She made it sound like a bad-ass bitch boot camp
October 18, 2017 7:03 AM   Subscribe

Inside a Secretive Group Where Women Are Branded
Content warning for abuse of all sorts, please tread carefully.
Since the late 1990s, an estimated 16,000 people have enrolled in courses offered by Nxivm (pronounced Nex-e-um), which it says are designed to bring about greater self-fulfillment by eliminating psychological and emotional barriers. Most participants take some workshops, like the group’s “Executive Success Programs,” and resume their lives. But other people have become drawn more deeply into Nxivm, giving up careers, friends and families to become followers of its leader, Keith Raniere, who is known within the group as “Vanguard.”
posted by soren_lorensen (33 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
Related: Rich Girls Give it Away.
posted by notyou at 7:17 AM on October 18 [1 favorite]


Wowzers. Rainer and his group have been popping up in news stories going all the way back to 2003: Forbes: Cult of Personality.
posted by notyou at 7:21 AM on October 18 [1 favorite]


How has this organisation managed to not be defined as a Cult and why does it seem like Legal Authorities (police, medical licensing bodies) are not taking allegations against the group seriously?
posted by Faintdreams at 7:23 AM on October 18 [5 favorites]


Oooookay. We have here a super-secret group that supposedly "gives women tools to be powerful, to regain their power for the sake of building love" --- a group created by a man who reportedly sleeps with a lot of female members, a group that requires 'slave' members to call certain other members 'master' and to repeatedly supply their 'masters' with "compromising collateral" and be branded.....

It's a cult. It looks like a cult, it acts like a cult, it controls people like a cult, it walks and talks and quacks like a cult.
posted by easily confused at 7:27 AM on October 18 [54 favorites]


It is an interesting article, but I just don’t get the appeal of what from the outside are so clearly cults.

The article describes the brand as under the hip, but the photo shows it as more front and center. It would be a tricky one to explain to a partner.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:27 AM on October 18


I suppose it's time to stop being surprised at the overlap between "cult" and "neoliberal capitalist cultural correctness."
posted by daisystomper at 7:28 AM on October 18 [17 favorites]


People want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. People want to be special. Secret societies are as old as society is. And people value groups more when they make sacrifices to be a part of them, fraternities and the military have recognized this for years.

People get into cults because they don't realize that's where they are at first. Look at the names: Landmark Forum, Executive Success Programs, even E-Myth's corporate training has been taken over by a weird culty group. You commit time and money, you make sacrifices, you think you're growing and learning. And by the time the weirdness becomes really apparent the sunk costs fallacy kicks in and it's a lot more difficult to quit. Apparently when Tom Cruise first found out about the Xenu stuff, he was absolutely livid that he'd been tricked into nonsense. But that's a really hard thing to admit to yourself. Eventually he came around. You can believe anything if you try hard enough.

I know a VERY successful entrepreneur who's just been snookered by Landmark and is forcing his entire company to go through the training. He's losing some of his top people, but he doesn't care.

And remember, these cults don't need to get everybody. They just need to get more people than they lose.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:46 AM on October 18 [47 favorites]


these cults don't need to get everybody. They just need to get more people than they lose.

Or get one or two "whales"--fantastically wealthy donors. The Bronfman sisters gave this creep $100 million.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:13 AM on October 18 [13 favorites]


I suppose it's time to stop being surprised at the overlap between "cult" and "neoliberal capitalist cultural correctness."

Modern management culture has deep roots in the 1960s/70s Human Potential movement and the cult-like thinking and jargon of est and its descendants. It has been producing actual cults, like Landmark Forum and Superstar Machine, for a while now.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:18 AM on October 18 [24 favorites]


Living in LA, I get a front row view of all sorts of cults and boy, is it insidious. My wife is a spiritual explorer and she almost got sucked into a fledging version of this same crap. Thankfully, growing up as a JW made her extra twitchy about cultish activity and she noped right out of the whole thing after a really bad experience on a retreat with the guru of the group and her boyfriend. Even after that she still felt the draw of the whole guru personality and conflicting opinions about why she felt like she was learning things even if she felt her guru was full of crap.

Stuff is powerful and terrible.
posted by drewbage1847 at 8:48 AM on October 18 [8 favorites]


It took eight paragraphs before the article got to the creepy man who runs the thing that enslaves and brands women. I thought at first maybe this was an all-woman creepy cult, surely that's possible. But nope, there's a man in charge.

The Wikipedia article has a bunch of other references to reporting. That 2003 Forbes article is the earliest and really the only reporting until 2009 when the Dalai Lama cancelled on them.
posted by Nelson at 8:48 AM on October 18 [5 favorites]


I....so, I know I'm a really judge-y person, but I just would hope most people would, after hearing, "Give us blackmail material so we can blackmail you. Here's the Dropbox link," say, "Um, rain check?"
posted by xingcat at 8:57 AM on October 18 [14 favorites]


“the agency said it would not look into Dr. Roberts because she was not acting as Ms. Edmondson’s doctor when the branding is said to have happened”

You know, I am not a major fan of the GMC’s heavy-handed approach to doctors who bring the profession into disrepute, but I can guarantee they would have had Something To Say about a UK doctor involved in a case like this.
posted by tinkletown at 9:09 AM on October 18 [4 favorites]


xingcat, I think these people had already had their value for personal autonomy subtly eroded by long exposure to the cult.
posted by Coventry at 9:10 AM on October 18 [4 favorites]


Speaking of cults, The Invitation was a really good movie.
posted by gottabefunky at 9:14 AM on October 18 [6 favorites]


These cults of personality all look quite similar and follow similar patterns of abuse. At least Scientology disguises its blackmail mechanism as a psychology test with a glorified arcade love tester. Is there a way for societies to better inoculate individuals against such blatant abusers?

It seems like a lot of major social problems are boiling down to "that guy is weirdly charismatic so I'll vote for him/give him all my money/watch all his YouTube videos/carry Tiki torches/be branded/kill" for him...
posted by Skwirl at 9:19 AM on October 18 [6 favorites]


drewbage1847 - My wife is a spiritual explorer and she almost got sucked into a fledging version of this same crap.

Out of curiosity, when you say "spiritual explorer", is that just a phrase to describe her personality, or is that a thing like "life coach", but for spiritual matters. (And/or a spooky girl scouts like group?)

Sorry, I'm totally not trying to be snarky, nor derail a serious thread, just genuinely curious because I live in a small New England town, pretty much the polar opposite of LA, so I wouldn't be surprised either way!
posted by Greasy Eyed Gristle Man at 9:27 AM on October 18 [1 favorite]


Here's another interesting angle, from 2007:

A couple of days ago, the Post broke the news that Roger Stone — a former state GOP functionary who resigned after allegedly threatening Eliot Spitzer’s family — was procuring money for Joe Bruno and pals from his other employer, a cultlike organization called NXIVM. [...] Stone, paid by NXIVM, had funneled at least $20,000 to the state GOP; the heirs to Seagram’s fortune are devotees; and, per the Post, Richard Mays — a Clinton friend and one of Hillary’s top fund-raisers — is an “Espian” as well, having taken so-called intensive classes with Raniere.

As we know from Scientology, cultivating influential supporters is a good way to keep the authorities away from your cult.
posted by Cash4Lead at 9:35 AM on October 18 [7 favorites]


Is there a way for societies to better inoculate individuals against such blatant abusers?

Less societal tolerance for domineering behavior from authority figures, particularly towards children.
posted by Coventry at 9:38 AM on October 18 [18 favorites]


the agency said it would not look into Dr. Roberts because she was not acting as Ms. Edmondson's doctor when the branding is said to have happened

Skip the lack of medical oversight sanctions: I don't understand why the police refused to charge Roberts with something like assault or grievious bodily harm.
posted by easily confused at 9:40 AM on October 18 [2 favorites]


I....so, I know I'm a really judge-y person, but I just would hope most people would, after hearing, "Give us blackmail material so we can blackmail you. Here's the Dropbox link," say, "Um, rain check?"

If you read the NYT comments, every 3rd one is a sentiment like this: "how could you be so stupid?" But I think I agree with one reader's comment that we should not be so surprised - female self-disempowerment is one of the tools of patriarchy, but also one of its fruits. A culture which instructs women in their worthlessness, weaknesses, and flaws from day one on through every day of life can expect to produce a certain number of women who do not develop the internal mechnisms it takes to reject false hypotheses about society, to believe in themselves above others, or to see their faults as merely human instead of special to them and their gender. This is especially true for women who grew up with families who did not or could not provide those tools.

We can't look at this phenomenon as something separate from what happens to "normal" women - we can just try to identify what makes "normal" women resilient in the face of these come-ons, and how they've developed defenses and critical thinking skills and self-value to reject the initial forays these groups make. THey all begin with innocuous feelers that seem to be what you need to self-develop and feel good and enjoy good outcomes - they only get serious once someone starts replacing their own internal seat of judgment with the external one that seems to be producing a lot of good in your life.

This of course isn't exclusive to women (see Landmark, Jonestown, the man in this piece, etc) but it is particularly perncious because it operates in and with patriarchy and exploits the very vulnerabilities that patriarchy creates in women.
posted by Miko at 9:42 AM on October 18 [26 favorites]


I don't understand why the police refused to charge Roberts with something like assault or grievious bodily harm.

Because it was consensual, the article says. I do see the issue: If people who do engage consensually in body mods or power games were charged just for pursuing those activities, that seems like it would be an unacceptable extension of this approach from many points of view.

The social web of mind control is a problem for legal structures, and a reason why it's really hard to break cults. People have a right to believe what they want, even if it's stupid, and even if they change their minds later. it seems like the most likely violations of law come under the categories of blackmail and financial fraud. Just branding someone who's apparently agreeing to be branded is hard to prosecute.
posted by Miko at 9:45 AM on October 18 [7 favorites]


I don't understand why the police refused to charge Roberts with something like assault or grievious bodily harm.

Consent. It's not necessarily clear just how extensive a harm to yourself you can consent to (cops are not bringing cases against black fraternities at HBCUs that brand their members, at least not if the members agree to it, but probably the law would draw the line at killing), but it sure does mean that you're going to be a lower priority for law enforcement.
posted by praemunire at 9:47 AM on October 18 [1 favorite]


I think I've read some articles about police charging BDSM practitioners for assault despite consent, but they were a long time ago, and the charges were controversial at the time.
posted by Coventry at 9:49 AM on October 18


Some references on cults, law, and consent for those looking to wonk it up.
posted by Miko at 9:53 AM on October 18 [2 favorites]


you say "spiritual explorer", is that just a phrase to describe her personality, or is that a thing like "life coach", but for spiritual matters. (And/or a spooky girl scouts like group?)

The cookies are...well, just stick with the girl scouts. Trust me.
posted by Naberius at 10:21 AM on October 18 [3 favorites]


"had sex with them and urged women to follow near-starvation diets to achieve the type of physique he found appealing"

I can see why the branding is the headline, but this is more disgusting to me.

It is worthwhile to quietly warn your friends about these things.

I do wonder what to do in the case of friends who are already involved. I have found that a jokey "I'm allergic to cults" is generally enough to get them to stop asking me to join.

Does anyone have some good links to anti-cult organizations?
posted by poe at 10:53 AM on October 18 [5 favorites]


Every now and then I really think we shouldn't allow people to spend their own money. If rich people have so much money that they can just throw it away on cults, politics, yachts and solid gold toilets, then they have too much money and they need to give it away to needy people for survival. If regular folks spend too much of their money on cults, pyramid schemes, time-shares, then they need to be saved from themselves because pretty soon they are a burden to society and will need welfare, social services, etc.. We all foot that bill. It's not fair for hucksterism (and wow could that be a broadly cast net?!) to tax the frayed social safety net protected by our values of the "free market."
posted by amanda at 11:29 AM on October 18 [6 favorites]


Is there a way for societies to better inoculate individuals against such blatant abusers?

Yes, but then we would inoculate children against the mental control that begins in the classroom, inoculatw everyday people against the the psychological manipulation that keeps them complacently working terrible jobs with abusive managers for lousy pay, inoculate people from being drawn into their family religion, inoculate suggestable young minds against the indoctrination that forms the backbone of the military, and inoculation against being led to believe that we're "participating in democracy" when we vote for the lesser of two evils, like a person in am abusive relationship afraid that things will be even worse if they leave.

Our entire civilization is built on this kind of social control, it's just a lot more recognizable when viewed from a distance like this creepy cult.

Step one would be teaching critical thinking as a core subject in all schools beginning at a very young age.

The third section of the book "Disciplined Minds" by Jeff Schmidt is full of excellent tools for resisting indoctrination into manipulative groups. It's specifically written for people trying to stay sane and healthy while they navigate graduate school, but it draws heavily from techniques used by prisoners of war, and the "de programming" of former Scientologists.
posted by ethical_caligula at 12:32 PM on October 18 [13 favorites]


I suppose it's time to stop being surprised at the overlap between "cult" and "neoliberal capitalist cultural correctness."

If there's an overlap between cults and capitalism, it's probably because of the fine line between honest exchange and grift. That said, cults are characteristically defined by abusive power-relations, not politics, and there's nothing that predisposes them to be characterized by one ideological approach over another. Jim Jones and the SLA identified as left-wing; as ryanshepard notes, managerial scams like Landmark and Superstar and Amway and other multi-level-marketers are sales-friendly. They in turn were influenced by/constructed out of quasi-cultish behavorial schemes whose creators would've been unlikely to have described themselves as "neoliberal."

Our entire civilization is built on this kind of social control ...

Yeah, I think it's possible to identify cult behavior with other techniques of social control and persuasion so closely as to make either everything or nothing into a cult. In fact, such a sweeping claim as "our entire civilization is built on abusive indoctrination" is just the kind of either/or assertion a cult might present, followed inevitably by "but we can free you."

Rick Ross—not that Rick Ross, this one—provides a more concrete list of warning signs that may indicate an unsafe group or leader as well as behavioral signs that suggest a group is less likely to be abusive. Both Landmark and Nxivm have tried unsuccessfully to sue Ross. In NXIVM Corp. v. Ross Institute, the court held that Ross' use of documents acquired in violation of NDAs, was still legal under the doctrine of fair use.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:43 PM on October 18 [3 favorites]


Tony Ortega's The Underground Bunker is also a good read on Scientology.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:47 PM on October 18 [1 favorite]


> Is there a way for societies to better inoculate individuals against such blatant abusers?

While I take ethical_caligula's point that social control is prevalent, there are degrees, and I remember my own susceptibility to a Catholic youth group as a pubescent kid.
I was raised a Catholic, so knew that very soon after the hip, youthful priest was done we'd be back to disciplined faith and conservative talks about saving oneself till marriage, so i was somewhat inoculated through past exposure. I do remember thinking how warm and inviting the idea of just submitting to god's love was, and how all I needed to do was go along with what they were saying, and stop thinking so much.

My kids have been raised without any religion, and I worry they are blank for imprinting from the first cultist that comes along. Cult psychology is obviously very powerful, and I worry from seeing otherwise sensible people consumed, just what it takes to be able to avoid the blandishments.
posted by bystander at 4:21 AM on October 20


As someone raised without religion (my parents are atheists), I don't think you have anything to worry about. My cult radar is stronger than most people I know, not weaker.
posted by soren_lorensen at 5:16 AM on October 20 [1 favorite]


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