Why NXIVM is More than Just an Unbelievable Story

The trial of NXIVM guru/founder, Keith Raniere, began this month. He is accused of numerous charges including racketeering, extortion, possession of child pornography, and having sex with a minor. The NXIVM ordeal has attracted a great deal of attention of the last two years due to the involvment of celebrity and wealthy members such as “Smallville” actress, Allison Mack, the daughter of actress Catherine Oxenberg, and the heiresses to the Seagram’s fortune. It has also been a salacious news story because of details like the use of sex slaves and women being branded with Raniere’s initials. This Business Insider article presents a comprehensive timeline of NXIVM’s unravelling.

With all of these details now out in the open, at this point the organization is basically being called a sex cult.

But the story has significance beyond the shock value.

NXIVM claims to have “helped” upwards of 17,000 people. Many of these people took personal development courses with the organization and never had any involvement with the inner circle group where the sexual exploitation and branding happened.

And think about those victims. They obviously didn’t knowingly join a sex cult. They thought they were getting themselves into something much different.

What was NXIVM supposed to be?

On its surface, NXIVM looked like so many other self-improvement/self-help organizations. Originally called “Executive Success Programs,” it was all about helping people push past their limitations and realize their fullest potential. The organization offered seminars and lecture series. There are a lot of familiar self-help themes, such as notions of personal discipline, facing one’s fears, and finding happiness, as well as techniques like neurolinguistic programming (NLP). Many former members felt the teachings were highly effective self-improvement tools.

This NY Times article presents an interesting picture of this complex group–not just the exciting details. From it, you can see what the hopes and intentions of a person newly joining the group would look like. It also shows how the progression from those beginnings through more intense “teachings” set people up for exploitation. The women at the top of the organization, who themselves became recruiters for the group, were both victims and victimizers.

The article also points to a wider societal issue:

Much of today’s upper class is engaged in a frenzy of self-improvement. They want to be skinnier, healthier, younger-looking, smarter, nicer, more loving… But were they truly improving? They may eat more vegetables, but this age seems more narcissistic than any before, more beholden to snake oil, and has put many individuals in the grip of an uneasy self-image toggling between unrealistic grandiosity and soul-crushing envy. Nxivm positioned itself as the true self-improvement gospel.

This is where SEEK’s interest in this case really is. In our current times of uncertainty and the focus on living our #bestlives, we are possibly more vulnerable than ever to groups like NXIVM. We are so eager, so desperate, for this sort of self-improvement, and there are many people and groups more than willing to sell it to us. Many of these solutions are completely harmless, some maybe even helpful. But among all of this, there is the chance for great harm and exploitation.

When we hear about a group like NXIVM, it’s easy to dismiss it as something that would never happen to us. But nobody ever thinks they are joining a cult. There is always something seemingly legitimate and benign on the surface that attracts them to the group.

When I read the story of NXIVM, I see so many red flags: the secrecy of the group, seminars and sessions that last for unreasonable amounts of time, grandiose promises, the obsession with its founder. But I wouldn’t have necessarily recognized these as warning signs before learning what I have about the self-help industry and how the scammers within it operate.

I do think it’s possible that with just a bit of critical thinking, we can pursue self-improvement and avoid the dangerous, exploitative groups and gurus. Recognize your vulnerabilities. Educate yourself. Consult our Red Flags for questions to ask about events, books, and online self-improvement resources.

SEEK Safely "Red Flags"

What are your thoughts on the NXIVM story? Share in the comments or on our Facebook discussion group–we’ve been chatting about it there!

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