I Tried to Make Sense of the Alleged Sex Cult NXIVM's Bizarre Health Claims
A NXIVM-funded documentary suggesting their self-help therapy dramatically reduces symptoms of Tourette’s is screening in California Tuesday.
Screenshot via 'My Tourette's' trailer
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
Since Keith Raniere’s arrest on sex trafficking charges a month ago, large chunks of his global following have disbanded. But a core group of true believers has stuck by the alleged sex cult leader and his teachings—some of whom believe the coursework will help them overcome mental and physical disorders like Tourette’s, anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
In the same way that Scientology “audits” claim to address mental health disorders with little scientific basis, a series of experimental therapies offered by NXIVM “Prefect” Nancy Salzman are believed by some followers to reduce symptoms of Tourette’s and other disorders. In fact, a film that followed a five-person Tourette’s “case study” funded by NXIVM without peer review or any academic oversight will be screening at the Newport Beach Film Festival in California Tuesday night.
Tourette’s Syndrome is a neurological disorder that results in recurring physical and verbal “tics” like blinking, or in some cases shouting obscenities. The film My Tourette’s apparently boasts remarkable 80 percent reductions in tics for all of its subjects—though I can’t confirm because the filmmakers have only allowed me to view the trailer.
When I contacted director Alessandro Molatore about his Orange County premiere last week, he said he would like me to see the film but would first need to seek permission from his producer—heiress and de facto NXIVM leader Clare Bronfman. That permission hasn’t yet been granted, but Molatore was gracious enough to offer an hour of his time to explain the project and his own observations.
He first stressed the film was “locked” in 2016—before allegations of branding and sex slavery came to light last year—adding he now questions whether the film should continue to exist given those troubling revelations. “My film shows something that could be possibly very good,” he wrote in our first email exchange, “but how (can) something related to an alleged sex abuser and sex trader be good?”
It helps to know where Molatore, an Italian filmmaker, is coming from.
“I didn’t know anything about Tourette’s, it sounded completely new to me,” he told VICE of his introduction to the project sometime after 2013. Molatore had moved to Albany with an ex-girlfriend, and worked on another NXIVM-related film project before he was inspired by Salzman’s first “case study” on Tourette’s—a motivational speaker named Marc Elliot. Multiple NXIVM followers who spent time with Elliot observed a dramatic reduction in tics after just a few one-on-one therapy sessions with Salzman.
The therapy offered is one that sounds familiar to many former NXIVM students. In typical “exploration of meaning” sessions, subjects are asked to recall traumatizing moments from their childhood and beyond—sometimes with EEG monitors attached to their heads. Through the session, an unlicensed NXIVM “practitioner” helps the subject deconstruct the flawed “associations” triggering traumatic responses, and build new associations.
A subject suffering from Tourette’s would instead explore the source of their tics, and try to build counter-impulses, sources familiar with the project told VICE.
Cult experts who have studied NXIVM’s therapies say the method combines elements of hypnosis, neuro-linguistic programming, Scientology’s Dianetics, and cognitive behavioral therapy. It has not been tested in a scientific peer-reviewed setting.
“I don’t think I’d ever seen such a powerful transformation in a matter of a day,” Molatore told VICE, recalling one young man’s first therapy session. “A couple days before he was hitting himself—they were the most violent tics I’ve ever seen.”
Molatore asked Bronfman for enough funding to spend several weeks with the subjects, and check in with them six months later, to see how their lives improved. He said the families he encountered were desperate for new treatment. “The options they’re given are medications or brain surgeries,” he said. “These people had nothing to lose, they were in a very hardcore situation, and they’d tried every fucking thing.”
I called up one of Canada’s leading experts on treating Tourette's, who told me medication and surgery are far from the only options, and that behavioral therapies are already well-established in the field. One of the most common, which works for about 30 percent of patients who try it, is called habit reversal, a component of comprehensive behavioral intervention. This teaches patients to be more aware of their urges to tic, and introduces a less visible competing behavior like flexing abs or thighs.
This kind of therapy is carried out by actual psychologists and is recognized by the Tourette’s Association of America. That the NXIVM therapy appears to mirror elements of these practices with some extra pseudoscience thrown in is not totally lost on Molatore.
“I’m not an expert in Scientology, I don’t know if there are similarities between an audit and an EM (exploration of meaning exercise), but some people say there are similarities,” he told VICE. “It seemed unharmful—basically Nancy speaking with a person—I never thought that could be a big deal. I never thought it could be something wrong.”
The neuropsychiatrist VICE spoke to, who did not wish to be associated by name with a story about an alleged sex cult, said it is also common for young people to simply get better as they age. Tics tend to peak around age 17, so someone like Elliot who suffered as a young adult is likely to see fewer symptoms over time without treatment at all.
According to the Albany Times Union, New York’s attorney general has suspended an investigation into the Ethical Science Foundation, the non-profit run by Bronfman that oversaw the Tourette’s experiment.
Tourette’s isn’t the only disorder followers of the alleged cult believe the trainings or “technology” can help them overcome. Three former NXIVM insiders told VICE that treating depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders was often pitched as an upside to working with Keith and other NXIVM “practitioners.”
“They said stuff like that all the time. They said our technology can help people get off meds for depression and anxiety,” Vancouver actress and filmmaker Maja Miljkovic told VICE. “I was told that if you can learn to control your thoughts and emotions—make them work for you in a situation, instead of running away—then you won’t have that problem.”
Former member Sara Lim told VICE she doesn’t recall overt claims of “curing” disorders, but says the ideas in the curriculum were suggested to apply to things like obsessive-compulsive disorder. “I also know a friend of mine had chronic headaches and it was very encouraged that enough application of the curriculum may very well help get rid of her headaches,” she told VICE.
Lim said she believes she was suffering from undiagnosed anxiety and depression when she first started taking NXIVM courses. She recalled being told that anyone with severe diagnosed depression should not take Executive Success Programs (ESP).
“One thing that really bothers me now is how anyone with ‘actual’ depression wasn't really supposed to do ESP, but none of the coaches were certified or able to tell if anyone had depression,” she told VICE. “There was no medical history check or anything. They actually encouraged people to not be on medication while taking intensives so it didn't affect their experiences and integrations during the intensive.”
Lim left NXIVM before the allegations of branding came out last year. After leaving, she sought professional therapy and now takes medication for depression and anxiety.
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