The following is an adapted excerpt from Don’t Call It a Cult: The Shocking Story of Keith Raniere and the Women of NXIVM by Sarah Berman, who reported on the NXIVM trial for VICE. Berman’s book follows the story of an undocumented Mexican woman who was confined to a room for nearly two years and became a key witness at Raniere’s 2019 trial for sex trafficking and other crimes. In this excerpt, “Daniela” first encounters NXIVM at age 16 and is pulled into Raniere’s inner circle in Albany, New York. Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in federal prison in October 2020.
Daniela didn’t seem to be plagued with the unfortunate combination of horniness and parent loathing that usually comes with being a teenager. From a young age, she’d developed a laser focus on her studies and was too shy to even think about boys.
“When I was a little younger and I used to run around with my microscope and my encyclopedia, I wanted to be a biologist,” she recalled on the witness stand at Raniere’s trial in 2019. “I wanted to study animals and be a marine biologist, and I wanted to join Greenpeace.”
Daniela comes from an unusually photogenic household, with parents Hector and Adriana, two sisters, and one brother. In beach vacation shots shown in court, they look like the surf-kissed model family displayed in a picture frame before you buy it. They lived in a small desert town with no malls or movie theaters in the geographical middle of Mexico. “My family was like my center of gravity,” Daniela testified. “They used to joke about our family, saying that we were like the Flanders in The Simpsons because we got along so well.”
Sitting on the witness stand in May 2019, Daniela gave measured, understated answers. Now in her 30s, Daniela sat tall, her posture so dignified that she seemed to levitate, occasionally leaning her angular features closer to the microphone to speak before rising up again. Her hair was long and dark, reaching for her waist, which appeared preposterously small in a fitted gray blazer.
Daniela looked relaxed and even seemed to savor memories of her childhood as she recounted her parents’ preoccupation with self-help trends. They had enrolled Daniela and her siblings as kids in a couple of different personal development courses before the family got involved with NXIVM.
Daniela had earned a scholarship to attend an elite Swiss international school for her second year of high school. She finished her first year at the top of her class, with new dreams of a long academic career. “I wanted to study at Harvard. That was my dream, that was my plan,” she testified. “I wanted to do preventive medicine research to help people.”
Hector was so moved by the NXIVM program that he bought Daniela a 16-day intensive as a send-off gift, to help her succeed in Switzerland. Daniela liked that the program was scientific, and apparently based on the teachings of a record holder for the world’s highest IQ.
Among the trainers flown in to teach Daniela was Lauren Salzman, who had risen up the NXIVM ranks to the position of senior proctor. “She was sharp. She was bubbly. She was smart and she was likable,” Daniela said of her first meeting with Salzman in Monterrey. “I remember being intimidated.”
In addition to learning that Raniere was the smartest person in the world, Daniela was told he was completely “unified,” a word used in the same way that Scientology uses “clear,” meaning that a person has resolved all psychological imbalances. “It is, in essence, like the endpoint, like the whole reason everybody is trying to go through all of these courses and removal of disintegrations, and so they can reach this nirvana, this point where there’s nothing else to be fixed,” Daniela testified. “And essentially, as I understood it, you no longer react to the external world... You act, you think and you act.”
Salzman led a NXIVM intensive module called “The Mission,” which left a huge impression on Daniela’s young mind. “They used a whiteboard with a marker and drew the world. Like a big circle,” Daniela said. “They proceeded to, one by one, describe how every effort that humans are making to better the world is futile.” She learned that it was pointless to try to save the whales or cure cancer or end world hunger, “because we’re just going to keep recreating all of these problems as long as we are disintegrated.”
“Disintegration” was NXIVM-speak for an emotional or psychological imbalance that could be healed, or “integrated,” through their therapies. Daniela recalled that an “elegant progression” of arguments led her to a conclusion that NXIVM was the only way to resolve disintegrations and make the world a better place. Part of the proof came from a calculation by Raniere that found if current trends continued and humanity didn’t change course by spreading NXIVM’s special technology, the world was going to end in the next 10 to 15 years.
Sixteen-year-old Daniela absolutely believed it. “It was a bit of a childish idea, perhaps, but I wanted to become a scientist and do all these things to help save the world,” she testified.
After her epiphany during “The Mission” module, trainers began paying close attention to Daniela, who was praised as a smart and speedy learner. Everyone was impressed by how quickly she was picking up the concepts, and this flattered her immensely. In a conversation near the end of the three weeks, Salzman suggested that Daniela come to Albany to join the real-life mission.
Daniela was shocked by the offer. “I was incredibly flattered but also very surprised,” she said. “Like, Oh, thank you, but what do you think I can do to help? I mean, I don’t know anything.”
After some discussion, Daniela revealed to Salzman that she’d taught herself computer programming, and Salzman put her in touch with Karen Unterreiner, who oversaw administration and IT for NXIVM in Albany.
“I didn’t jump on it right away,” Daniela told the Brooklyn courtroom almost two decades later. Discussion continued for weeks, until finally she resolved to take a year off school and do her part to help with the NXIVM mission.
“I decided, Okay, all right. So I’m going to take a sabbatical,” she said. “A year from now, school is still going to be there.”
Daniela’s first impression of Raniere was exactly what she’d expected. He was geeky and a little weird. “He certainly wasn’t normal,” she said. “He was also attentive and very soft spoken, and had like a sweet presence about him.”
She was surprised to find that Raniere already knew her name. “He said, ‘I hear you’re very smart,’” she testified. Her parents, who were by her side for that first interaction, beamed.
Raniere’s words instantly became unforgettable to Daniela, who valued intelligence above everything. “I’m not one to crush on celebrities, but I mean, given my temperament and what was important to me in life, he was the smartest man in the world. So he was like a rock star.”
Daniela was introduced to Unterreiner, who would become her boss. “I thought she was very sweet,” Daniela recalled on the witness stand. “A little mousey, but very sweet.”
Unterreiner showed Daniela the lay of the land. She also handed her a manual on programming languages and installed a demo application on Daniela’s laptop that she could use to test out code. After a few weeks of settling in, Daniela was put to work doing data entry. For several hours every day she entered payment details and enrolment information for new students.
Daniela felt ashamed that she wasn’t doing more meaningful work, or even using her programming skills. She worried that she’d let her hosts down in some way. Unterreiner never gave her lessons beyond handing over the manual and demo app.
“I started finding ways to make myself useful, you know, because there was no structure. I was used to the structure of school,” she said. “I would clean refrigerators, I would clean the floors, clean the bathrooms, organize the storage room. I found ways to be useful, like a full workday.”
During her first year in Albany, Daniela mostly saw Raniere from afar—either at speaking engagements at the center, where he sometimes answered students’ questions, or from the bleachers at late-night volleyball games held multiple times a week at a local gym. After many months had gone by, she finally mustered the courage to approach him and express her disappointment in the work she was doing. “I was very disillusioned,” she said. “I felt like there was no point to me being there and I wanted to go back to school.”
Raniere asked her some “guiding” questions about her purpose and preferences, and whether she’d taken any time to write out a mission statement. Daniela recalled that he picked up on her academic interests very quickly and began testing her math skills on a whiteboard, scribbling out equations for her to identify. “The first was a quadratic equation, and there was some calculus,” Daniela testified. “I didn’t take calculus in high school. I think he was gauging my level of education.”
Daniela had proven herself to Raniere, who suggested she see him for more tutoring. Later, Unterreiner told Daniela that she’d been reprimanded by Raniere for not recognizing she had a genius in the admin office.
Raniere first kissed Daniela during a conversation about her parents’ separation. She was seeking his worldly guidance on how to navigate the split, which her father was finding extremely difficult.
“I didn’t feel bad, didn’t feel good, didn’t feel anything, it was just like, What’s going on?” she said of the kiss. They were sitting on a purple couch in Nancy Salzman’s office, and the door was uncharacteristically closed behind them. But after some time passed, Daniela started to feel excited that she was special and had been chosen.
As her 18th birthday approached, Daniela was repeatedly asked by Raniere what she wanted, implying that she should want him. “It took a lot of him asking in a flirty way, ‘What do you want for your birthday? Do you want something special?’” she testified. “I couldn’t say it and I did not say it. And he noticed I was extremely shy, and he said, ‘Well, if you’re too shy to say it, why don’t you write it on the palm of my hand?’ And it was easier than to say it, so I, with my hand, spelled out S-E-X.”
Daniela was mortified when Raniere acted surprised, saying, “Ooohh, you want sex?” as if he hadn’t considered the idea. Seeing her become so plainly self-conscious, Raniere took the opportunity to ask Daniela what body insecurities were standing in the way, suggesting she should lose weight and reassuring her that he liked natural body hair.
Daniela’s birthday came and went, and she didn’t see Raniere. He told her he was disappointed that she hadn’t reached her weight goal of 155 pounds. Raniere had shared his theory about energy exchange during sex, claiming body fat got in the way. Daniela felt rejected and disappointed that, after all this anticipation, nothing had happened.
But a few days later, Raniere followed through. He took her to an office building once used by his first company Consumers’ Buyline and led her down a second-floor hallway to a suite of offices, where he brought her into a small room.
Daniela described the room as dimly lit, with stacks of boxes everywhere. In the center of the floor, on an old, dirty carpet, was a mattress. “It had raggy, used sheets on it,” she recalled. “It wasn’t like—that bed wasn’t made up.”
Raniere asked her to undress, and she did. At first he kept his clothes on as he performed oral sex on her, and then he undressed and got on top of her. “He gave me a hug, like a long hug is what it was,” she said. “And then he just kissed me, got up, helped me up and got dressed.”
Almost as soon as they’d parted, Raniere called Daniela to talk about the experience. Seemingly out of nowhere, he asked her why she hadn’t asked him to use protection.
“Confusion ensued because I couldn’t understand why he was asking me to use protection if I didn’t feel he penetrated me,” Daniela testified. “He was telling me that he did penetrate me and I did lose my virginity, but I did not feel that.”
Raniere later offered her theories as to why she’d “blocked out” the penetrative part of their encounter, but she was confident that she’d never felt an erection. “I feel very sure of what I felt. I was there. It’s my body so it’s very confusing to have contradictory information,” she said. On a long walk together, when Raniere continued returning to the subject, Daniela suggested that maybe she’d blocked it out because deep down she hadn’t wanted it.
“He corrected me and he gave me the right answer,” she recalled. “He said, ‘No, the reason why you didn’t feel it was because you were too in your head. That’s what you need to work on. That’s why.’”
On the witness stand at Raniere’s trial, psychologist Dawn Hughes described gaslighting as “a behavior that functions to make you think you’re crazy by telling you up is down and left is right.” Gaslighting has become something of a buzzword in recent years, best known as the thing Teen Vogue accused President Donald Trump of doing to America. “It functions to make the victim not trust her own perceptions, not trust her own judgment, and not really have a sense of what really is going on, because she’s continually told that she is to blame,” Hughes testified.
The prosecutors would return to “up is down” moments with many of the witnesses, often spending excruciating amounts of time unpacking what the women understood as reality and what Raniere and his fixers insisted instead. This was consistent across decades, whether the witnesses were high-ranking power brokers like Lauren Salzman or the lower-ranking “slaves” who were later initiated into the secret women’s group DOS with no knowledge of Raniere’s role in orchestrating it.
In June 2019, after watching four DOS women, including Lauren Salzman, testify, I wrote a story for VICE about the thread prosecutors seemed to want the jury to follow: that Raniere’s slave group was in part powered by gaslighting, that he repeatedly invented new circumstances that changed and discredited women’s own experiences. Raniere even told one of his partners: “Things are most maneuverable when they are most unstable.”
Daniela would later be confined to a room for nearly two years under threat of losing all contact with her family. She gave some of the most harrowing trial testimony, describing intense deprivation and thoughts of suicide, though she was never part of DOS. She left Albany long before branding and blackmail became formalized rites of passage for the young women closest to Raniere.
But Daniela did see her relationship with Raniere as “an ownership of sorts.” And she had the most crystallized “up is down” story of all the witnesses. She didn’t use the word “gaslighting,” but she articulated what it felt like to have her sense of the world undermined by Raniere.
Don’t Call It a Cult: The Shocking Story of Keith Raniere and the Women of NXIVM is a bestseller in Canada and is available here. Follow Sarah Berman on Twitter.