Of all the unsettling revelations that came out of NXIVM leader Keith Raniere’s sentencing on Tuesday, the long-game planning and calculation that underpinned every act was perhaps the most chilling.
Many of the 15 victims who appeared at the sentencing hearing in a Brooklyn federal court talked about his efforts to destabilize their psyches, but an account by a woman who was 15 when Raniere first sexually abused her was among the most gutting statements delivered during the yearslong sex trafficking case.
“It has taken a long time for me to process the trauma caused by his attempts to control my mind and my world, and his efforts to replace my voice with his own,” the victim, identified in court as Camila, told a Brooklyn judge Tuesday. “He wanted me to believe that my only value came from how he felt about me.”
Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison for sex trafficking, wire fraud conspiracy, and racketeering acts including the sexual exploitation of Camila. Since 1998, Raniere was the leader of an insular self-help community based in upstate New York, which has tried and failed to fend off cult accusations since 2003.
Camila said she met Raniere at age 13, when her parents became involved in his company NXIVM, which they believed was a life-coaching program. “The first time I was left to have a conversation alone with him, we talked about how I had placed second in my eighth grade spelling bee,” she said.
At first Camila wasn’t interested in spending time with the so-called genius philosopher whom her parents admired. “I would even try to avoid being in the same room as him, but the adults around me would get upset at me for being rude and push me back towards him.”
Raniere would later tell her he knew Camila was “special” when she was a little girl, she said.
In the months leading up to the sexual abuse, Camila said Raniere took her on walks in the middle of the night, “where he would bring up topics of a sexual nature, escalating in detail over time.” Raniere was 45 years old and Camila was 15 when they first had sex, she said.
“He told me to keep it all a secret,” she said, “immediately severing me from my family and friends, and effectively making himself my only resource.”
Camila said Raniere was “calculated and methodical” in the way he positioned himself as a hero and limited her contact with family and other outside support over many years. She was placed in a shared house with older NXIVM women as a way to learn and grow. Then she was encouraged not to go back to her home country of Mexico to renew her visa when she was 17.
“At the time I was too young to understand why he wanted this to happen, but I now realize that he was using my status and its lapse to strip all options from me and, in doing so, deprive me of my freedom,” she said. “I was not old enough to consciously consent or understand how he was taking away my rights.”
Camila said she had sexual contact with Raniere “during every meeting we ever had” since she was a teenager. She thought it was a relationship, but looking back Camila said she saw a survival instinct kicking in to please and placate an abuser.
“I had to become good at figuring out how to stay in his good graces by pleasing him and doing exactly what he wanted me to do,” she said. “And I did—I became the best. He had made himself my only lifeline and I was not going to mess with that.”
Raniere later placed Camila in a secret apartment near Albany. One of his fixers paid the lease in cash, and heavy velvet drapes blacked out the windows. “As a result of my living situation, and the secrecy surrounding it, I became even more isolated and withdrawn,” she said. “I became unreachable to my parents, my brother, and my friends, until I had no one that would worry about me, no friends to check up on me. I felt abandoned for the longest time. I didn’t see it then but he cut me off from anyone who could ever help me.”
Camila’s weight and eating habits were also surveilled and controlled by Raniere. “From the time we started having sex, he would ask me my weight every single day,” she said. “This continued into my adulthood. His goal for me was to be 100 pounds or less.” Her struggle with weight loss led to a suicide attempt. Raniere blocked her from seeking psychiatric help, she said.
Now in her 30s, Camila said she tried many times to leave Raniere, but that these efforts would bring on more cruelty and control. “He acted happy, loving, and caring when I showed signs of falling back in line, but as soon as I expressed again a desire to leave, he’d become a monster,” she said. “He knew the things that mattered most to me, and what I feared, and he used both to control me.”
WhatsApp messages presented as evidence at Raniere’s trial revealed Camila had sex with a younger man in the NXIVM community, and that Raniere grilled her about his rival’s penis size and shape in absurdist detail. Camila told the judge she had sex with the man in the hopes that Raniere would let her go for being “impure.”
Camila was then initiated into Raniere’s secret women’s “slave” group, DOS, and branded with his initials. “He knew exactly what he was doing, even asking me at some point if having his initials on my body would keep me from being with other people.”
Camila’s older sister, identified as Daniela in court, joined NXIVM at age 16, and was confined to a room for nearly two years before she escaped to Mexico in 2012. With the help of her sister, Camila said she finally left Raniere in 2017.
“When I walked away, I had the mind of a 15-year-old in the body of a 27-year-old,” she said. “I missed out on incredibly basic things people learn in their youth.”
Camila said the gravity of what was done to her has slowly become clearer. “He hid his abuse behind ideas and concepts of nobility,” she said.
“I only now see that there was nothing noble about abusing children, abusing his authority, and taking advantage of my natural inclination, as a child, to trust adults.”