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NXIVM: The Story of Jews and a Sex Cult

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In our series on Jews & Crime, Nathan Abrams discusses those Jews who became involved the NXIVM, the self-help group cum sex cult.

The NXIVM (pronounced ‘Nex-ee-um’) story might have passed you by. It was founded in 1998 by Keith Raniere and Nancy Salzman, a former registered psychiatric nurse, hypnotist, and neuro-linguistics programming expert, as a purported self-improvement organization near Albany, New York.  

Keith Raniere. Photo: Youtube

NXIVM started as a pyramid scheme – a multi-level marketing venture to improve people’s wellbeing and understanding of themselves through its Executive Success Programs (ESP). Part Kabbalah Center, part Scientology, it soon turned into something darker: a genuine full-blown sex cult with allegations of rape and abuse by its leader, Raniere, for which he was eventually charged and convicted.  

Between 1998 and 2009, NXIVM had four branches in Mexico, Los Angeles, Albany and Vancouver and hundreds of new members were being enlisted every month. It supplied ESP training to ENRON and other executives, as well as attracting the kind of small-screen stars like Alison Mack of Smallville whose acting careers hadn’t quite taken off and were seeking something extra that was missing from their lives. They, in turn, recruited others from the acting world and for a while, it provided them with satisfaction.  

Mishpucha 

Sarah Edmondson. Photo: HBO

Jews were instrumental in NXIVM. One of those thespians recruited to become an ‘ESPian’, as they were called, was Sarah Edmondson the daughter of a Jewish-Canadian mother and an English father. (Every summer from the age of twelve, she recalls, she was sent to an extreme left-wing Jewish summer camp which gave her the confidence to tell the boys who held up their hands and yelled ‘Heil Hitler!’ to fuck off.) She landed bit parts in television shows and the occasional film before joining NXIUM in 2005. Her memoirScarred: The True Story of How I Escaped NXIVM, The Cult that Bound My Life, supplies valuable insight into the company. There are also two documentaries and a podcast based on NXIVM.  

Absolutely key to its rise and early success was its president, Jewish therapist Nancy Salzman. She developed its programmes. She groomed Keith’s image whose long hair, glasses and beard, made him appear like a 1980s Jesus, recommending that he cut his hair, trade his outdated square-rimmed glasses for a rounder frame, and swapping sweat-stained golf shirts for cashmere V-neck jumpers transforming him from ‘kind of a schlub’ in Edwardson’s words into more of a Steve Jobs figure (the go-to-look for any messiah these days, it seems).   

Nancy Salzman. Photo: filmdaily.co

Nancy supplied ESP training to Edgar Bronfman Sr., the billionaire heir to the Seagram’s liquor fortune. His daughters, Clare and Sara, became heavily involved. They supplied funding to the tune of $150m of their personal fortunes– even buying an executive jet and an island in Fiji for the company to use – and much-needed respectability. Through Sara’s contacts, Keith and Nancy travelled with her to visit the Dalai Lama in India where they convinced him to speak at an NXIVM event. Because she was effectively bankrolling the company and was loyal to Keith, Sara was appointed CFO. She became Raniere’s legal enforcer. 

NXIVM wasn’t even successful. It just had the illusion of being so but was propped up financially by the Bronfman sisters.

Nancy’s daughter, Lauren, was also part of NXIVM. When Sarah met her, she recalled ‘There’s a Jewish word, mishpucha, which means family. As soon as I met Lauren, I knew she was mishpucha’.  

Sex, Branding and Nazis 

NXIVM, though, had a dark side one enabled by the Salzmans, Clare Bronfman and NXIVM’s other Jewish personnel.  

The company took on cult-like characteristics. Members earned sashes of different colours as they progressed upwards. Keith was to be referred to by the name ‘Vanguard’ and Nancy as ‘Prefect’. NXIVM’s followers were to pay tribute to him, like prayers recited as a group. Nancy was instrumental in the development of this proprietary ‘programming’. 

Mosaic depicting two female slaves (ancillae) attending their mistress. Photo: Wkipedia and Fabien Dany – www.fabiendany.com / www.datka.kg

The name NXIVM was chosen by Keith as a reference to a debt-bondage system in the time of Julius Caesar. A ‘nexum’ was a person pledging his or her services as collateral for the repayment of a debt, and the person owed the debt (‘the master’) was allowed to demand services indefinitely. This included sexual services. Of course, those who signed up did not know this as Keith told them that NXIVM meant ‘a place of learning’. Being an intelligent and charismatic leader, they believed him. Or chose to.  

Even more sinisterly, select women were enrolled in an internal group known as DOS (Dominus Obsequious Sororium, or Master Over Slave Women). These women were taught to revere Keith and were ordered to pursue near-starvation diets to achieve the physique he found desirable. They were coerced into having sex with him. One of his victims was 15 years old when the abuse began.  

This ‘harem’ of sexual ‘slaves’ was even branded with a dime-sized mark of Raniere’s initials on their pelvises right next to their crotches.  According to a report in the New York Times, each woman was told to undress and lie on a massage table, while three others restrained her legs and shoulders. Their ‘master’, Lauren Salzman, instructed them to recite: ‘Master, please brand me, it would be an honour.’ A female doctor then used a cauterizing device to sear a two-inch-square symbol below each woman’s hip, a procedure that took 20 to 30 minutes. For hours, stifled screams and the smell of burning flesh filled the room. 

Prosecution exhibit: a photograph of a DOS brand. Photo: Wikipedia

While not quite the tattooed number of the Nazi camps, it does suggest the women are little more than cattle in Keith and Lauren’s eyes. The women also had to hand over ‘collateral’ — embarrassing and incriminating information, including nude photographs — that would be publicly released if they divulged the existence of DOS. 

Because Nancy Salzman was Jewish, Raniere told her had been Adolph Hitler in a past life and must atone for her crimes when she was Hitler by doing whatever he told her. He alone could help her overcome the assault on Jews she committed in her past life, he told her. ‘The law of Karma weighs heavy on you’, Raniere reportedly told her. Salzman teary-eyed thanked him for saving her and removing her karma and vowed to obey him for life.  

Criminal Enterprise

Keith Raniere eventually ended up being accused by the FBI of running a criminal enterprise. Raniere, Lauren and Nancy Salzman as well as Clare Bronfman were all arrested and charged with racketeering conspiracy involving a raft of crimes, including identity theft, extortion, forced labour, sex trafficking, money laundering, wire fraud and obstruction of justice. 

Clare Bronfman. Photo: ABC news

While the ultimate criminal at the heart of this enterprise was Keith Raniere, he was enabled by the Salzmans and the Bronfmans. But where the sisters Clare and Sara had perhaps genuinely meant to do some good in line with their other philanthropy, it is less clear what Nancy Salzman’s motives were: genuine, con artist, manipulated by Keith, or all three. 

Still, though, criminal enterprises like cults don’t exist in isolation. There were ranks of facilitators outside NXIVM — lawyers, public officials and others — who had unwittingly or otherwise shielded the group. And some of those were Jewish.

Scarred: The True Story of How I Escaped NXIVM, The Cult That Bound My Life by Sarah Edmondson is published by Chronicle Books priced £12.99. Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult and The Vow are available to stream on digital platforms as is the podcast Escaping NXIVM.

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I teach film studies at Bangor University in north Wales where I live. I research, write and broadcast regularly (in Welsh and English) on transatlantic Jewish culture and history.
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