When you think of a cult, or at least going by what you’ve seen on TV and in movies, you think of poor, lost souls who while at their most vulnerable were invited to join a tight-knit community—a community inevitably led by one charismatic person who claims to have all the answers and, if you abide, is going to share them with you.
Paramount TV’s recent Waco did an engrossing job humanizing the people who fell under David Koresh’s spell in the 1980s (and successfully illustrated how the situation was in no way as simple as “crazy cult vs. law enforcement”), but the series primarily took place once the Branch Davidians were already all living together at their Texas compound in the months leading up to a disastrous 1993 FBI siege in which 76 men, women and children were killed. Much has been written about Koresh and how he was able to convince so many people that his way was the right way, but it was widely concluded that he had preyed on the vulnerable.
And before the tragedy at Waco, no one knew who those people were. The same goes for Charles Manson‘s “family,” and the murderous group—ostensibly lost souls under the sway of a magnetic leader—might have been but a blip on the end-of-the-1960s radar if actress Sharon Tate hadn’t been one of their victims.
Meanwhile, a broader audience—or at least not the millions of people who have since been apprised of its existence—may have never heard of NXIVM (let alone figured out how to spell it) if Allison Mack, who played Chloe Sullivan on Smallville for 10 years, hadn’t been accused of recruiting women for what, according to authorities, amounted to a hierarchical sex-slavery ring.
Since Mack’s arrest in April on federal sex-trafficking charges, which followed NXIVM founder Keith Raniere‘s arrest in March, it’s been shocking to see just how many familiar names were in the group’s sprawling orbit, from the actresses and business leaders who participated in his more legitimate-seeming self-help seminars to the women who fell prey to Raniere’s manipulation—to the heiresses who reportedly provided a massive infusion of funds over the years.
“Everything was utterly consensual—it was adults making decisions on their own of their own free will, and that’s what the trial is going to show,” Raniere’s attorney Marc Agnifilo told reporters outside the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn, after a hearing for his client and Mack in May. “A lot of adult, strong-minded, free-willed women made decisions for their own lives.”
And not everyone thought they were signing up for anything all that strange.
“When I was about 23, I took an Executive Success Programs/NXIVM ‘intensive,’ what I understood to be a self-help/personal growth course that helped me handle my previous shyness, which is why I continued with the program,” Kristin Kreuk, who played Lana Lang on Smallville and is now starring in Burden of Truth on The CW, wrote on social media after Raniere’s arrest and before Mack was indicted.
“I left about five years ago and had minimal contact with those who were still involved,” Kreuk wrote. “The accusations that I was in the ‘inner circle’ or recruited women as ‘sex slaves’ are blatantly false. During my time, I never experienced any illegal or nefarious activity. I am horrified and disgusted by what has come out about DOS.”
“For the record, my dear friend @MsKristinKreuk was never in the inner circle of #NXIVM,” Canadian actress Sarah Edmondson, whose credits include Fringe, Psych and Hawaii Five-0, tweeted in March when the depth of Kreuk’s involvement with NXIVM—marketed as a motivational, discover-your-best-self-type program—was questioned.
Edmondson, a former member who told the New York Times last year about being literally branded by the group with a symbol that incorporated Raniere’s initials, continued: “She never recruited sex slaves and has been out since 2013 before shit got weird. She is a lovely person who should not be dragged into this mess. Thank you. #Cult #DOS #freedom #TRUTH.”
In April, Mack was accused of being one of those recruiters, a member who had risen through the ranks at NXIVM to become a confidante of Raniere.
“DOS operates as a pyramid with levels of ‘slaves’ headed by ‘masters,'” the complaint against Raniere alleges, DOS being the faction within NXIVM where such behavior occurred. “Slaves are expected to recruit slaves of their own (thus becoming masters themselves), who in turn owe services not only to their own masters but also to masters over them in the DOS pyramid.”
“The victims were then exploited, both sexually and for their labor, to the defendants’ benefit,” Richard P. Donoghue, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said in a statement when Mack was arrested. “This Office and our law enforcement partners are committed to prosecuting predators who victimize others through sex trafficking and forced labor.”
Samia Shoaib, an actress who met Mack at an audition in 2013, said on Megyn Kelly Today in April that, looking back, she feels as though what appeared to be a quick bonding experience was actually Mack’s attempt to recruit her. “I was in a fairly vulnerable time,” Shoaib, whose credits include The Sixth Sense and Sex and the City, recalled. “I had had a traumatic experience and I was drinking too much and I was looking for help with that. We discussed how AA was full of—for me it was a lot of male energy and I didn’t really respond to group situations, so she said, ‘Ah, I have an alternative.'”
They eventually had dinner with a third woman who, according to Shoaib, “was very quiet and she seemed to be in awe of Allison and somewhat under her control.”
In January 2016, Mack reached out to Emma Watson, writing to the actress-activist, “I’m a fellow actress like yourself & involved in an amazing women’s movement I think you’d dig. I’d love to chat if you’re open.” The next month, she tried again: “@EmWatson I participate in a unique human development & women’s movement I’d love to tell you about. As a fellow actress I can relate so…@EmWatson well to your vision and what you want to see in the world. I think we could work together. Let me know if you’re willing to chat.”
Mack previously credited Raniere with helping her reach a new level with her acting after Smallville ended, encouraging her to try theater.
“I have a wonderful teacher and mentor named Keith Raniere, who really gave me some incredible guidance,” Mack, who was starring in a play at the time, gushed in early 2017 to Fine magazine.
“I think everyone needs a mentor,” Mack continued. “I don’t think any of us really know the answers without a little bit of wisdom. If you aren’t willing to be humble enough to seek wisdom from other people, I think you’re missing a lot of really incredible opportunities to build a certain amount of depth and value in your life that you wouldn’t have if you didn’t have somebody to help guide you. I chose to have this mentor in my life, and I was talking to him about my struggle, confusion, and not knowing what to do. He said, ‘Why don’t you take some time and think about? Give yourself some space to figure out who you are now.’ So that’s what I did.”
Mack’s currently free on a $5 million bond and living with her parents in California. She has pleaded not guilty to charges of sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy, and conspiracy to commit forced labor. She’s being electronically monitored and is prohibited from using the Internet or cell phone services at her family’s house.
Raniere was living with Mack and several other women in Mexico when the FBI showed up to arrest him and the women angrily chased the agents’ car when they took him away. Mack and others have insisted that they came up with DOS as a sort of secret, ladies-only society within the program and Raniere has pleaded ignorance of what they were up to.
“I found my spine, and I just kept solidifying my spine every time I would do something hard,” Mack told the New York Times Magazine earlier this year, when she was still living in an apartment in Brooklyn and hadn’t been arrested. DOS, the actress claimed, was “about women coming together and pledging to one another a full-time commitment to become our most powerful and embodied selves by pushing on our greatest fears, by exposing our greatest vulnerabilities, by knowing that we would stand with each other no matter what, by holding our word, by overcoming pain.”
Mack also insisted that it was her idea to brand DOS members with a symbol that really meant something to them—and which, upon closer scrutiny, appeared to include her initials as well as Raniere’s.
Michael Rosenbaum Smallville‘s Lex Luthor, said on Theo Von‘s This Past Weekend podcast recently that he remembered Mack being into “self-help stuff” when the show was on.
“I didn’t listen to it,” the actor said. “I just remember thinking, ‘Oh that sounds a little culty. That’s not for me.’ I don’t know. I never thought about it…I felt like it was such a shock to hear these things. I just didn’t believe it.”
Calling Mack’s arrest “shocking,” Rosenbaum noted, “All I can say is this: When I was on that show, Allison was the sweetest, most professional. She was just a great girl, great actress.”
“Nobody didn’t get along, ever,” series star Tom Welling remembered in May on Rosenbaum’s Inside of You podcast—not specifically talking about Mack, but recalling the general convivial atmosphere on the Smallville set.
Then there was Sam Jones III, who played Pete Ross on Smallville and who when asked by TMZ in April what he thought of the charges against Mack, said, “While we were on the show she had a boyfriend, so she was cool, so I guess she just became freaky. The inner freak just came out of her or something.”
With the national spotlight now cranked up on NXIVM and Raniere, more pieces of the puzzle have spilled out of the box while investigators try to piece them all together.
NXIVM suspended its business operations in June in the wake of its mounting legal problems. “While we are disappointed by the interruption of our operations, we believe it is warranted by the extraordinary circumstances facing the company at this time,” reads a statement still on the NXIVM website. “We continue to believe in the value and importance of our work and look forward to resuming our efforts when these allegations are resolved.”
Then on July 24, Clare Bronfman, daughter of the late Edgar Bronfman Sr. and heiress to the Bronfman family’s Seagram liquor fortune, was arrested after being indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit identity theft and racketeering conspiracy. Clare, whose father before his death in 2013 expressed concern about her and her older sister Sara Bronfman‘s involvement with Raniere, was on the NXIVM board. Raniere, Mack and three others were also charged with racketeering conspiracy.
“As alleged, this long-running conspiracy crossed multiple avenues of criminal activity, which included, among other things, electronic monitoring; identity theft; extortion; victim smuggling; and illegal trafficking of a victim after a period of unlawful confinement,” William F. Sweeney Jr., assistant director-in-charge of the FBI’s New York field office, said in a statement. “The details of these alleged crimes become more and more grim as we continue to dig deeper into the conduct of this organization and its intended mission.”
Clare pleaded not guilty and was released on house arrest (having a private jet and a Fijian island at her disposal, the judge deemed her a flight risk) after posting a $100 million bond. Among other things, she’s been charged for her alleged role in “an identity theft conspiracy involving the use of credit card and banking information belonging to one of Raniere’s sexual partners after her death in November 2016.”
Pamela Cafritz, daughter of Republican political donors and D.C. society fixtures Bill (who died in 2014) and Buffy Cafritz, died of cancer in 2016. She was described by the New York Times Magazine as Raniere’s “most important long-term girlfriend and a beloved mother figure to Nxivm members.”
“If something’s uncomfortable for us emotionally, we choose to smoke, we choose to drink, we choose to eat, we choose to dissociate,” Clare Bronfman told the Times Magazine in an interview given in Mexico before Raniere and Mack were arrested. NXIVM encouraged you to “feel those [uncomfortable] things so that you can work them through and then they’re not uncomfortable anymore.”
At the same time, Raniere—called “Vanguard” by his flock—had been accused of being not just a scam artist, but also a master manipulator who used women as slaves and was able to compel others to find more vulnerable recruits to ensnare in his web. The term “cult” was unavoidable, and cult experts said NXIVM checked off all the boxes.
“It’s quite a point in life for me,” Raniere told the Times Magazine. “I question my values, how I conduct myself, all of these things…I don’t think I’m seen as the person I think I am, and I also want to be the person that I think I am.”
The Bronfman sisters’ ties to NXIVM go back almost two decades, with Vanity Fair reporting in 2010 that in six years they had taken more than $150 million out of their trusts and bank accounts for the cause, including $66 million to help bail Raniere out of financial trouble, $11 million for a 22-seater jet, and millions to aid NXIVM’s legal battles when it would go after perceived enemies(or “suppressives”) in court.
A friend of the sisters told Vanity Fair, “They’re more cognizant than you’d think, given the amount of money involved. I think there are personal reasons regarding the conflict they have with their family that keep them affiliated with nxivm. On some level, I think they feel the affiliation is reinforcing their version of things, in opposition to the opinion of their family. I think all the legal, litigious craziness is all about them trying to win this battle with their father.”
“I think it’s a cult,” Edgar Bronfman Sr. told Forbes in 2003 for a profile on Raniere, telling the magazine that his daughters had spent millions on Raniere’s Executive Success Program (the self-improvement program that became NXIVM in 2002) and he hadn’t spoken to them in months. Edgar had attended a seminar and reported past participants in the program also included BET co-founder Sheila Johnson, interim Enron CEO Stephen Cooper and former U.S. Surgeon General Antonia C. Novello. Virgin Group mogul Richard Branson‘s name has come up in the conversation, but a rep for the British billionaire told The Daily Beast earlier this year that he had no association with Raniere or NXIVM whatsoever, and that Sara Bronfman had merely once booked his private Necker Island for an event.
Sara Bronfman told Forbes she started taking courses in 2002, after her marriage broke up, and had since been promoted to the rank of coach and worked for ESP full-time.
Even heiresses are out there seeking answers.
After the Forbes cover story made a splash (or smeared his good name, as Raniere put it), Goldie Hawn reportedly pulled out of a speaking engagement at a NXIVM event.
In a March 2009 op-ed in the local Daily Gazette discouraging the Dalai Lama from making a scheduled visit to Albany because the group hosting him had ties to Raniere, contributor Daniel T. Weaver concluded, “If Goldie Hawn has the sense not to appear at an event sponsored by Keith Raniere, then cancellation by the Dalai Lama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, should be a no-brainer.”
The spiritual leader, under fire in the U.S. for a change, canceled his visit in April but ended up speaking in Albany nonetheless in May, and Sara and Clare Bronfman were seated nearby on the stage (possibly after having flown to India to entreat him to come in person, according to VF).
The Albany Times-Union, which did an investigative series on NXIVM and its founder years before the FBI closed in on Raniere, noted back in 2012 that Kreuk, Mack, Linda Evans of original Dynasty fame and Battlestar Galactica actress Nicki Clyne were among his students. Moreover, Battlestar Galactica and Hawaii Five-0 star Grace Park participated in “Keith Raniere Conversations,” which according to a still-live Facebook page are “informal thoughts on civilization, ethics & humanity.”
Park sat down to discuss “the ethics of celebrity, endorsement, power and authority within the context of acting,” reads the description of a clip posted on May 5, 2016.
Meanwhile, according to federal court documents pertaining to Mack’s case, she and Nicki Clyne got married in February 2017 and had been living together in New York prior to her arrest.
Clyne hasn’t tweeted or posted on Instagram since March, but in April the Daily Mail reported that she was out in New York with India Oxenberg, the daughter of former Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg, several days after Mack’s arrest.
For almost a year now, Catherine has been discussing her quest to get India—who may have been the quietly reverent woman whom Allison Mack brought to dinner with Samia Shoaib—out of what she believes to be NXIVM’s clutches.
Oxenberg told NBC News’ Megyn Kelly in an interview for Monday’s Dateline and Tuesday’s Megyn Kelly Today that India admitted to her that she had allowed the group to brand her flesh with “some Latin symbol.”
“She said it was character-building,” Oxenberg recalled. The actress and star of reality TV’s I Married a Princess has recalled bringing India to an Executive Success Program seminar in 2011, thinking it would simply be just that—character building.
Oxenberg said she was first alerted to the possibility that India might be in danger when a friend of her daughter’s called in the spring of 2017. “[The friend] was terrified to speak on the phone. She was afraid that she was being tapped, and she said to me, ‘You need to save India’…She said they had signed a lifetime vow of obedience to their master.”
“I brought her in, and that’s why I feel responsible for getting her out,” she told Kelly. Asked what it was like to live with the knowledge she introduced her daughter to Raniere, Catherine said, “At first I felt horrendous guilt that I had participated in bringing my daughter into an organization that was this deviant and dangerous.
“And then I started to educate myself and I spoke to numerous experts and they said, ‘would you stop blaming yourself. These cults are well-oiled machines and India never stood a chance.'”
Raniere, who has pleaded not guilty to charges of sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy and forced labor conspiracy, was denied bail and remains in jail while awaiting trial. He and Mack each face 15 years to life in prison if convicted on the trafficking and slave charges, as well as up to 20 years if convicted of racketeering conspiracy.