A woman who spent nearly two years in a room with virtually no contact with the outside world testified this week about why she had no choice but to stay put on the orders of a jealous man who has been accused of running a sex cult.
The Mexican woman, who testified last week about her family's entanglement in embattled self-help group NXIVM and was identified in court as Daniela, told a jury about the bizarre circumstances that led to her becoming "trapped," as she put it, without a phone, money, or legal documents—and the trauma she experienced while emotionally cut off from her family with only a pen, paper, and a foam mattress on the floor.
"I remember scratching down my arms and wanting to scream," Daniela said in Brooklyn federal court Wednesday. At one point, she added, she collected cleaning supplies from a shared bathroom in preparation to end her life.
At age 16, Daniela became a student in NXIVM, which invited her to work for them in Albany in 2002. Daniela and her whole family became devoted supporters of the group’s leader, Keith Raniere, who claimed to have set a world record for highest IQ and positioned his company’s personal development seminars as a way to save the world from unspecified impending destruction.
Raniere is on trial for racketeering, sex trafficking, and other crimes, including his alleged involvement in Daniela’s confinement. He has pleaded not guilty on all counts.
Last week, Daniela testified that she and her two sisters—one of whom was underage—were all groomed into secret sexual relationships with Raniere. Despite constant contact with him, Daniela told the jury, she believed she was "kind of asexual" up until her early 20s, when she discovered she had romantic feelings for another man in the NXIVM community named Ben Myers.
Daniela revealed these feelings to Raniere, which she said launched a years-long "nightmare" that resulted in her confinement in 2010. Emails presented in court Wednesday showed Raniere’s obsession with knowing every detail of Daniela’s interaction with Myers, and his insistence she atone in outrageous and self-destructive ways for the "ethical breach" of being interested in him. Raniere also repeatedly insisted she must "restore, even intensify" her romantic feelings toward the then-40-something guru.
"Did Ben put his fingers inside you? Did he? Does he think you were virgin? Did he touch you on your vagina inside your clothes or was it outside your clothes?" Raniere demanded in one of many excruciating emails.
"I need to be your WHOLE life. This is the only way," he wrote in another.
Though Daniela's parents did not know about her sexual relationship with Raniere or the true reasons she was being disciplined, they were enlisted to enforce stricter and stricter controls on her life, taking away "indulgences" like her phone and computer, she said. Eventually they took all of her possessions, including her birth certificate and other legal documents, she continued. "I felt trapped in every single way possible," Daniela said of the escalating control over her life.
In a recording played in court Thursday, Raniere told Daniela's mother she should be "much stricter" with her daughter, suggesting she should ignore Daniela's requests for help returning to Mexico with the money and identification needed to set up a new life. "I see no evidence that everything she does is not just orchestrated to get what she wants—no love, no care, no conscience," Raniere said.
Raniere implied Daniela's alleged breach was equivalent to killing a child. He compared the young woman's asking for her parents' help leaving the country to a child killer asking to go on vacation, adding that a person with a conscience wouldn't do that.
"Did you kill a child?" prosecutor Moira Kim Penza asked Daniela after pausing the recording.
"No," Daniela replied.
"What did you do?" Penza asked.
"I kissed Ben Myers."
For months before she was confined to the room, even leaving the house was considered a violation of the plan to heal the damage Raniere accused Daniela of inflicting. In March of that year, however, Daniela was pitched on the arrangement not to leave a room in her family's home until the alleged harm had been rectified—a scheme her parents signed on to with the threat that they would return Daniela to Mexico with no money or documents or contact with them, she said.
"It wasn't without a fight," Daniela said of her resistance to the idea, testifying that she attempted to call Myers from a payphone the day before the so-called program began. Though the door was never locked, her undocumented status and lack of means to leave the country kept her from making a run for it for 23 months, she explained. A surveillance camera may also have eventually been installed outside the door to ensure she did not leave.
In the room, she wore the same clothes for weeks at a time, spending full days just sitting against a wall. Lauren Salzman, a once high-ranking NXIVM member who testified about a disturbing “slave” group within the company last week, was Daniela's only visitor, and often came to lecture her about her mistakes.
"She was really mean to me," Daniela testified. Salzman pleaded guilty to racketeering charges earlier this year for her role in keeping Daniela in the room.
Daniela wrote to Keith every day, including love letters, hoping that would change her situation. Raniere had instructed her to disclose her every thought and fantasy, which she said she did. Daniela described tracing her memories to pass the time, imagining herself walking to Walmart. She said she would fantasize about the asphalt outside, the number of steps, and the music they might play inside the store.
At the time, Daniela said, she had waist-length hair, which she decided to cut after finding scissors in the shared family bathroom. "It was something I could control. It was something I could do," she said. "It felt great." But Salzman later told Daniela that cutting her hair was itself huge ethical breach, and the only way to fix it was to stay in the room until her hair had grown back.
Daniela told the jury she snuck out of the room a handful of times, once to get reading material, and another time to check her email. She cried on the stand, recalling that virtually nobody had emailed her in over a year, apart from one birthday message from Myers the year before.
"I was gone from the world and nobody noticed," she said. "I was just hoping, somebody come get me."
Daniela finally grew angry at her parents and family. She said it was spotting a bird outside her window that gave her a new perspective on life. "I said fuck everybody—fuck you Mom, fuck you Dad," she testified. "I'm going to live."
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Sarah Berman on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.