A story came out in the news this week that I’m sure most of us were unable to ignore- the recent arrest of Smallville actress Allison Mack on charges of blackmail, sex trafficking, forced labor and her involvement in what is being referred to as a cult named “NXIVM”.
Thirty-five year old Allison Mack is mostly known for her role as a character named Chloe Sullivan on the show “Smallville” which ran from 2001 – 2010 and revolved around the early days in the life of Clark Kent, more popularly known as his superhero identity “superman”. Mack played the role of Kent’s childhood friend before going on to act in a couple of guest roles in other shows such as “Wilfred” and “The following”.
Check out her social media profiles and you’ll find the same list of adjectives Mack uses to describe herself: “story-teller, question-asker, music-lover, theatre-goer, movie-obsessor, shakespeare-studier, globe-trotter, food-inhaler”.
Her instagram profile is peppered with seemingly spiritual and feminist quotes and if you were to know Allison Mack only through her social media presence and TV roles, you might believe she was warm, open minded, empathetic, ethical, maybe even trustworthy, which is why the recent news reports describing her as a recruiter for a cult that abused women both sexually, physically and mentally has shocked the nation.
So what exactly is NXIVM and what role did Mack allegedly play in this recent scandal?
NXIVM is advertised as a self-help organization however is more accurately described in various online articles as a multi-level marketing company. Multi-level marketing companies typically rely on the use of free-labor from workers who peddle their products or services in order to make a profit- think “Amway”, “Telecom Plus” or “Herbalife”.
NXIVM (pronounced "Nex-ium") was formed in 1998 by a self-proclaimed humanitarian named Keith Raniere and is based in New York. Google Raniere and you’ll find the official NXIVM website (here); the header is a soothing image of a pastoral landscape bathed in sunset hues of pink and purple and the words “NXIVM working to build a better world” in a plain white font.
Scroll down and there is a “statement” in both Spanish and English that wasn’t there last month. The statement of course addresses the recent charges against members of the cult and assures the reader that leader Raniere’s “true” character and innocence will be once again revealed.
NXIVM advertises itself as a company that celebrates humanity and aims for a peaceful and morally just world- a stark contrast to the crimes they have been recently accused of in the media. Just like the inspirational instagram posts you can find on Allison Mack’s feed, there is a quote from Helen Keller underlining the group’s statement: “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” it reads.
So how exactly has NXIVM been promoting their philosophy of peace, human empowerment and the journey towards a sustainable future? Apparently through their many companies and programs that according to Keith Raniere serve to open the minds of others and open up the conversation of what it really is to be human. He believes that the discussions generated by such a question helps people to explore and expand their concept of existence, which will in turn “empower” people. By 2010, 10,000 people from around the globe were official members of NXIVM.
On the face of things, the NXIVM philosophy sounds like a movement anyone could get behind- what’s not to like about the concept of world peace, human freedom, non-violence, personal development and the encouragement of human expression through art and entertainment? Actress Sarah Edmondson certainly found the groups philosophy appealing and signed up for a five day program after a conversation with a filmmaker she admired the work of. He himself had taken a two week course and couldn’t help but gush about the leader.
Curiosity got the better of Edmondson only two days into the course and she performed an online search of the NXIVM group and its founder Raniere. The search turned up a number of hits that accused the group of being a cult. Against her better judgment she listened to her filmmaker friend, who assured her the negative content published online was nothing but gossip and slander, this was a decision that would see Sarah Edmondson lose an entire decade of her life to the cult.
Edmondson has since done many interviews about her time spent in NXIVM. In an interview with VICE she describes how there were special titles assigned to members depending on their degree of importance to the group. For example Keith Raniere was not addressed by his name but as “Vanguard” and there was well attended, week-long festivals each year in celebration of him called "V-week".
The group had their own secret handshake, their own vocabulary and group chants that would be recited daily by members who huddled together with their arms locked around each other. Existing members would love bomb potential new members and subtly encourage them not to spend time with people outside of the group as they did not reflect the same philosophy and therefore weren’t worth the time. Members also wore different colored sashes across their bodies that signified their position in the group.
Potential members were encouraged to share what they believed to be the negative aspects of themselves quite early in the course and were then taught that they needed to conquer and overcome them if they ever wanted to be happy. Such a statement can have a lasting impact on emotionally vulnerable people or people who are spiritually searching for their place in the world, which is most likely what made most members stay with NXIVM. After all, if you could attain complete happiness and guaranteed success in life just by fixing a small part of yourself that you have been told is broken, wouldn’t you do so? Especially if the courses were extrmemely overpriced. Edmondson initially spent over $2,000 for a program that lasted several days.
The thing about people seeking personal development and the desire to evolve is that they don’t want to stop evolving. NXIVM provided its members with the ability to philosophically move up the ranks by completing the various layers of the pyramid. After the basic training foundation they’d move up a layer to “human pain” which seemed to be a sort of modern version of medieval self-flagellation in the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. Members would be punished in different ways for infractions, although it seems that there were specific punishments for women that involved extreme dieting and food restriction.
To the average person, what we’ve learned so far about NXIVM is bad enough, but the group had an even deeper, darker level that swallowed up many of it's female members.To join the secret group members had to provide something that they could be blackmailed with if they were to ever publicly reveal clandestine goings-on. Generally new members would have to take nude photographs and close-ups of their genitals, which would then be handed over to leaders for safe keeping in the event that a member wanted to leave and tell all.
This special, secret sorority was women-only and potential members were informed that it was completely separate from the mainstream NXIVM group.
Sarah Edmondson was once again betrayed by a friend she trusted, this time by a woman she believed was her best friend. This friend actively recruited Edmondson to the secret women’s-only club stating that they aimed to change the world for the better. She also lied about Keith Raniere’s lack of involvement and shockingly convinced her to sign a contract of obedience wherein she stated that Sarah Edmondson was her slave, and she, the master. This was a necessity for anyone who intended to join and new members were informed that each “master” would have six “slaves” under them and eventually they would work their way up to becoming a master themselves with “slaves” of their own. Slaves would be forced to have sex with Keith Raniere as well as being forced to do chores throughout the day.
Raniere would give the women long talks about how weak and insignificant they were. According to Ms. Edmondson he told them that he believed women lacked character and personality and that they were constantly looking for shortcuts and easy exits to situations. He believed that it was his job to toughen them up and send them out into the world to challenge the misogynistic views that he said all men held against them. Not only did Keith Raniere have the women brainwashed following session after session of his so-called “Gender classes”, but he also had them physically brand each other against their will in the presence of a Dr. Danielle Roberts. Roberts was later reported, however she was not punished for her involvement as the ordeal was described as “unfounded” by her lawyer.
Keith Raniere also denied any knowledge of the events. The women were originally told that the brand would be actually be tattoo of some kind of Latin symbol and were horrified when they realized the symbol would be burned into their flesh using a cauterization tool.
Later when her brand began to heal Edmondson realized that (when rotated) the image actually turned out to be the letters "K" and "R" and if viewed upright she could make out the letters "A" and "M", which she believed referred to actress Allison Mack and Keith Raniere.
Edmondson told ABC news that she and several other women were blindfolded, stripped and lead into a room where they were made to sit on the floor.
Wearing face masks to lessen the sickening stench of burning skin, the group of women then took turns pinning each other to a bed, naked, and seared Keith Raniere’s initials near their genitals without any form of pain relief.
ABC’s 20/20 mentions an ex-member named Kristin Marie Snyder who committed suicide after attending an NXIVM course. She is considered missing and her body has not been found to this day.
A former girlfriend of Raniere told ABC Nightline that when their relationship finally began to fizzle out and she was no longer romantically interested in him, that he would rape her whenever he wanted to. This was before Raniere founded NXIVM and had just been busted for his first illegal pyramid company “consumers buyline”.
So now that we know a little more about the group and its leader, let’s find out more about Allison Mack’s role and the charges against her. Mack is apparently Raniere’s right-hand man, which gives weight to the speculation that the brand is a combination of both their initials. She is said to have exploited her status as a Hollywood actor to lure people into a secret cult within the NXIVM apparently named “Dominus Obsequious Sororium” or DOS for short, which is Latin for “Obsequious sisters” or “Obedient women” referring to the women’s positions as slaves. Allison Mack is thought to have recruited at least 25 of the women and was staying at a luxury villa in Mexico with Raniere and several slaves when the cult leader was arrested earlier this month for sex trafficking and the abuse of women and girls.
Earlier this week Mack was arrested on suspicion of sex trafficking and pleaded not guilty in court. Drawings from the trial depict what looks like a tried and malnourished Mack with bags beneath her eyes.
Some media reports are entertaining the idea that she has been brainwashed or is suffering from mental illness while others describe her as a monster for forcing women into sexual situations with their leader. This article in the Guardian reveals that Allison Mack put her hands on the women’s chests as they were writhing in pain from being forcibly branded and told them to “think of their master”. The same article states that the women were denied sexual relationships with anyone other than Raniere and were forced to restrict calories to appear attractive to their sadistic leader. Mack allegedly personally took naked pictures of some of the women so that Raniere could use them later as a form of blackmail if he so needed. It is not known where the numerous photographs and videos of the DOS members currently are.
Mack has been replaced as a leader by 38 year old Claire Bronfman who has relocated the group to Boston.
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