A Cult Expert Tells Us Why the NXIVM Story Is Far From Over
Federal charges against leader Keith Raniere and ‘Smallville’ actress Allison Mack won’t change the minds of some die-hard followers.
Allison Mack leaving court in Brooklyn April 24, 2018. Photo via CP
It’s been nearly two months since alleged cult leader Keith Raniere was arrested on sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit forced labour charges. For the people who have been trying to expose Raniere’s alleged abuses—some have been working at this for more than a decade—his arrest, along with the arrest of Smallville actress Allison Mack, marked the end of an era.
But even with Raniere behind bars awaiting trial in Brooklyn, it doesn’t mean his many overlapping multi-level marketing schemes launched under the “NXIVM” umbrella have evaporated. Several offshoots, including the secretive one the FBI says branded and enslaved dozens of women, are still operating in some capacity thanks to Raniere’s most devoted followers. This inner circle believes that Raniere’s teachings may be necessary to ensure humanity’s survival (yes, you read that right), and that powerful people want to destroy him.
When I called up cult survivor Steven Hassan, who started the Freedom of Mind Resource Center to help others leave destructive groups, he agreed that the story of NXIVM is still far from over. That’s partially because years of conditioning have led die-hard followers to expect government crackdown. “The members believe they’re being persecuted,” Hassan told VICE. “They’re thinking this is my honour to be a martyr.”
Allison Mack has been released on bail, and has been ordered not to contact anyone from the NXIVM inner circle except through her lawyers. So far we know that US prosecutors are open to plea negotiations, but we don’t know if her loyalty to Raniere will steer her away from fully considering that route. I called up Hassan, who has been working with NXIVM clients, to ask why cults don’t disband easily, and what happens when followers reject help from the outside world.
VICE: As an outsider it’s hard to understand why the FBI charges haven’t scared away more of Raniere’s core followers. Is there a reason why a group like this might not disband easily?
Steven Hassan: Well we just had the 20th anniversary of the sarin gas attack in Tokyo by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. The leader Shoko Asahara is on death row—sentenced to death but not executed yet. Yet the group continues—it’s changed names to Aleph. People still believe Shoko Asahara is being persecuted by the CIA, the Jews, and a bunch of other conspiracy forces. I mention this group because 60 Minutes flew me to Japan after the attack when he was still at large, to be an on-site expert. I had a chance to meet a bunch of former members, and to look at some of their recruitment videos. They had a successful computer company, had the youngest lawyer in Japanese history—really brilliant people. And people in the armed forces and police department, which is underreported.
The big lure is often being told you are special, you have an incredible opportunity to be part of this historical movement. Mind control is a bidirectional process, so these people bring their own meaning and experiences into whatever the indoctrination is. They identify with certain aspects—they’re not just blank slates. We know from George Orwell’s 1984 that language can be manipulated and convoluted to make someone believe freedom is slavery, and a women’s empowerment movement is where they’re surrendering to a creepy guy who gets to tell them their pubic hair length and the amount a calories they eat.
How come so many reject deprogramming? Since they’re smart people, shouldn’t they be able to think their way out of it?
I hate the term deprogramming even though that’s what the media likes to use. I believe in helping people reclaim their own powers of critical thinking, to get back in touch with who they were before indoctrination—to teach people how the mind works, how social influence works. I’ve developed a system based on my own experience in the Moonies cult. I was deprogrammed in a forcible way 43 years ago. My model is known as the dual identity model, where a new cult identity is formed and the old, pre-cult identity is suppressed.
When a negative thought is raised against the leader or group, the cult identity is trained to shut down that thought, to neutralize it. Some groups chant, some groups pray, some meditate, some just have an automatic switch where they don’t allow the negative thought. The cult identity is also given phobias—irrational fears that terrible things will happen to the world and to them if they betray the Vanguard, the only hope for humankind. And the real identity is like holy crap, what am I in? And who can I talk to about this? But a lot of this is suppressed by the cult identity. So there are members who are actually questioning but are afraid to talk to anybody in the group about what they’re thinking. My strategic approach is based on the understanding that the last thing you want to do with a destructive cult is challenge the doctrine or group policy—that’s going to cause the person to feel persecuted, to lower rapport and trust. So in my approach, emphasis is always on trust building as a foundation, and asking questions in a non-confrontational curious way.
What tends to work for people?
Depending on what trusting relationships they have with non-members, that’s going to play a role in them potentially waking up. I helped a woman who fell in love with a non-member. He read my book and was able to say ‘you love me, and I want to spend my life with you, so I want you to read this book, and let's talk about it.’
As someone who has been working with people leaving NXIVM, are there any specific challenges you’re seeing?
What’s going on in this group is that [NXIVM president] Nancy Salzman was trained by Tad James in neuro-linguistic programing, or NLP. James was a protege of Richard Bandler, who modelled the practice off Milton Erickson the psychiatrist, who is considered one of the greatest minds in this area of healing. They modelled Erickson’s covert hypnotic style, but the problem with NLP is it’s an amoral system. If you’re a psychiatrist who has sworn an oath to do no harm, and people are coming to you for help, you’re being granted a license to do what’s going to work and help them. But when you’re talking about business and money and sex, and power differentials between teacher and a student, it’s so exploitative and so destructive. I’ve talked to more than a few ex-members now who talked about their first meetings with Keith—they have no memory of what happened. These are two or four hour meetings. As an expert who studied NLP, I think that’s indicative of them being put into a hypnotic trance state, and specifically given a suggestion that they'll have no recollection of what was said or done.
Do you ever take it personally when people reject your help?
I wouldn’t say that I take it personally because I’ve been doing this for 43 years, and I understand that people are programmed. But I have a very strong passion to help everybody, and when I can’t help somebody, I feel a lot of frustration. I would love to help people get out as soon as possible so they’re not suffering for weeks and months and years. I don’t want to see them give away their trust funds and come out destitute, or have ailments that need medical attention, but group members are telling them to do group processes to fix it. I feel a level of frustration that after 43 years of activism and hundreds of lectures and TV shows and interviews, the public is still as ignorant as they’ve ever been. All these shows, at least they’re putting some spotlight on the cult issue, but they’re not teaching people about the nuts and bolts help inoculate them, to actually help a loved one.
Do you think the story of NXIVM is at least winding down?
I don’t think we’re close to winding it down. I think the Bronfmans could be indicted, the Salzmans could be indicted, the doctors who did the cauterization could face some type of consequences—criminal and civil. There is a large handful of women who were branded who have now woken up, and they are beginning to realize what’s been done to them. It will be going on for many years to come.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Follow Sarah Berman on Twitter.
Sign up for the VICE Canada Newsletter to get the best of VICE Canada delivered to your inbox daily.