This article originally appeared on VICE CA.
More than a month into a trial deciding the fate of an alleged “sex cult” leader, jurors haven’t heard much about brainwashing. But they’ve definitely learned about gaslighting.
Perhaps best known as that thing Teen Vogue accused President Donald Trump of doing to America – intentionally undermining reality – gaslighting has emerged as a buzzword that’s arguably overused as a synonym for disagreement. But there's no more accurate term for the phenomenon of deception and denial making someone question their own sense of the world.
Self-help company NXIVM founder Keith Raniere is accused of sex trafficking, racketeering and other crimes for his role in creating a secret group of masters and slaves that collected potentially life-destroying “collateral” on members. Testimony by forensic psychologist Dawn Hughes last week offered a partial answer to an open question that has been hanging over the proceedings for weeks: Why did so many women go along with this elaborate “slave” scheme, and why did they turn around and groom their best friends into the same horrid situation?
Hughes named gaslighting, along with threats, isolation, surveillance, subjugation and economic control, as forms of non-physical violence that can take away someone's ability to freely give consent. With this testimony, prosecutors seemed to be drawing a through line between the accounts of several witnesses who said their sense of reality was shaken by Raniere’s lies, distortions, and threats.
A witness identified only as Daniela, who has said that she and her two sisters had sexual relationships with the NXIVM leader in their teens and early 20s, testified that Raniere claimed to have penetrated her during their first sexual encounter, when she knew from her experience only oral sex had taken place. “I feel very sure of what I felt. I was there,” she told the jury. “It's my body so it's very confusing to have contradictory information.”
It’s possible that Daniela and Raniere simply have different recollections about the same event, but prosecutors are likely hoping the jury will see a pattern – that evidence so far has shown Raniere has repeatedly invented new circumstances that change and discredit women’s own experience.
Cult expert Steven Hassan of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center said in an interview that gaslighting was most prevalent in smaller, personality-based cults, and can leave long-lasting psychological effects.
“I’ll get clients who have been out for 10 years, and they pretty solidly know they don’t want to go back, that the group is wrong, but they still don’t trust their critical faculties," he said. "Their sense of trust has been so undermined, they need specialised help to learn how to reclaim their power.”
The trial has now heard from four witnesses who were initiated into a secret group within NXIVM's umbrella that was pitched as a women’s mentorship program, but was actually created by Raniere and leveraged women’s “collateral” to orchestrate his sexual encounters. Depending on how long they’ve been away from the group, Hassan said, they could still be experiencing gaslighting-related confusion, a point the judge emphasised when he cut off cross-examination of witness Lauren Salzman, who has pleaded guilty to racketeering charges.
“This is a broken person, as far as I can tell,” Judge Nicholas Garaufis said last month. “Whether she’s telling the truth, whether the jury believes her, I think it’s absolutely necessary that there be a certain level of consideration for someone’s condition.”
On Monday, a former “slave” identified as Nicole testified about her own confusion in the face of mixed messages from her “master” Allison Mack, who has pleaded guilty to racketeering and racketeering conspiracy. The Smallville actress wrote that Nicole was “weak, spoiled, entitled” and that she loved and missed her in the same email. “It was just very confusing,” she said. “It felt like I must be missing something.”
When Nicole suspected that Raniere knew about the secret women’s group, she said, Mack flatly denied it, even though the self-help guru was actually Mack’s “master.”
“She said, oh, sweetie, I'm so glad that you told me that,” Nicole testified. “That's not true, that's not what's happening, but that's such a good sign that you can trust me enough to tell me that.”
Similar distortions appeared in WhatsApp messages between Raniere and Daniela’s younger sister Camila, who prosecutors allege was only 15 years old when she was groomed into a sexual relationship with Raniere. In chat conversations Raniere introduced new spiritual circumstances to make Camila feel worse about sleeping with another man, telling her she had ruined her opportunity to be his “spiritual successor.”
“My lineage is not supposed to end with my death,” Raniere said, adding that he was transferring knowledge and “energy” to Camila, which would have allowed him to live on through her. Because she had sexual contact with somebody else, this was not possible.
“I had no idea this successor thing even existed,” Camila wrote in 2014.
In another passage shown in court from 2015, Raniere asked Camila graphic questions about his rival’s genitals, including the size, shape, “fluid” consistency, and taste. “Did you like his taste better than mine?” he asked.
“I wish I didn’t have to answer this. Yes,” Camila replied.
“He is shorter and thinner, penis-wise?” Raniere writes back.
“Longer but thinner,” Camila replied.
Raniere then told Camila she was wrong about her own memory and experience. “I am examining perception,” Raniere wrote. “I know his penis is 6.75 full erect and mine is 7.5 so I’m looking at how you are slanting things.”
At first Camila questioned Raniere’s obsession, but the more he claimed to know, the more she appeared to submit to interrogation. Hassan said these types of exchanges have a cumulative, disorienting effect, which makes a target less reliant on their own conscience.
Camila described her own dependence on Raniere as a life-or-death situation in one of their exchanges: “I feel like I have a gun pointed at me and I’m just trying to say what you want to hear so you won’t shoot but I don’t know what it is you want to hear."
Hassan sees gaslighting as part of an undue influence playbook used by sex traffickers, domestic abusers and cult leaders alike. “I’m confident that in every major cult there are examples of a cult leader saying one thing and the next day saying never said that, you made it up,” Hassan said.
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