Featured Investigative Opinion

Analysis: Initial Consent to “Life-Coaching” and Self-Help is NOT Consent to Coerced Sex and Branding

After today’s statute conference in the case of United States v. Raniere, attorneys for sex-slaver, Keith Raniere have argued before the press, in a likely preview of what his defense will consist of, in part.  “There are groups of men who brand themselves. When women choose to brand themselves, they become victims?” Attorneys for Raniere, speaking about the organization being an alleged sex cult stated: “It’s a slogan, it’s a label that the government is attaching to conduct to make it nefarious. Women joined of their own volition.”

The defense argument ignores the critical allegation of coercion through “collateral.”

Problematically for Raniere, the argument that there are groups of men that brand themselves who are not victims fails to take into account the alleged false confessions, true confessions, naked pictures, and other damaging information that members were required to provide to their superiors, or slave-masters, on a regular basis. According to NXIVM members, the stated purpose of this provision of damaging collateral was to ensure a lifetime vow of obedience. When taking into account the big-money backing of Clare and Sara Bronfman to sue people into bankruptcy and initiate criminal complaints against anyone who dared to leave or criticize the cult, with Clare Bronfman posing as a Mexican attorney and sending cease and desist letters to a victim, members eventually discovered that the collateral held plus the threat of ruinous civil and criminal litigation meant that members had to comply with whatever the slavemasters required.

With threats of these kind hanging overhead, in the context of what is supposed to be a mere self-help, life-coaching group, actual and informed consent becomes less likely.

Clare and Sara Bronfman have tapped their vast Seagram’s trust funds to spend millions suing the cult’s and Raniere’s enemies, and funding Raniere. Any woman, or man, within NXIVM/DOS/ESP or any of the cult’s entities, after becoming indebted to the cult, and giving this collateral under the false pretense of being a women’s only group, and threatened with the prospect of financial and other ruin, would not have felt free to refuse Raniere’s and others sexual, and other demands.

Clare Bronfman (ctr.) with one of her armies of attorneys. She has spent an estimated $100 million in legal fees keeping the cult hidden from public view, and silencing defectors.

Raniere’s attorneys argued that these women joined NXIVM freely and for their “own reasons.” Recruiter Marc Elliot indicated to a prospective member in a phone interview last month that members are admitted usually only when  referred. The groups’ websites offers and promises life-changing “Executive Success” and emotional development, among others, much of it predicated upon the concepts and intellectual designs of Raniere, the self-proclaimed world’s smartest man and one of the world’s greatest problem solvers. However, not disclosed is the fact Raniere graduated from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a 2.26 GPA, having failed and barely passed his upper level math and science courses, a fact recently discovered when federal investigators gained access to his academic transcripts. Raniere also failed to disclose the closure by the New York Attorney General of a pyramid scheme that he ran in the 1990s, called “Consumer’s Buyline”; Raniere paid a fine.

Consent to branding appears unlikely on the facts alleged, which are not rebutted by the defense.

To be sure, members freely joined (the entrance and joining was but an initial act of voluntariness) NXIVM, and, according to ex-members, and an attempted recruit, actress Samia Shoaib, the first impression of the cult is to be “love-bombed,” where the cult members straddle and bestow upon the newest member an enormous amount of affection, interest, understanding, and “mirror” the likes of the new applicant. Frequently enough, the cult has recruited members when they are at their most vulnerable, such as being in the grieving process after the death of a family member, or suffering from a substance abuse problem, or a person makes it known, or it becomes known, to a recruiter that they are suffering from an emotional vulnerability. Similarly, as discussed about another cult, the “Buddhafield” cult, led by failed actor Michel, an ex-member described the invitation process — “There’s always someone who brings you or invites you,” Allen said. “My sister invited me. It felt very safe having her bring me. When someone you already trust is there, [everyone becomes] your friends instantly. They already knew I was coming. There was a chair waiting with my name on it.”

Even before being permitted inside NXIVM, non-disclosure agreements are executed as a condition of membership. Members were not given copies of the agreements, which became in various lawsuits, the basis for suing ex-members.

An additional condition is the payment of costly, up to $7,000 per course, fees for “courses.” NXIVM University agreements provide for a $5,000 per month tuition cost.

Over time, members, such as Mack, have become indebted to the cult. Current member India Oxenberg, a member of Yugoslavian Royalty and wealth, through her years in NXIVM and DOS, ihas descended from co-starring in a tv show with her mother and stepdad, to waitressing in New York, hardly an example of “Executive Success.”  One of Raniere’s partners, Nancy Salzman, known in the cult as “Prefect,” has a background in neuro-linguistic programming, as well as nursing. Investigators are likely to have discovered her role in instituting the cult’s groupthink language, and programming techniques (it is well-established that a key feature of a cult is for members to adopt a language only understood by members; this technique helps to alienate members from the outside, and isolate them, further guaranteeing their continued membership).

Problems with Voluntariness, Undisclosed Facts of Material Significance

It was also not disclosed to new members that Clare Bronfman, would readily tap her vast fortune to silence defectors and critics, as she has done in dozens of lawsuits and criminal complaints.

Once well-embedded in NXIVM, members, selected by Raniere, were invited to a life-changing event: DOS, latin for “master over the slave women.” It was promised by members such as Mack and Lauren Salzman (Prefect’s daughter, and fellow cult member) to be an all-women’s empowerment group. The cost of admission: collateral. It had to consist of materials damning, ruinous, perhaps a confession whether real or false, x-rated pictures or whatever worked. One member was required to falsely confess, on video, that a relative had sexually molested a child. Mack, Bronfman, and Raniere retain, and likely still retain, this collateral.

Once the collateral was provided, women were brought to an initiation ritual. Sarah Edmondson, who spoke out and left the group, was advised that an initiation ritual within this exclusive, all-women’s group, required she get a small tattoo. Blindfolded and led to a quit location, she received a brand from a cauterizing device, administered by Dr. Danielle Roberts, a fellow cult member. The un-anesthetized brand was reportedly very painful. (Sarah Edmondson left in 2017; shortly after, Clare Bronfman sought to have criminal charges brought against her in Vancouver. Edmondson has not been charged with any crimes.)

Pictures of a DOS slave’s brand, outlining the initials of Keith Raniere and Allison Mack. Mack, pictured right. 

Once within DOS, which reportedly has over 50 members, DOS members had to provide monthly collateral to their masters. Problematically, none of the recruiters advised fresh recruits that the “all-women’s” group was not all female: Keith Raniere was the grandmaster. Insiders have detailed, and prosecutors are likely aware, that the entire DOS setup was for Raniere to handpick women he wanted to have sex with, women that had no other choice because of the collateral, the years-long hypnosis, and Clare’s piggy bank of legal funds to ruin anyone who crossed Raniere. Raniere did have sex with women under these coercive and threatening conditions.

As to Bronfman’s position, she knowingly and willfully funded it all. She is far more than a passive, distant financier, but runs the cult hands-on, and has testified that operates the cult. She is an adherent to Raniere’s low-calorie diet. She impersonated a Mexican attorney to frighten a victim, criminally complained against Sarah Edmondson and many others, and has paid millions to sue victims into bankruptcy and silence, if prison did not work. Clare, and her sister Sara, even went as far as suing journalists who dared to investigate the cult, costing Albany Times Union reporter, James Odato, his job when he first began reporting on the cult. She also, through her cult and partnered with Raniere, sued Vanity Fair’s Suzanne Andrews, who wrote an in-depth and critical piece on the Bronfmans and the cult in 2010.

Clare Bronfman, running.
Sara and Clare Bronfman in Vanity Fair feature story with Raniere and father Edgar Bronfman pictured in thumbmail photos

Raniere’s defense team does not tell the whole truth when they say women joined voluntarily. Yes, women initially signed up for a life-coaching, self-help course — but they did not voluntarily join in with, and were not advised of, the entirety of what they were getting into at the time they signed those non-disclosure agreements and first enrolled in courses. With millions of dollars to demand silence, non-disclosure agreements and uneven bargaining positions, costly courses, fraud and deception in the inducement of new members to enter the group-cult premised on the group’s innovations being the product of the “world’s smartest man” sporting a 2.26 GPA who previously had a pyramid scheme closed (facts he did not disclose to members or on the entities’ websites), deceit in representing DOS as an all-women’s group where Raniere was the leader and its ulterior purpose was the gratification of Raniere’s sexual appetite, and the heavy-handed Bronfmans to back up Raniere legally — indeed, if the cult were all-male, the cult’s conduct would be just as illegal.


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George Frobisher

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