Nxivm key players split
Understanding the NXIVM case (2019)
02:56 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: R. D. Rosen is the author of “Psychobabble: Fast Talk and Quick Cure in the Era of Feeling.” His most recent book is “Tough Luck: Sid Luckman, Murder Inc., and the Rise of the Modern NFL.” The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

On October 27, I sat in US District Court in Brooklyn as Judge Nicholas Garaufis sentenced Nxivm cult founder Keith Raniere, 60, to 120 years in federal prison. It had been 16 months since a jury convicted him on seven counts that included racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy, forced labor conspiracy and sex trafficking.

R. D. Rosen

So much for the guy who was known to his followers as “The Smartest Man in the World.”

Just before sentencing, Raniere’s lead lawyer, Marc Agnifilo, was reprimanded by the court for his desperate, garbled plea for leniency and then Raniere rose to address the judge. His prison scrubs were only slightly less stylish than the drab clothing many Americans have recently viewed him wearing in HBO’s nine-part documentary series about the cult, “The Vow.”

For a man who insisted on being addressed as Vanguard and commanded the psychological and sexual obedience of numerous accomplished women and fealty of men (many of them quite successful), Raniere is one of the least prepossessing cult leaders in history. He is a short, doughy dweeb in owlish glasses and schlumpy clothes who wore a headband and nerdy knee pads to play in Nxivm’s nightly volleyball games in Clinton Park, New York, the cult’s headquarters.

Remarkably, in an era when many shameless male sexual predators have finally been unmasked and prosecuted, the ostensibly charmless Raniere was able to break fresh ground by having his harem held down and literally branded with his initials. However banal his self-presentation, his actual behavior puts him right up there in the pantheon of human evil.

A courtroom sketch of Keith Raniere during his trial.

Although better groomed and educated than cult leaders of recent vintage who were responsible for the deaths of dozens of innocent people – David Koresh of the Branch Davidians, Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate or Charlie Manson of the Manson Family – Raniere, in his own way, is no less dangerous. He didn’t kill people, although a 2019 documentary included a recording of him claiming to have had people killed (he’s since denied it).

Rather, Nxivm destroyed people’s lives instead, with the help of tens of millions of dollars of cult members Clare and Sara Bronfman’s trust funds.(The former was recently sentenced to nearly seven years in prison.) Raniere and his other henchwomen – Nancy Salzman and her daughter Lauren, and former TV star Alison Mack (all of whom await sentencing after pleading guilty to various charges) – have left their traumatized victims to suffer indefinitely as they try to come to terms with the consequences of their gullibility and submission.

In 1975, I coined a word, psychobabble, to describe the use of ultimately meaningless slang and jargon to hook people on self-improvement schemes that, at their worst, drove some (as Nxivm has) to breakdowns and suicide. It didn’t take long for “psychobabble” to end up in the dictionary, for there was no other word for a linguistic phenomenon, and underlying assumptions, that – in the 1970s of est, Primal Therapy, and Rebirthing – were taking advantage of socially and economically privileged seekers looking for a safe existential harbor. Despite his much-heralded high IQ, Raniere isn’t the smartest man in any room; but he is a past-master at the art of psychobabbling.

Unfortunately, there are often fine lines between effective therapies, quick but poisonous “cures,” and cults. The most abusive therapists and practices can be temporarily liberating for many; Nxivm’s programs surely work for some of the people some of the time. Raniere, however, hardly needed to calibrate his assaults on his disciples’ psyches; there was no punishment some of them would not accept.

At the sentencing, 15 former Nxivm members delivered heartbreaking and frequently tearful impact statements that detailed Raniere’s sexual predation and abuse; psychological manipulation; financial fraud and theft; and relentless legal harassment of members after they managed, with justifiable fear and difficulty, to leave the cult.

None of them could have been surprised when Raniere rose in court not just to say that he hadn’t committed any crimes, but that some of the victims were lying. In a parody of the empathy he has surely never felt, he said he was remorseful, said his fate is “all my doing” and uttered a line to his victims I found chilling: “Even if you’re lying, I’m sorry.”

The world will never run out of sociopaths. They are humanity’s sickest joke. They are all around us, and the truth about the brightest ones is frightening. It’s as if they wear special infrared glasses that detect other people’s vulnerabilities and insecurities. Then, armed, as in Raniere’s case, with a gift for gab, a corrupt intellect, and a benign, caring demeanor, they kill their prey slowly, using a lethal mix of shaming, flattery, and blackmail. Their victims are often half-dead before feeling the slightest discomfort.

“You’re a monster who’s demonstrated his mission was to destroy as many people as possible,” said Sarah Edmonson, who with along with film director Mark Vicente and others pushed heroically to get Raniere indicted. “You’re a liar, a parasite, a grifter…The definition of evil is you.”

‘You’re a lascivious little toddler,” Vicente said, alluding to Raniere’s compulsive sexuality and childish need for adoration. “Watching our happiness waste away was your true joy.”

Mark Vicente and Sarah Edmonson in 'The Vow.'

“A genius?” said Toni Natalie, a long-time lover and Nxivm’s earliest defector. “What a joke! You need to be locked away the way they locked away Charles Manson.” Natalie, who faced litigation and harassment from Raniere’s followers, has published a terrific, harrowing book about Nxivm called “The Program.”

Yet, at a critical juncture in their lives, all of these people eagerly bartered their independence, their sanity, their health and their bank accounts for the approval of a John Milton-quoting Pyramid-schemer – one whose theories, pronouncements, and promises of self-actualization and world change were largely derivative when they weren’t pure drivel. In “The Vow,” which relies heavily on footage Vicente shot inside Nxivm, I watched in amazement as Raniere seduced the newly recruited TV star Allison Mack with a ridiculous riff on art and joy that she swallowed whole. Besotted by his nonsense, and his subsequent hugs and kisses, she eventually became one of his concubines and according to prosecutors, his chief procurer of women for sex and branding.

One of the most articulate victim impact statements at Raniere’s sentencing came from a woman named Daniela, whose whole family joined Nxivm and whose father remains a die-hard supporter. She testified at his trial that he confined her to her bedroom (with her parents’ approval) for almost two years for her so-called “ethical breaches” of becoming interested in another man or cutting her hair.

Daniela, like the others, has awakened from her nightmare. “You’re nothing special,” she said to Raniere, looking at him across the courtroom. “You’re just the criminal du jour. Weak, pathetic. There’s only one question: How does one fall prey? We must teach our children about people like you. Not you, just people like you.”

Get our free weekly newsletter

  • Sign up for CNN Opinion’s newsletter.
  • Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    But how do we protect our children, ourselves, and our society from the modern plague of sociopaths – the Bernie Madoffs, Harvey Weinsteins, Jeffrey Epsteins and Keith Ranieres? There is no vaccine, no early intervention, for this plague, the all-too-human infatuation with “geniuses” who, behind their simulated emotions, possess neither conscience nor empathy. Who, behind their convincing patter, turn out to be sexual predators, skilled manipulators, effortless pathological liars, and lack any capacity to take personal responsibility?

    After all, some day one of these guys might even run for President.