The Hollywood Appeal of NXIVM's "Sex Cult"

Keith Raniere's pseudo-philosophy ranged from hedonism and nihilism to neurotic obsessions with weight, body hair, and training people out of empathy.

In 2006, when Allison Mack was a lead actress on CW's Smallville, she accepted an invitation from co-star Kristin Kreuk to attend a meeting for a "women's empowerment" group called NXIVM (pronounced nex-ee-um).

Over the following decade, the Albany-based organization became known as a cult that practiced sex slavery and branding under the guise of mentoring young women. Earlier this week, Mack pleaded guilty to charges of federal racketeering and sex trafficking for her senior role within the organization, which included recruiting women for "labor and services" under orders from Keith Raniere, NXIVM's leader and co-founder.

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The history of Hollywood is rife with cults, as open-minded, young actors who are eager for community and attention are often the preferred targets of charismatic cult leaders who twist a desire to belong into a form of idolatry. NXIVM's claims to be a self-improvement organization for women began with Nancy Saltzman and Keith Raniere, who founded NXIVM as a private company in 1998. While it's been called a business-oriented pyramid scheme, its premise is similar to L. Ron. Hubbard's Scientology, in that Raniere treated his personal (and usually aberrant) worldviews as revelatory philosophies.

Over time, NXIVM drew the attention of actresses Grace Park, Linda Evans, Nicki Clyne, and Kristin Kreuk, with Goldie Hawn even signing on to appear at an annual Vanguard Weekend event before the press began to expose the organization's criminal activities. Jodi Wille, a documentarian focusing on subcultures, observes, "I find that the vast majority of people who join these groups are extremely intelligent, open-minded, kind, loving people." Wille adds that many "are lost or damaged, and so if you get a predator in the mix, whether it's Harvey Weinstein or the leader of NXIVM, they're going to go for it. They offer other forms of support that you can't get from your agent or your manager."

Like many cult leaders, Raniere developed his own language. As the leader of the organization, Raniere was renamed the "Vanguard"; his inner circle, which quickly came to include Mack after her first meeting, included an elite society called "DOS." Raniere, Saltzman, and Mack were arrested in 2018 after several ex-NXIVM members exposed them for recruiting "slaves" for DOS "masters." Under the guise of personal development seminars, NXIVM encouraged new, young members to confess their most personal and incriminating secrets, from sharing family secrets to turning over nude photographs. According to allegations of former members, the inner circle blackmailed "slaves" to remain under Raniere's control. Additional allegations range from forced labor to branding women with Raniere's initials.

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The 58-year-old's pseudo-philosophy ranged from hedonism and nihilism to neurotic obsessions with weight, body hair, and training people out of empathy. One former NXIVM member summarized what Raniere taught as The Fall, in which "it felt really good to do bad things," while doing good things "felt really bad." Raniere called his style of teachings "Rational Inquiry," through which female followers were encouraged to reject the societal norms of monogamy and most staples of gender equality.

Effectively, Mack recruited women for Raniere's harem of followers (the DOS), who were held to the cult leader's bizarre, rigid standards, including: a restrictive diet of 900 calories to maintain dangerously thin figures (their weight was recorded daily); unshaven pubic hair (women were forbidden from shaving or waxing); and forced sex with Raniere. A former DOS "slave" described Raniere's psychological manipulation as the work of social isolation and his insistence that the women were all connected through his sperm: "If one woman is having an issue, it hurts Keith, and if he's hurting, you're hurting...So if you do something he doesn't like, you get an army of women, sister wives, coming after you. You get ostracized. No one wants to socialize with you unless you get back in line."

After Mack's 2018 arrest and release on $5 million bail, the actress corroborated the blackmail of members with "personally damaging or ruinous" secrets. In a statement before the Federal District Court in Brooklyn, the 36-year-old said, "I must take full responsibility for my conduct." In total, Mack pleaded guilty to racketeering, forced labor conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy, and multiple sex trafficking charges.

"I was lost," she told the court. After "self-examination," she expressed remorse for her actions. Each count against her carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

Meg Hanson is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher, and jaywalker. Find Meg at her website and on Twitter @megsoyung.

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