Camila became a sex slave as a young girl not long after she moved with her family from Mexico to New York. But it wasn’t until years later, when she was 25, that she realized she wasn’t the only one.
The revelation came from Keith Raniere, the leader of self-help company Nxivm (pronounced “Nexium”) based in Albany, NY. Camila — her last name is protected by court order — first became involved in the organization at 13, when her parents signed her up for Nxivm’s life-coaching program. Her first conversation with Raniere was about her eighth-grade spelling bee.
A few years later, she moved with her older sisters, Daniela and Marianna, from Mexico to Albany. Without her parents’ knowledge — they were devoted members and occasional coaches for Nxivm, and trusted Raniere implicitly — Raniere set up Camila in “a Clifton Park apartment outfitted with dark velvet curtains blocking out any view inside,” writes investigative journalist Sarah Berman in her new book, “Don’t Call It a Cult: The Shocking Story of Keith Raniere and the Women of Nxivm” (Steerforth), out Tuesday.
In text messages to Camila, Raniere called it “our home” and he visited her often, without other adult supervision. “Even Camila’s close friends and family didn’t know where she lived,” Berman writes.
According to Camila’s court testimony, Raniere took naked photos of her and raped her in September 2005, when she was just 15. But it took another decade before she learned the full scope of Raniere’s sinister plans.
In a series of text messages on October 9, 2015, Raniere told her about a secret Nxivm subgroup he was building, a women’s empowerment sorority called DOS, or Dominus Obsequious Sororium — a fake Latin phrase roughly translating to “master over the slave women.” He described it as “a badass bitch boot camp,” writes Berman. “Some women even talked about it as if it were an elite talent agency … like the Freemasons but for women wanting to build character and change the world.”
The truth, however, was that it was a twisted sex cult, with “first-line” masters and sex slaves, all serving the needs of Raniere, known to his acolytes as Vanguard or Grandmaster. “Both the masters and the slaves were all women,” writes Berman. “Everything about their lives, from what they ate or wore to when they cut their hair, Raniere controlled.”
Every slave would “be branded with my monogram plus a number,” Raniere texted to Camila. “Your number is reserved. It is number 1. It is now a secret growing organization.”
Camila was not happy with Raniere’s plans to brand her.
“Branded like cattle?” she asked. “You want to burn me?”
“You don’t want to burn for me?” Raniere, now 60, responded.
The branding ceremony was a terrifying event. Sarah Edmondson, 43, an aspiring actress from Canada and one of the first former members to go public about Nxivm, told the author about being inducted into DOS with four other women, who took turns holding each other down, naked, while a doctor used a cauterizing pen to carve Raniere’s initials and a cryptic symbol near their pelvises — with no anesthetic.
“We were crying, we were shaking, we were holding each other,” she told Berman. “It was horrific. It was like a bad horror movie. We even had these surgical masks on because the smell of [burning] flesh was so strong.”
Sex slaves and branding weren’t on the agenda when Nxivm was founded in 1998. In the beginning, it was billed as a self-help program for “dreamers with deep pockets,” writes Berman.
With over 16,000 members in the United States, Canada and Mexico — including high-profile names like Nicki Clyne (an actress from the TV series “Battlestar Galactica”) and Seagram’s heiress Clare Bronfman — they were attracted by Raniere’s message of personal responsibility for one’s own emotions.
Raniere, raised an only child in Suffern, NY, grew up with fawning parents and “a near-constant need for validation.” He graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a 2.26 GPA and worked for Amway before founding several marketing companies in the ’90s that failed, like Consumer Buyline Inc (which sold discounted household products) and National Health Network (a multilevel seller of vitamins). In late 1997, he met nurse and hypnotherapist Nancy Salzman, who was intrigued by his self-help methodologies, which Raniere claimed to have learned at 14. They joined forces to create Nxivm.
“Students explored how they created their own suffering, and how they could use any perceived harm done to them as a teaching moment instead,” writes Berman.
Nxivm — the name is allegedly a reference to the Roman concept of debt bondage — was designed for millionaires or aspiring millionaires, and was soon offering its boutique executive coaching in cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, Toronto, London and Vancouver. Federal prosecutors have estimated that Nxivm launched well over a hundred offshoot companies, everything from yoga schools to science foundations to day cares, that were all part of a pyramid-like hierarchy and held together with a “feverish belief that, with the right mindset and plan, anything was possible,” Berman writes.
Although women were in the majority at Nxivm, men joined as well, signing up for a program called Society of Protectors “aimed at uncovering and harnessing innate ‘female’ and ‘male’ ways of being,” writes Berman. A “male” way of being involved toughening up fellow members with bullying, name-calling, body shaming and other abuse.
As Edmondson explained to the author, new students would be recruited mostly in social situations, often friends of friends. Nxivm called it “building rapport,” a technique that members practiced and studied at length. From the outside, nothing seemed scary and cult-like about the company. At worst, it came across as corny.
“It was like a smiley, slightly kooky summer camp for adults,” Berman writes. “Everything about this group seemed as wholesome as a Thanksgiving dinner.” Women joined because “they wanted to help people and do something important with their lives,” she writes.
It also helped that Raniere, like all successful cult leaders, was charismatic and charming.
“The way true believers talked about him, it was as if he had magical powers,” Berman writes. “They commended his contributions to science, his commitment to the harnessing of human potential.”
But potential wasn’t the only thing he wanted to harness.
Nicole, an actress recruited into Nxivm in 2013 whose last name is protected by court order, was initially enthusiastic about the group, especially when she was encouraged to join by Allison Mack, an acting friend with roles on TV shows like “Smallville” and “Wilfred.” But what at first seemed like an opportunity to grow and network soon turned dark, when she was asked for “collateral” to ensure her vow of secrecy.
“Mack told Nicole she’d need to write a letter that would hurt her family if it was ever made public,” Berman writes. “Mack herself had written a letter claiming her father had molested her as a child, and she suggested Nicole do the same.”
Nicole wrote the letter and then “made a solo sex tape that Mack promised to keep in an underground vault where no one could look at it,” Berman writes. All slaves were required to make similar tapes of themselves in sexually explicit situations.
Collateral wasn’t the only price of admission to DOS. Nicole was instructed to text “Good morning, Master” to Raniere when she woke up, and “Good night, Master” before she went to bed.
The “slave” label didn’t sit well with everyone. When Edmondson recoiled at the terminology, her friend and fellow Nxivm member Lauren Salzman assured her that “master” and “slave” was just another way of saying “guru” and “disciple,” or “coach” and “athlete.”
But the ugly reality soon proved otherwise. In April of 2016, Nicole had her first encounter with Raniere, who took her to a house and instructed her to undress. Then he laid her on a table, blindfolded her and tied down her wrists and feet. He began asking her questions about her sex life as “an unknown person performed oral sex on her,” Berman writes.
“I’m trying to process what’s going on,” Nicole recalled. “There is somebody else in the room. OK, so now there’s two people in the room. Are there three people in the room? Like, how many people are in this room right now?”
The hierarchy included dozens of masters and sex slaves, all women, who ultimately served the sexual desires of Raniere. As he often reminded his army of masters and slaves in text messages, he could command sex from any of them at any time, but that wasn’t the “purpose” of DOS. The purpose was total devotion to him. And failing to offer themselves completely to him could have consequences.
Raniere once wrote to Camila, suggesting that it would be good for her “to own a f–k toy slave for me, that you could groom, and use as a tool to pleasure me.” Camila declined, telling him that she wasn’t “turned on by owning.”
Later, when Camila started dating a Nxivm member closer to her age, Raniere punished her with a “program” for women he deemed guilty of betrayal, which involved self-flagellation and calorie restriction.
Raniere expected his slaves to be as underweight as possible — for Camila, she was pressured to be 100 pounds or less, and she reported her weight to him every day. “You need to eat less,” Raniere once texted her. “The extra weight hurts my heart physically when I am with you.”
Many members went to extreme lengths to meet Raniere’s weight demands. Mack preferred a diet of squash, a low-calorie vegetable dressed up as pasta. “She ate so much of it,” Berman writes, “that her palms once turned orange.”
Raniere wanted to control every aspect of his slaves, from their pubic hair — as Nxivm member Lauren Salzman testified, “His preference was that it be natural … not groomed” — to their willingness to be punished for even the most minor offenses. Salzman revealed that Raniere had been acquiring equipment for a BDSM dungeon and “increasingly women were being paddled for their shortcomings,” Berman writes.
Salzman claimed the humiliating punishment, which was usually filmed, included a “steel puppy cage” that Raniere said “was for the people who were the most committed to growth.” Though she wanted to challenge herself, she worried that Raniere was choosing assignments “for maximum cruelty and degradation.”
A New York Times expose in late 2017 sparked a federal investigation, and Raniere fled to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, when FBI agents began interviewing Nxivm associates. He was arrested on March 26, 2018, after several members finally agreed to testify against him.
Among them was Camila, who initially refused to speak with prosecutors on the advice of lawyers working for Raniere. She was convinced to come forward by her sister, Daniela, although her father, Hector, and oldest sister, Marianna, remain staunch supporters of Raniere. (Hector wrote a letter to the court, describing Raniere as “honest, whole, brilliant intelligence, always ready to help, cheerful and in love with humanity.”)
“[Raniere] hid his abuse behind ideas and concepts of nobility, but there is nothing noble about abusing a child,” Camila, now in her 30s, told the court. “I never got to live like a normal teenager. I never went on a date until I was 29. I missed so much of my own life, I find it difficult to even conceptualize what I have missed.”
Last October, Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison on charges of federal sex trafficking, racketeering and possession of child pornography. Though many of his most fervent supporters have never wavered in their loyalty — Bronfman set up a $14.3 million trust to pay for the defendants’ legal fees — most have finally realized how much they’ve been victimized.
“It has taken me three years and a substantial amount of space from your manipulation to realize that the shame that has been weighing so heavily on my shoulders is not mine to carry,” Nicole said during her court testimony, delivering her speech directly to Raniere. “It’s yours.”