How I Ended Up in the NXIVM Cult—And How I Eventually Got Out
Cults may seem outlandish and easy to identify, but they are notoriously good at recruiting people. Here, a former NXIVM member recounts his involvement with the group and his ultimate escape.
The teacher hovered over me. Each of us in the class was asked to recall a time in our lives when we felt victimized. It was my turn, and I mentioned an incident of sexual abuse when I was a small child. We were used to giving up really private details by this time.
That’s when the teacher leaned down and said, “Now, were you really the victim?” I said, “Uh, yeah, I was a little kid, and I couldn’t do anything.” The teacher said, “Really? What did you do?” And I said, “Well, I froze! It was traumatizing; it was paralyzing.” The teacher’s reply? “No, that was a choice. Think back. Feel the power in it. There was power in your decision not to move. That choice communicated to the adult that he had permission to complete the act. Now, remember that power you had—and the choice you made to experience that.”
That’s when I thought, Oh, no…is NXIVM full of child abusers?
This summer, HBO began airing The Vow, about the cult named NXIVM. I watched it, hundreds of miles from where I experienced being a member. Now a 40-year-old with a healthy and supportive family I forged since leaving the group and moving away, I thought I would be immune to it. Nonetheless, watching it brought back feelings of claustrophobia, panic, and a general lack of safety.
Almost a decade ago, a friend I trusted asked me to check out a really cool thing they were involved in. They said that since I was into charitable causes, meeting altruists, and improving myself, I would really like this group of like-minded people. So they brought me to a small corporate presentation space in upstate New York and introduced me to the self-improvement program called NXIVM.
Some of it was off-putting from the start. We had to bow before entering, wear white sashes around our shoulders, and start the day chanting together. I stayed that first day out of respect for my friend who brought me.
Very quickly into the first day, though, my doubts were assuaged. We spent the day taking NXIVM lessons called “reintegrations,” which turned out to be both eye-opening and addictive. Reintegrating was NXIVM’s methodical and shockingly effective process of questioning and analyzing our memories and emotional reactions, to break down our hang-ups and our mental blocks that kept us from moving forward in life. I suddenly came to revelations about why I stopped contacting my sister and why I never seriously pursued a career I wanted. And this was all in the first day!
From there, I attended almost every session held in the early mornings, evenings, and weekends for the better part of a year. And I kept on paying membership dues, which started at around $500 a month.
Impressive initial results
The NXIVM community was initially extremely supportive, its members making me feel instantly accepted as their friend. I met Hollywood actors who were warm and open. They explained how fame and fortune didn’t get them true happiness, until they found NXIVM. I made friends who told me how NXIVM cured their Tourette’s syndrome. Some of the claims seemed a little too impressive, a little impossible, but by that point, I had an open mind and I ignored the subtle red flags.
Loyalty to the leader
NXIVM was always wrapped up in pomp and ritual, with its sashes and chanting, but most of the rituals surrounded the founder, Keith Raniere, who preferred to be called “Vanguard.” Raniere was the architect of the reintegration methodology, and members sang his praises. He was apparently a genius, an expert in mathematics, psychology, linguistics, almost every academic field. His word was regarded as the final authority on any topic, from familial relationships to addiction to the economy to government to mental illness. Many of our lessons involved a video presentation by Vanguard as the subject-matter expert. I was benefiting so much, I didn’t question it. Plus, psychopaths generally aren’t what you’d imagine.
Can’t take no for an answer
However, over time, pressure in the community subtly grew. I noticed it several months into my membership when one NXIVM member asked to hang out; it ended up being a gathering of many NXIVM members and no one outside of NXIVM. Then came Raniere’s birthday.
Raniere’s birthday was our biggest annual event worldwide. We were encouraged to spend great expense and time to travel and honor his birthday in person for a whole week, “V Week,” at Lake George. At first, I thought it was a little odd, but eventually, I became uncomfortable. Members would ask, “Are you going to attend?” I would say, “It’s too far, too much time off work, and I can’t afford it.” And then they would respond with, “Claiming ‘you can’t’ is never true. You’re telling me you’re choosing not to do something, and you just don’t want to tell me why. Now, I’ll ask you again. Are you coming?”
I started avoiding certain members. But that “never say can’t” rhetoric often came up, including when it came to committing to more and bigger monthly dues. I found myself easily paying over a thousand dollars a month to sit in advanced classes. I became less and less enthusiastic (and less economically secure). The situation was becoming increasingly toxic.
Getty Images (6), Emma Kumer/rd.com
Dues, dues, and more dues
That’s when I started paying closer attention. I learned how much my friends in the group were giving up, like their careers, to devote more time and resources to NXIVM, including the friend who recruited me. And devotion to NXIVM didn’t just mean paying more class dues; it also meant recruiting more members.
Members were praised, judged, and ranked, based on a system of how many people they recruited to become paid members. The sashes we wore had marks and colors to show how many people we recruited. If one did not have any recruitments to show, or if they spent too much time with outsiders and didn’t recruit them, they’d eventually hear, “Why haven’t you wanted to start making progress yet?”
Meanwhile, the reintegration lessons that were meant to get us in touch with our deeper selves started to become dismissive of real, relevant feelings. Advanced students would speak to our classes, talking about how the lessons helped them “intercept” negative emotions like loneliness and “stop that bull—” before feeling it. The classes also became less about personal revelations and more about how we viewed society, subtly impressing an “us vs. the outside world” mentality. A society with social services was described as “a form of slavery.”
And then the lessons became huge red flags.
We were encouraged to join deeper levels of classes that required paying a lot more, classes that separated men and women. Classes that explained how men evolved to need sex all the time. Classes like the one I attended that explained how every abuse victim is powerful and makes decisions to experience their supposed abuse.
Seeing the light
Because of my abused past, I had the tools from therapy to recognize victim blaming and gaslighting. But other members didn’t, and they didn’t recognize what was happening to us. We were training to be publicly successful ambassadors of NXIVM, while being brainwashed to feel shame and a dependency on NXIVM. I wanted to escape.
But by this time, I was sucked in too far to just walk away. I was around NXIVM all the time. I had made so many commitments to it. So I gently poked here and there looking for a way out, asking innocent-sounding questions but looking for any holes in the organization. And most flaws surrounded our founder, Raniere.
A fallible leader, after all
Raniere seemed increasingly less like a genius and more like a creep and a scam artist. Members who knew him for a long time would reference his previous “tele-sales company,” but gave vague descriptions about it that sounded like a pyramid scheme. It seemed like he failed to make successful pyramid schemes in the past, and NXIVM was just his latest and most successful version.
It’s easier than you think to fall victim to a scam, and of course, we were trained not to see any of this; there was a self-policing culture, where anything said about Raniere was both positive and superlative. The group chant at the start of each day was about how we would protect Raniere’s ideas and how we would call ourselves thieves if we ever revealed what went on in NXIVM to the outside world.
I still didn’t understand why so many unethical and extremely inappropriate materials were being taught. I thought maybe we hit the limits of Raniere’s “genius” and this was what was beyond it. Regardless, I finally built up enough courage to ask to leave NXIVM. But leaving would prove difficult.
A hard-fought escape
I was continually pressured to commit to longer-term financial commitments to NXIVM. Seemingly empathetic teachers would change character immediately if you suggested you did not want to continue paying every month. With enough persistence, I convinced the group that I had committed to move across the country for a new job and my long-distance partner. In fact, I did run that far.
Before leaving, I had to say that I still loved NXIVM and would sing their praises. I had to go to each of my friends in the group and explain that I was leaving them behind and hear their responses. I had to explain how I would still be compassionate to their needs, even though I was leaving—a nonsensical contradiction and an uncomfortable one. It took weeks. But I eventually got through it all because I needed to get out.
At the time, I had no idea how lucky I was to get out when I did. I was traumatized, too exposed, gaslit. I also felt like a fool for staying as long as I did in that environment. Yet, I did not see nearly the worst of NXIVM. The victim-blaming, the oversharing, the unethical grooming of members—I would later feel naive that I didn’t see what it all meant.
Years later, when I watched the news about how a scam artist named Keith Raniere committed so many crimes through NXIVM, the worst crimes listed floored me: unthinkable crimes like sex trafficking and ritualistically branding women with Raniere’s initials. I saw footage of my old friends. I sank. Some of them had known this was happening. I used to spend all day with them. I didn’t even know what to think.
Questions bubbled up. How could people be brainwashed into participating in crimes this despicable? How could decent individuals who wanted to improve themselves and become more charitable end up committing crimes against children?
NXIVM’s tactics are the same as any cult. First, isolate the individual, surround them with people who become their only friends, and cultivate a culture of peer pressure to follow their leader unquestioningly. Second, feed them outrageous thoughts, turn them against civil society, and call it wisdom. Finally, make them feel like they deserve whatever happens to them.
But it was more than that. This probably couldn’t happen to just anyone who wandered into NXIVM on the recommendation of a friend. I was a mess when I first joined. I had terrible and unresolved issues from childhood that left me open and susceptible to familiar personalities that intended to abuse me. I was economically unstable and disgruntled with my career, and I was desperate for anyone who had “the answer” to my troubles. I wanted an easy path to being told I was becoming more whole. I was in prime condition to be taken advantage of.
I’m looking forward to the next episode of HBO’s The Vow with a little trepidation, but I look forward to resolving my feelings around it. I think about all the people right now, trapped in their homes during a desperate time of pandemic and social conflict, and I wonder how many more NXIVMs there are out there, waiting to prey on a growing population of desperate people. My hope is that we look out for one another and not let others fall victim to abuse, no matter how enticing the group and its promises may seem.
* Zev Miller is a pseudonym to protect the author’s identity.
Editor’s note: The opinions here belong to the author. To submit your own idea for an essay, email [email protected].
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual abuse and would like to speak confidentially to a mental health professional, please contact the National Sexual Abuse Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or go to RAINN.org.