(Previously published in my Huffington Post archive)
In light of all the recent exposure and the Leah Remini series, have you thought about how Scientology sounds like a cult? I certainly have and that’s an understatement. Is it something you cannot get your head around? Have you wracked your brain as to why celebrity adherents seem immune to the “religion’s” bad press? Does it also seem that Scientology’s public portrayal and marketing videos contradict what’s been concluded through investigative reports? Well, there is a lesser-known group, a secretive and smaller one, called NXIVM (pronounced Nex-e-um like the acid reflux medication, “the purple pill) that has attracted its own followers. Much like Scientology, it fronts as one thing but in actuality may be something entirely different and much more sinister.
NXIVM claims to offer professional and self-fulfillment as well as women’s empowerment. Its own celebrity members are a smaller contingent than Scientology’s. Harrowing tales of being forcibly held down and branded are only the half of what is allegedly involved, as terrifying as those anecdotes alone do sound.
Headquartered in Albany, NY, NXIVM’s website makes it appear as a legitimate, privately-held professional development company that offers seminars. While that may be true, former members attest to so much more that goes on behind the scenes. NXIVM was formed by Keith Raniere in 1998. According to this October 17th New York Times article, (much like Scientology’s Sea Org members) the women of NXIVM’s DOS division have given up family, friends and careers to devote themselves to this group.
Last month, ABC’s 20/20 provided insight into this secretive group and its “master” Keith Raniere. Perhaps this moniker (in addition to “master”, Raniere is also called “Vanguard” within the group) is attributable to his alleged sexual domination over female adherents, and reported abuse. This includes having members brand his initials into their skin and enforcing starvation diets to achieve a desired physique.
From ABC’s Press Release Prior to Last Month’s Broadcast:
“20/20” investigates NXIVM, a self-proclaimed professional coaching company, and speaks with former members who are now coming forward claiming that while they derived some benefit from NXIVM classes, the experience also took a big toll on their lives. The hour also includes one former member’s claims that NXIVM is associated with a women’s secret society which she says is manipulative, promoting subservient behavior with slave and master terminology. She also says that she and other women were branded during their initiation into that secret society.
Keith Raniere, founder of NXIVM who claims to have an IQ of 240, has publicly stated that the secret society is not part of NXIVM and he is not associated with it. According to its website, NXIVM claims to “provide the basis and conditions for all people to explore and actualize their potential so that they can come to live purposeful lives.”
Anchor Elizabeth Vargas sits down with former NXIVM member Sarah Edmondson, who filed a New York Department of Health complaint about the alleged branding. Edmondson says she went to the initiation expecting to receive a tattoo and was surprised to learn that she and others were to be branded. She tells Elizabeth Vargas that the branding procedure, in which she and other women took turns holding each other’s legs while they received their brands with a cauterizing iron, was “horrific,” and she says she later realized that the brands contained Keith Raniere’s initials.
Vargas also sits down with Mark Vicente, a member for 12 years, and Toni Natalie, a former girlfriend of Raniere’s who knew him before he started NXIVM.
“20/20” also reports on Hollywood actors who are known NXIVM members, including Smallville’s Allison Mack and India Oxenberg, daughter of Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg. Vargas sits down with Catherine, who details her so far unsuccessful efforts to convince her daughter to leave the group. The hour also explores NXIVM’s litigation tactics against former members and critics.
This “20/20” aired Friday, December 15, 2017. You can watch the show weekly on Friday nights, 10:00-11:00 EST on ABC.