NXIVM: The History of the Cult and How It Ensnared Allison Mack

Allison Mack

On Wednesday, US actress Allison Mack was sentenced to three years in prison for her role in the NXIVM sex cult.

The 38-year-old pled guilty to racketeering and conspiracy charges in April 2019 for  recruiting women to join the cult.

It’s the concluding chapter in a seriously twisted tale involving blackmail, abuse, coercive sex and branding.

NXIVM’s leader and founder Keith Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison in 2019 for creating a pseudo-religious movement that served ultimately to supply him with ‘sex slaves’.

Cults are not uncommon in the modern era. While we might associate them with gatherings of hooded people in basements, possibly with elements of Satanism or some other occult leanings, cults are surprisingly prevalent.

From the Church of Scientology to the Twelve Tribes – with an innocuous outpost in a café in the Blue Mountains – cults are all around us and lure in their recruits through a mixture of open friendliness and a group-mentality led sense of belonging.

So, what happened to Allison Mack and how did a drive for self-betterment end up with her leading brandings of brainwashed women under the power of a conman? Strap in, it’s about to get weird.

What is NXIVM?

Pronounced ‘nex-ee-um’, the group was ostensibly a personal development organisation that offered ‘executive success programmes’ or ESPs and aimed to teach people to lead a more joyful, fulfilling life.

It was founded by Keith Raniere, an American ‘entrepreneur’ who had a fascination with mind control, Scientology, and multi-level marketing from a young age.

Raniere founded the group in 1998 with former nurse Nancy Salzman. After several failed business ventures, including the multi-level selling of multi vitamins and other pyramid schemes, the pair joined forces to ride the wave of the late 90s/early 2000s ‘self-improvement’ trend.

This is kind of where the modern idea of ‘wellness’ and ‘holistic living’ have their origins – although the concepts go much further back – and focuses around the idea that an individual can improve themselves through new-age spiritual practices.

It’s a individual-focused idea that suggests that global change is too hard to achieve but that working on yourself, with the idea that everyone is doing the same, will lead to a better world overall. Indeed, the cult’s tagline was “working to build a better world”.

Raniere and Salzman ran seminars in Hollywood purposefully targeting celebrities and those with money and influence. These ESP seminars were marketed as personal and professional development courses that taught people how to overcome “limiting beliefs”, fears, and anxieties so that they could live a more joyful life.

From the get-go, participants were instructed to refer to Raniere as ‘Vanguard’ and Salzman as ‘Prefect’. The group was styled with Raniere at the top as the philosophical leader and Salzman as his first student.

Those who joined the group were lower down in the rankings and encouraged to teach their own courses, run their own seminars and recruit others in order to progress –  creating a classic pyramid-scheme structure.

Money was also a big factor from the start. Learning Raneire’s “ethical framework of human experience” would cost you US$2,700 for a five-day course. It taught ‘scientific’ techniques known as “rational inquiry” – a philosophy largely cobbled together from the work of Ayn Rand, L. Ron Hubbard, and neuro-linguistic programming – that made participants confront their deepest fears, such as the death of a loved one, in brutal, 12 hour sessions.

It was all designed to break people down and make them more compliant and devoted to the group. Members were taught to revere Raniere like a god and the philosophy of NXIVM taught people never to be a victim or to think of ones self in that way. Any idea that what was happening to you was bad was just victim-ideology.

Members were forced to sign NDA agreements never to speak about what was going on inside. They had to submit ‘collateral’ to the higher ranking members; compromising photos, money, secrets about others, all things that the group could use as leverage to keep you within its ranks.

17-hour days of training sessions would isolate members from the outside world. The organisation had centres across the United States, Canada, and Mexico and the higher-ups would live communally on NXIVM compounds.

The NXIVM Executive Success Programs sign outside NXIVM offices in New York/Getty Images

The whole organisation was based around ‘master’ and ‘slave’ relationships. As you grew in the organisation, you would have others beneath you who you recruited and controlled while being instructed by someone else above you. Eventually the top-tier members were encouraged to form their own groups within the organisation and run them like mini cults.

There was a womens programme called Jness, and men’s programme called the Society of Protectors, and a fitness group called Exo. The most elite group however was a secret organisation called ‘Dominus Obsequious Sororium’ (DOS), Latin for “lord over the obedient female companions”.

It was this group, led by Allison Mack, who regularly engaged in sex with Raniere as a form of ‘overcoming’ fear. The next step was the branding, which members submitted to as a final challenge.

Mack lead these branding sessions, with her ‘slaves’ being instructed to say “Master, please brand me, it would be an honour” before having a strange symbol cauterised into the skin below their hip.

The symbol was meant to represent enlightenment but upon closer inspection was revealed to be the letters K and R – Keith Raniere.

With prominent members of the group like Clare and Sara Bronfman, the daughters of billionaire Edgar Bronfman Sr., actress Nicki Clyne from Battlestar Galactica, and Emiliano Salinas, the son of a former Mexican president, it wasn’t long before the media was interested in the group.

Exposé after exposé came out filled with grizzly tales from the cult. In 2018, the HBO documentary The Vow blew the lid off the whole thing, attracting global attention. By that point, US law enforcement were already after Raniere and he had been arrested in Mexico along with Mack who had fled to evade authorities.

About 17,000 people are thought to have engaged in NXIVM, though not many of those became life-long devotees. At his trial in 2019, Raniere’s followers protested outside the courthouse for his release.

There are thought to be a small number of people still actively engaged with the cult. Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison, ensuring he will die behind bars.

What happened to Allison Mack?

Raniere was at the top of his grand pyramid, and the only man in a leadership role, but Mack served as one of his top female deputies.

She has since been remorseful over her actions, claiming that Raniere was a charismatic conman who blinded her to the whole operation and it’s obvious wrongdoings.

She’s since cooperated with investigators, providing them with evidence from within the organisation.

In a letter read out before sentencing, Mack begged forgiveness from her victims, addressed to “those who have been harmed by my actions”.

“I threw myself into the teachings of Keith Raniere with everything I had,” she wrote.

“I believed, whole-heartedly, that his mentorship was leading me to a better, more enlightened version of myself… This was the biggest mistake and regret of my life”.

“I am sorry to those of you that I brought into NXIVM. I am sorry I ever exposed you to the nefarious and emotionally abusive schemes of a twisted man”.

She is best known for her role in the Superman series Smallville.

According to her lawyers, she has been living with her family in California since her arrest, working in catering and taking university courses. She will now spend three years in jail for her actions.

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