeering—who "didn’t look healthy.” He said that women were encouraged to eat very little, and even less so if they made any kind of infraction: When Vicente apparently told Raniere that Mack looked "broken," the Nxivm leader shot back: "I'm trying to break her."
Vicente told jurors he was involved in an all-male group, called the Society of Protectors, who used "dark, hateful misogyny" to terrorize Nxivm's female members. According to Rolling Stone, Raniere allegedly urged the men to compile video slideshows to mortify women they thought were dressing suggestively, and once gave Seagrams heiress Clare Bronfman (who also plead guilty to Nxivm crimes) a jock strap because she was "too bossy."
Regardless, people were "awe-struck" by Raniere, Vicente testified in court last week. "By the time you saw him, it was a little bit like you were seeing, you know, some kind of god," he said.
A former Nxivm member, who went by Sylvie, testified last week about how Raniere allgedly used the likes of "collateral" to keep people in line. (In Sylvie's case, it was a letter written to her parents, alleging that she was a prostitute) She said that among the many "assignments" that she was subjected to by her "master," a woman named Monica Duran, she was instructed to seduce Raniere.
He allegedly told her to send him nude photos of herself, and on one occasion, he forced her to lay on dirty sheets while he performed oral sex on her. "I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience," she said in court. She went along with it, she said, out of fear that they would release the collateral to her friends and family.
The women who were a part of Sylvie's Nxivm subgroup, DOS (Latin for "Dominus Obsequious Sororium," meaning something along the likes of "lord over the obedient female companions"), were allegedly branded with Raniere's initials. Sylvie said that she was set to receive the set branding, but never did. (Raniere escaped to Mexico, where he was arrested last year.)
Vicente came into the fold through one of the classes that the organization offered. These "Executive Success Programs" purported to help people become more successful. The classes, which could be up to 12 hours long, were costly—reportedly running $7,500 for 16 days.—and required participants to sign non-disclosure agreements, Vicente said last week.
Vicente testified about how Raniere's "Twelve Point Mission Statement," which they recited together at the beginning of classes, functioned as a "well-intentioned veneer cover[ing] a horrible evil." People were allegedly divided up into ranks, visible through the sashes they wore (Raniere reportedly wore a white sash, and called himself the "Eternal Student"), and were expected to unquestionably accept the organization's teachings, lest they be subjected to retribution. "He targeted people who were looking to improve their lives,” prosecutor Tanya Hajjar told the jury. “He drew them in slowly with promises of success, of money, of better relationships, and once he gained their trust, he exploited it.”
Raniere, who started Nxivm in the 1990s, is currently being charged with sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy, and various counts of fraud, along with child pornography. He's pleaded not guilty.